Illustration: Chelsea Beck (Gizmodo)

Leah Juliett was 14 when nude photos of her were circulated throughout her school without her consent. She had sent the photos privately to a boy, who then shared them with fellow students.

“It really was kind of an emotional numbness. I completely shut down,” Juliett told Gizmodo. For years after the crime occurred, she experienced panic attacks, depression, night terrors, anxiety, and other PTSD symptoms. In college, when the trauma “became unbearable,” she suffered from alcohol abuse and thoughts of suicide.

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“You do feel trauma after revenge porn,” she said. “You do feel shame, you do feel post-traumatic stress, in many cases. At least I did. Those night terrors, that anxiety, walking through the halls of your high school feeling as if everyone had seen you naked. It is truly a lasting form of sexual exploitation, so I would definitely see some similar emotional responses with revenge porn that you would see with sexual assault.”

It is crucial, Juliett noted, for people to recognize that acts of cyber sexual violence such as revenge porn—the dissemination of intimate photos or videos of someone without their consent—and physical sexual violence are two very different experiences. “I don’t want to ever take the narrative away from someone who experienced something different from what I’ve experienced,” she said, but added that she often calls revenge porn “cyber sexual assault” or “cyber sexual violence.”

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Juliett, who founded the cyber civil rights organization March Against Revenge Porn, said that poetry—sharing her experience with online sexual exploitation—saved her life. That it helped break a cycle of self-abuse and silence. “Now I see myself living a long, happy, and successful life when previously I didn’t see myself living past the age of twenty because of the weight of this struggle that I was enduring.”

Not educating people on the traumatic consequences revenge porn survivors grapple with is not only a disservice to the conversation, but it can quite literally cost people their lives. Research from the End Revenge Porn campaign found that 51 percent of revenge-porn survivors in the U.S. “have had suicidal thoughts.” While non-consensually sharing someone’s intimate images is an offense that is carried out exclusively online, it still has very real offline effects, and understanding the gravity of those consequences is essential in dealing with recovery.

There hasn’t been a wealth of research into the mental health effects experienced by survivors of online sexual exploitation, but some experts think we should reevaluate how we classify revenge porn. Now, medical researchers and people who provide resources for revenge porn survivors are calling for further study of the trauma experienced by survivors of revenge porn, noting that the mental health effects are similar to that of physical sexual assault.

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Revenge porn may have more severe consequences on survivors’ mental health than has been previously explored. And it’s a growing problem. For every survivor like Juliett you may hear about in the news, there are millions of other instances flying under the radar. Survivors can take legal recourse, depending on their location; depending on the platform the photos were shared on, they can report the behavior to social networks. But lawmakers and tech behemoths are still very much in the early stages of learning how to grapple with revenge porn, and it’s important to explore not only how to mitigate it online and legally punish perpetrators, but also the ways in which this act impacts the survivors.

A blog post from January of this year including research on the topic from the University of Southern California’s School of Social Work argues that we should consider classifying the nonconsensual sharing of intimate images as sexual assault. The blog post lists a number of mental health effects shared by both revenge porn and sexual assault survivors, including the loss of trust, self-blame, anxiety, depression, suicidal ideations, and PTSD to name a few.

Kristen Zaleski, Clinical Associate Professor at the University of Southern California’s online Master of Social Work program, who worked on the blog, said she’s unaware of any studies that specifically explore PTSD and trauma symptomology related to revenge porn. Zaleski said that this year through 2019, she plans to start a qualitative analysis on issues focused on the intersection of sexual assault and other forms of sexual violence, including revenge porn.

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Zaleski is also working with Jessica Klein, an adjunct professor at the USC School of Social Work (who also worked on the blog), on a revenge porn manuscript for mental health clinicians, which Zaleski says will identify “the important considerations in treating revenge porn in psychotherapy as it relates to PTSD and depressive symptoms.”

Zaleski told Gizmodo in an email that in her professional experience as both a clinician and a researcher on sexual violence, “the post-assault symptoms associated with a sexual assault such as shame, self blame, nervous system arousal (including sleeping and eating disturbances, fear of being safe in public spaces) all apply to an individual who has had sexual images shared in a non-consensual way.”

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“To me, revenge porn is sexual assault,” Zaleski said. “I do not see a distinction.”

“What we’re seeing is a very parallel process,” Klein told Gizmodo. “In the nervous system, it’s completely shooting someone out of their relaxation or comfort zone or stable zone into the red or into the fight-flight mode, feeling totally unsafe. That is what we would see with trauma, with sexual assault.”

Klein noted that there are situations in which survivors of online sexual exploitation and sexual assault experience trauma in the same way. They can both feel societal shame, and that their virtue and their work “has been undermined and impugned in some way.” And the shame and betrayal attributed to revenge porn can heighten the types of symptoms seen in survivors of sexual assault. But, given the small number of studies done on this topic, Klein said she doesn’t know enough yet “to say that that is the case for everyone.”

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“There are overlapping/convergent aspects of sexual assault and nonconsensual pornography, particularly in the aftermath,” Klein said. She explained that nonconsensual pornography and other forms of sexual trauma and stalking can all leave survivors experiencing “a loss of control, sense of violation of bodily integrity, and fear and shame.”

Zaleski said that a therapist trained to deal with sexual assault survivors would be “most appropriate” in treating survivors of revenge porn. She listed several therapies as treatment options used for sexual assault survivors that can also be applicable for survivors of nonconsensual pornography, since they help deal with symptoms of shame, embarrassment, and self-blame with “cognitive restructuring.” These therapies include Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), and psychodynamically person-centered therapy.

Mary Anne Franks, a professor of law at the University of Miami School of Law and a director at the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, which advocates for survivors of revenge porn and fights online abuse, told Gizmodo that being diagnosed with PTSD is “one of the most common things we hear” from survivors the initiative works with. Beyond just PTSD, many of the survivors also develop a fear of going out and conducting their daily routines, as well as suffer from anxiety attacks, depression, and suicidal thoughts. Franks said that this signals that there are a lot of similarities between survivors of revenge porn and sexual assault in the aftermath of their experiences, including changes to the relationship with their bodies, freedom of sexual expression, their sense of self-worth, and a feeling of safety in the world.

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“We need to look at revenge porn through the same lens at the very least,” Juliett said. “It’s not just an act of cyberbullying or cybercrime. It is a sex crime.”

What’s clear is that there’s a vital need to continue exploring the mental health effects of revenge porn and how these overlap with the mental health impacts of sexual assault in order to fully grasp the offline implications survivors may experience.

“If we think that we have now a kind of virtual self and a physical self, and that our virtual and physical selves are much more closely intertwined than they used to be, then I think that’s also a compelling reason to think more broadly about what sexual assault actually means,” Franks said, “and to think about offline analogs.”

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