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My World, Upside Down

Isn’t it amazing how one second can alter your life so much?

Well, that’s exactly how I felt on February 22, 2012 and every day after. That moment when you discover you’re nude all over the internet will definitely send a million emotions through your head, to say the least. The most common thoughts that ran through my head were “what if  I never checked my email” or “what if I never dated him” or “what if I never hit send?” I’m sure many victims feel the same way. But then I took a step back and realized the only mistake I made was trusting such a disturbing individual.

I can remember that the moments leading up to that email, my biggest concern was studying for that exam that I never got the chance to take and a second later my biggest concern would become getting my pictures off of pornographic sites. In that moment I wanted to curl up and die, I didn’t care who I would be leaving behind on this earth, I was humiliated and felt so betrayed. Nobody could possibly understand how I felt. The tears poured down my face instantaneously. I kept thinking to myself “this can’t be real, this only happens in movies, how could someone I trusted so much do this to me?” I felt like someone had just stabbed me in the gut, sadly a feeling that I would feel all too familiar with later.

I wanted to go backwards in time, just to five minutes before and never open that email. I knew from that minute on that my life would never be the same. The pictures had been up for three months before they surfaced to my attention. Anything given that much time on the internet has the capability of going viral. In time, I realized that’s exactly what happened with my pictures. They started on one site and ended up on more than one hundred and continue to circulate. In that moment, I felt that my only option was to go to the police. I called my friend and she rushed over to be by my side. She supported me through everything and took me to the police station. The police were extremely helpful right away; they started writing down points and investigating into my case immediately. Their advice to me was to go home and call the sites that I had been notified about and see if they could take down the pictures.

I did just that. I was asked to email someone that worked for each site and send a picture of myself holding up a sign with my name on it. This was to verify that the pictures online were of me. Once the email was received, the pictures were removed within 24 hours. On March 18, 2012, I was down the shore at my best friends shore house when I received a phone call around 11AM from the police station. When I picked up the phone call it was a voice that I was not familiar with. It was an officer that I had not worked with previously on my case. He called to tell me that my ex was in custody and that they needed me to come down to the station to fill out some paper work. I literally said “okay, thank you” and hung up in shock. The idea of them catching my ex and him getting arrested was such a foreign thought.

Though I live in New Jersey, where it’s illegal to post nude photos of someone without their consent, I was told over and over again that this was such a gray area in law and that it’s extremely difficult to catch the perpetrator. So to get a phone call like that completely caught me off guard. The plan was to stay at the shore house until the evening on that Sunday, however I was so frantic I knew that sitting there would just keep me wondering what was going on. I packed my overnight bag up quickly and headed out to finally close this chapter in my life. Hours later I arrived at the police station where I was told that my ex had been released ten minutes prior to my arrival. This made me extremely nervous seeing as there was a chance I could have run into him in the parking lot if I was just a few minutes earlier. I was brought into a small room where I was told that my ex boyfriend was questioned and he denied everything and then later admitted to posting naked pictures of me without my consent. I was asked to do a written statement and I was told he would be getting charged with Invasion of Privacy. I was told this was a domestic violence case and because we were once in a dating relationship I had the opportunity to get a temporary restraining order. Since I clearly did not know my ex the way I thought I did, I figured it would be smart to get a temporary restraining order. Because it was Sunday, the officer had to call the judge at home to get it approved. After staying on the phone with the judge for about a half hour, my TRO (temporary restraining order) was granted and I would have to appear in court the following week to make it a final restraining order (FRO).

With an end in sight, I walked out of that police station, holding my head high and feeling relieved. Little did I know that this was just the beginning of a long journey ahead.

My Journey to Activism

I’m just a bill. Yes, I’m only a bill. And I’m sittin’ here on Capital Hill…

I never paid attention to local politics—or national politics for that matter. I knew the basics: The president, which countries we were mad at, which were mad at us, the price of gas, and when to file my taxes. It was enough. I was content. Then an ex-boyfriend posted nude pictures of me on the Internet without my consent. Certain he had committed a crime, I went straight to the police.

But the law enforcement officials I turned to for help only smirked, shrugged their shoulders, and sent me on my way. Except for one State Trooper who sadly explained the ways in which the Maryland laws prevented him from doing his job, and thus prevented him from helping me. “Then, I’ll change the laws.” I said. “Annmarie,” He replied, “If you do that, it’ll make my job a lot easier.” And so it began, my foray into politics, legislation, bill drafting and testifying. But first, a visit to YouTube was in order. All those years of not paying attention had left a rather large hole in my knowledge base. I couldn’t remember the legislative steps. I didn’t know where to start. I couldn’t remember the differences between House and Senate, legislature and congress.

So I turned to the one resource that would set me on my path: School House Rock. Rosa Parks spent years readying herself for the groundbreaking civil action she performed that forever changed a turbulent moment in history. She aligned herself with the NAACP, received training in activism in worker’s rights and racial equality, and launched what was called the strongest campaign for equal justice seen in a decade.  I readied myself by watching a cartoon from the 1970’s. Once I finished my refresher, I began what I considered the most difficult part of the process. I reached out to legislators with my story. I could barely talk about what happened with my friends and family without cringing with the shame that accompanies a crime of a sexual nature.

