Revenge Porn Almost Ruined My Life — Here's How I Fought Back

Photographed by Eylul Aslan.
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There was nothing typical about our relationship. Joey* never picked me up at my house for a date. He never joined my family for a meal. He never hung out with my friends, stopped by to see me at work, took me to a restaurant, or spoke to my brother. Still, I was drawn into his orbit. His charm and musical talent pulled me in, kept me by his side, and almost made me marry him. Less than a year after we started dating, we set up house in a tiny attic apartment.
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But barely six months after we moved into the attic, I was fired from my job and had to move home. Joey said I abandoned him and stopped returning my calls. Two months of silence were the impetus I needed to leave New Jersey and move to North Carolina to attend college. I left a note on Joey’s car the night before I left. For months he refused to accept my long-distance phone calls and scrawled, “Return to Sender” on the envelopes of the letters I sent him. It was 1990: before email shook up the way we communicate, and before the Internet changed our lives — my life — in ways I never could have predicted.
Fast-forward nineteen years to May of 2009. I was living in Maryland, a college English professor, married, and the mother of two children. It wasn’t a happy marriage; we each had a foot out the door.
In June I received a Facebook friend request from Joey. Within a month, my marriage ended, I visited Joey twice, and we picked up where we left off. It was a true-love-returned Disney fantasy.
Joey focused his attention on me with laser-beam intensity. He lived three hours away in northern New Jersey, so I attributed his questioning about what I was wearing, where I was going, and whom I would be with to the strains of a long-distance relationship. I accounted for my wardrobe, whereabouts, and friends dutifully. I wanted to please him.
During what would be Joey’s last visit to Maryland, in February 2010, we had a fight over a skirt I wore to work. He deemed the skirt too short and called me a hooker. He lectured me about my transgressions — I married someone else; I had sex with other men in the nineteen years we were apart; I had male friends who, according to Joey, I was most likely sleeping with. It was a lecture I had been hearing frequently during our phone calls; I would roll my eyes while I silently recited some of the sentences along with him. But seeing him give the lecture, how his face turned red and his fists clenched as he raged, was different. I realised, this was a dangerous man. I told him to pack his things, and I drove him back to New Jersey. We were over.
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The next night, Joey called me, utterly livid. From looking at my Facebook page, he shouted, it was clear I was sleeping with at least three other guys. I tried to rationalise with him, to convince him he was mistaken. But he was too far gone to hear me.
He threatened to start an eBay auction. He said he was going to auction off a CD of 88 naked images of me; images that I’d allowed him to take over the previous four months.
He said he would send links to the auction to my friends and family, to people at the college where I teach. I shook with desperate fear. I knew no words would change his mind. Joey had flown into a rage, uncontrollable and impervious to reason. He laid out my fate. I begged and pleaded for him not to carry out his threat.
He replied, “I will destroy you.”
I needed help. I called the Baltimore County police and tried to explain what was happening. The dispatcher sent an officer, a tall man, who looked down on me as I told my story. It was the first of many times I would be told, “There is nothing I can do. No crime has been committed.” And at that point, no crime had been committed. I was frantic over a threat, which to the bored officer was nothing to worry about. To me, it was a portent of the misery I’d soon suffer.
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The auction went live the following afternoon.
I received three emails from eBay informing me that “[Joey] thought you might like this item on eBay.” The link read:
[Name of college] English Professor Nude Photos!
I gagged and ran to the kitchen sink to vomit. Then I shifted into damage control mode. I had to stop this.
Joey and I were still Facebook friends, so I received alerts in my newsfeed that he had posted links to the auction on five of my college’s Facebook pages. I sent messages to the pages’ administrators explaining what was happening. I would learn in the weeks to come that a few students and at least three colleagues followed the links, logged into eBay, and saw the auction.
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More emails arrived from friends, my ex-husband, and my babysitter. They had received the same messages from eBay and were concerned. I reported Joey for abuse on Yahoo!; I reported his Facebook page; I contacted eBay and told them about the auction. For forty-eight hours I played cat-and-mouse, finding new auctions he created with new usernames and reporting them to eBay.
I went to the police with an envelope full of printed evidence — screenshots of the eBay auctions, emails, Facebook pages — that I was sure would convince them that I was in danger. Again, an officer looked down on me and said, “Nothing we can do. No crime here.” I drove across town to another police precinct. I handed over my envelope and stood there, pretending to be brave, while three officers looked over the auction printouts and snickered. The blond one smirked as he walked towards me with my envelope. I didn’t hear what he said, but I know it was my first experience with victim blaming. And because it came from someone charged to protect and serve, it drove my shame and embarrassment to a paralysing level.

