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Revenge porn should be illegal in Minnesota, and everywhere

Taking sexy photos isn't new. The way they spread is.

Taking sexy photos isn't new. The way they spread is.

Anisha Vora thought she was looking at a spam email. "Someone is sharing naked pictures of you," said the subject line, and the sender was a name she didn't know. Vora, then a 22-year-old college student in New Jersey, was ready to roll her eyes at whatever software service was being marketed inside.

Instead the message contained her full name, the name of her ex-boyfriend, and personal details about both of them. It also had links to websites. She clicked through, and saw that sexy pictures she'd sent her ex were published on Flickr and Tumblr. First, Vora cried. A lot.

Then she went to the cops. Her ex-boyfriend confessed, and got a small amount of community service, a "slap on the wrist," Vora says, for misdemeanor harassment.

Then it got worse. The guy continued posting pictures and, later, her address, telling readers they should pay her a visit. That she had a rape fantasy. For these more egregious crimes, he was again caught, convicted, and sentenced to six months in jail.

That was in 2013. The violation continues to this day. At one point, Vora learned that photos of her existed on 3,000 websites. Now she pays a professional monitoring service an annual fee to keep finding and scrubbing them. It might never end. Recently the number of sites with her nudes was down to a dozen.

Then it jumped back up to more like 50.

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"People go on these websites and think 'she's a slut, she posted all these pics of herself,'" Vora says. "I was a victim."

The smartphone is a reputational nuclear weapon. Take a photo or video of someone with one click, publish it with the next, and that's it. The internet and its mob of horny, one-handed typists will take it from there.

Minnesota's dealing with a similar episode right now. Last week, three University of Minnesota basketball players were suspended after Twitter and Instagram accounts belonging to Kevin Dorsey, a freshman, posted clips of a homemade sex tape featuring a woman and two men.

Dorsey told police his phone had been stolen, though he didn't report it until after the videos appeared. (Later, his father tried denying that the video even exists.)

Whatever happened, this isn't about the fate of the U of M basketball program, or the sex lives of college athletes. This is about the girl.

The clips were taken down after less than a half-hour, a century in internet time. It was more than enough time to capture still images, as some did, or to save the video for themselves and, if they feel like it, share with their favorite amateur porn sites.

What happens to the original perpetrator? Probably nothing.

Prosecutors in Ramsey and Hennepin counties have never brought felony charges against someone for ruining a victim's life. They can't. Posting naked or sexual images without someone's consent is not a crime in Minnesota.

Only 26 states have outlawed what's known as "revenge porn," almost all within the last three years. We're next. On Tuesday, Rep. John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul, introduced a bill to make nonconsensual publishing of sexual images a felony. His bill would also make the creep who posted it liable for civil damages: In a case like Anisha Vora's, the poster, not the victim, would be on the hook to pay for her never-ending reputation recovery.

Lesch, who formerly worked as a prosecutor for the city of St. Paul, has heard from dozens of Minnesotans who've been victimized, from successful businesswomen concerned for their careers to teenagers who feel their lives are ruined. Some want the offender locked up. All want the pictures to go away.

Carrie Goldberg, a New York lawyer who handles revenge porn cases, points out that American G.I.s used to carry hot pictures of the wives waiting for them back home. What's different now is how quickly misplaced images, or misplaced trust, can lead to a widespread, permanent violation of privacy.

"Their vagina is on 50 different websites," Goldberg says, describing her clients. "They can't sleep, they can't eat. Everywhere they go, they think, 'Has this person seen me naked? Has that person?'"

Minnesota should make this illegal. Now. A few weeks ago, actually — back before someone tweeted videos from Kevin Dorsey's account. But there's more to it than that. Punishing the supply doesn't end the demand.

If you wouldn't walk up to a woman on the street and rip off her clothes, you should stop looking at amateur porn with uncertain origins. Because he or she once got naked, or had sex, the subject is forced to do it over and over, for years on end, so America can get its rocks off. That the viewer cannot see the subject's trauma doesn't make it go away. Your click is another violation.

You'll get away with it. No state is trying to go after the willfully ignorant consumers who profit from victims' defilement. The courts couldn't handle all of you. Of us. I, too, am guilty of clicking "play" or "enlarge image" when I knew nothing about how it wound up on the internet. I just knew I wanted to see.

Looking at porn without the subject's consent will never be illegal. It will always be wrong. 

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CORRECTION: Previously, this story identified John Lesch as working as a prosecutor for the City of St. Paul. Lesch no longer holds that job.