In order to see the laws changed, I shared my story with strangers who may or may not care about my suffering. I made myself vulnerable. Since crimes of a sexual nature bring about very mixed reactions, I wanted the legislators to regard the photos as a piece of trust and intimacy that was used in a way completely opposite of its intended use: to hurt, to terrorize, to induce powerlessness, to destroy. My pictures were posted in 2010. At that time, the term Revenge Porn hadn’t yet been coined. Internet searches about nude pictures being posted returned results about online stalking and harassment. I opened the emails I would send to lawmakers with the sentence, “I am a victim of cyber harassment and stalking.” Then I briefly explained what happened avoiding that the harassment included nude pictures being posted. I was still feeling shame and couldn’t bring myself to reveal the true nature of the crime. Within a week of sending my first email, I had a meeting with US Senator Mikulski’s legislative aid. I discussed what happened and the need for legislation. I presented examples of statutes and lots of statistics. I learned a lot and walked away feeling ready to approach senators in Maryland. A few weeks later Senator Brochin called in response to the email I sent him. He invited me to help draft a bill to strengthen Maryland’s online stalking and harassment laws and asked me if I would testify in support of the bill. On February 2, 2011, I testified before the

Maryland General Assembly’s judicial committee in support of Senate bills 175 and 107. Senate bill 175 was passed into law on April 10th and went into effect on October 1st, 2011. The bill amended Maryland’s misuse of electronic mail law to include all forms of electronic communication. It was a step forward, but a small one. There are still amendments needed, and they shall come in time. I was one voice among many who came to testify that day. But I was the only victim of online harassment and revenge porn. And while it was difficult to reveal the true nature of the crime to a crowded room, it was the first step on the road I now travel as a victim advocate. Since the bill was passed, I have aligned myself with a coalition of powerful women who share my dedication to seeing legislation that makes revenge porn a crime passed in all 50 states. 

We are advocates, activists and legal researchers. I still face some of the fears I did the day I first brought my case to law enforcement, but I have embraced my role as the voice for those who have not yet found their voices. And I will speak out.

A Life Taken too Soon: the Story of Amanda Todd

“I’m struggling to stay in this world, because everything just touches me so deeply. I’m not doing this for attention. I’m doing this to be an inspiration and to show that I can be strong. I did things to myself to make pain go away, because I’d rather hurt myself then someone else. Haters are haters but please don’t hate, although im sure I’ll get them.
I hope I can show you guys that everyone has a story, and everyones future will be bright one day, you just gotta pull through.
I’m still here aren’t I?” -Amanda Todd, September 7, 2012

Imagine feeling alone, betrayed and constantly afraid. This was an everyday occurrence for Amanda Todd.

In 7th grade, after meeting new people online who told her how beautiful she was, she made the mistake of giving in to someone’s repeated requests for a topless photo of herself. That one photo haunted her from school to school, from city to city, and online. Amanda found out the way I did that sharing pictures online means that they are up there forever. She was teased, bullied, threatened, and even beaten up by the people she had to face everyday.

More than anything, she was alone. Alone with her fears and haunting thoughts. Amanda experimented with drugs and alcohol to ease her pain. She turned to physical pain, cutting herself when the bullying worsened and her depression escalated. When a girl punched her in front of the whole school, ridiculing her, telling her that nobody cared about her, she went home and drank bleach in an attempt to end her own suffering. She was saved at the hospital, but her tormenters spared no opportunity to ridicule her for it.

On October 10, 2012 Amanda Todd committed suicide.

I chose to blog today about Amanda because today marks the one-year anniversary of her death. And today we get to celebrate the life of a beautiful young girl that we lost all too soon. If there is one thing you take away from her tragic story, please remember that your words are powerful and sometimes we can underestimate how much they mean. Treat the people around you with respect.

Nobody deserves what Amanda went through. I wish I had known her. I wish I had one day with her to help her and to let her know that she wasn’t alone. I wish I could tell her that she’s my hero and that she is the reason that I’ve stayed strong and kept fighting for justice.

Though we can’t bring her back to life, I choose to remember her…rest in peace, Amanda.

“Be the change you wish to see in the world.” –Mahatma Gandhi

New York Lawmakers Introduce Legislation to Criminalize Revenge Porn

It is refreshing to hear someone talk about revenge porn like it’s a crime. To hear people acknowledge that nobody deserves to be harassed and violated is something many victims have been waiting years for.

It is even more exciting to hear those sentiments coming from lawmakers like Assemblyman Edward C. Braunstein, who stated, “Disseminating sexual explicit images that were shared with an expectation of privacy can cause lasting damage to victims and should be a crime.”

Fresh on the heels of Sen. Anthony Cannella’s victory against revenge porn in California, Assemblyman Braunstein and Sen. Joseph A. Griffo of New York announced Thursday that they are introducing new legislation criminalizing revenge porn.

“This so-called phenomena of ‘cyber-revenge,’ is a tawdry form of exploitation. From what we know, the majority of its victims are women who don’t know that their images and likenesses [have] been bartered and sold over the Internet,” said Sen. Griffo. “Currently, these victims have limited options when their pictures taken with their consent, were posted online.”

The legislation is especially promising because Mary Anne Franks, an Associate Professor of Law at the University of Miami who wrote the legislative proposal for End Revenge Porn, helped draft the bill. The bipartisan effort would make New York the third state, behind New Jersey and California, to pass a law against revenge porn. Cyber Civil Rights Initiative founder, Dr. Holly Jacobs, has repeatedly stated that revenge porn is a problem that will continue to grow if it is not addressed through appropriate legislation.

Assemblyman Braunstein agreed with that position, stating, “Passage of this legislation would make it clear that New Yorkers will not allow this type of harassment to continue. With the proliferation of cell phones and social networking, this problem will only get worse if we do not take immediate action.” Finding supportive lawmakers is key to ending revenge porn, but changing laws is only half the battle. Our goal is to change public attitudes that lead to victim blaming and allow revenge porn to go unaddressed.

Show your support for this law and help change the public discourse by participating in the discussion on Twitter and Facebook.

 

Photo credit: ginasanders / 123RF Stock Photo