He said he would send links to the auction to my friends and family, to people at the college where I teach.

For fourteen months I would wake in a panic at 3am and check my email accounts, my Facebook page, the college’s Facebook pages, search my name in the adults-only section of eBay, search all the eBay user names Joey used, then finish with a Google search of my name. I performed my ritual three times before my heart rate slowed.
In September 2011, I received an anonymous email on my work account. It said there was a profile on a porn website that featured nude pictures of me.
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I closed my office door, Googled my name, and saw myself on the porn website xHamster.
The profile included my full name, the city and state where I live, the college and campus where I teach, and a solicitation for sex:
HOT FOR TEACHER? WELL, COME GET IT!
The site had been up for fourteen days and had been viewed over 4,000 times. Countless xHamster users had commented on my pictures, and Joey was chatting with these people as if he were me. My stomach hurt. I held my breath and printed 23 pages of comments.
I snatched the pages from the printer and left campus to again seek help from the police. When I arrived at the police station, I was greeted by the same officer from last year. Again, he looked down on me and said, “There is nothing we can do. No crime has been committed.” I tried to explain to this cop that I was in danger of being stalked. My name was on that site, where I live, where I work. He said, “If anything happens, call us. Then we can do something.”
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I sped home and called the Maryland state police and the Baltimore division of the FBI. I left messages explaining what happened.
Another 48 hours were spent engrossed in damage control. My therapist faxed a letter to the college informing them that I needed to go on immediate medical leave. I was afraid to leave my house. A senior administrator at the college denied the request for medical leave, insisting I perpetrated the incident. I had to make a case why I needed to go on leave. It was humiliating. I feared for my job.
As the weeks passed, I recognised the permanence of the Internet. I knew his torture was never going to end. So I decided to end my life. And I would have, if it weren’t for three things: My dog needed to pee, my mom called, and the pills I took weren’t fatal.
Surviving wasn’t the turning point that pushed me to action. It was a conversation with a state trooper who was assigned my case. He gently explained the Maryland laws and the limits of those laws. I was frustrated, and when he finished, I announced, “Well, then I’m going to change the laws.”
He replied, “Annmarie, if you can do that, it would make my job a lot easier.”
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So I set out to keep my word.
On February 2, 2012, I testified before the Maryland General Assembly's Senate judicial committee in support of a bill that amended Maryland's misuse of electronic mail statute to include all forms of electronic communication. The bill was passed, and the law was amended. It was a step forward, but a small one. I then began volunteering with the End Revenge Porn campaign, which would grow into the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative. I served as a Victim Advocate, then the Director of Victim Services. In my years with CCRI, I assisted more than 2,000 victims of non-consensual pornography. In February of 2013 I testified before the Maryland General Assembly’s House committee in support of a bill that would criminalize non-consensual pornography. The bill was passed into law in April. The following year I would find myself again testifying before a Senate committee, only this time I was in Washington D.C. And again, the bill was passed into law.
My ordeal was horrifying. But it wasn’t just the invasion of my privacy that made it so. It was the blame I first put on myself, then the blame others put upon me. It was the deluge of rape and death threats I received, and still receive every time I publish my story or participate in an interview. It was the apathy from the police, save for that one State Trooper who showed true compassion.
Often I am asked if I am stronger now that I’ve endured this trauma. I’m not: I was always this strong. Now I have an outlet for my strength and the ability to use it to help others.
*Name has been changed.
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