They dated, broke up, dated again. He asked her to pick out a wedding ring. He also made another request — that she take nude pictures of herself and send them to him.
“He said if I didn’t want to send them to him, that meant that I didn’t trust him, which meant that I didn’t love him,” Ms. Taschinger said.
The photos would never be shared with anyone else, she remembers him promising. And she believed him — until last December, more than a year after the couple broke up, when a dozen nude images of her popped up on a Web site focusing on what has become known as revenge porn. She is suing the site and her ex-boyfriend.
Revenge porn sites feature explicit photos posted by ex-boyfriends, ex-husbands and ex-lovers, often accompanied by disparaging descriptions and identifying details, like where the women live and work, as well as links to their Facebook pages. The sites, which are proliferating, are largely immune to criminal pursuit. But that may be changing. California lawmakers this month passed the first law aimed at revenge porn sites.
With cellphone cameras ubiquitous and many Americans giving in to the urge to document even the most intimate aspects of their lives, revenge porn has opened up new ways to wreak vengeance.
The effects can be devastating. Victims say they have lost jobs, been approached in stores by strangers who recognized their photographs, and watched close friendships and family relationships dissolve. Some have changed their names or altered their appearance.
“Sometimes I want to get into a fetal position and cry,” said Ms. Taschinger, 23, who added that she gave up her job at a restaurant and was stalked by a man who sat outside her house in a car.
But when victims call the police, they are invariably told there is little to be done. Lawsuits sometimes exact payments from men who post photographs or succeed in shutting down a site. But once the images are online they spread, picked up by dozens or even hundreds of other Web sites.
When Holly Jacobs, a woman in Florida, changed her name to dissociate herself from the photos posted by her ex-boyfriend, she found them linked to her new name. And the owners and operators of the Web sites are in most cases protected by federal law, which largely absolves them of responsibility for material posted by third parties.
“It’s just an easy way to make people unemployable, undatable and potentially at physical risk,” said Danielle Citron, a law professor at the University of Maryland, who is writing a book on online harassment.
As the sites have increased, legal scholars and women’s advocates have begun to push for criminal penalties for people who post on them. Only New Jersey has a law that would allow for criminal prosecution, although it was not written with revenge porn in mind.
But proposals have met opposition from critics who worry that such laws would infringe on the First Amendment. A bill addressing the issue failed in the Florida Legislature this year.
And even California’s law, which on Monday was awaiting Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature, would make only some forms of revenge posting a misdemeanor punishable by jail time or a hefty fine — applying only to photos taken by others and posted with an intent to cause serious distress.
“It has been watered down again and again as it has weaved its way through Sacramento,” said Charlotte Laws, who began pushing for legislation after pictures of her daughter, Kayla, 26, were posted on a site.
“What we really need is federal legislation,” Ms. Laws said.
n Michigan, a federal judge last month issued a default judgment for more than $300,000 in a suit filed by a woman whose photos appeared on yougotposted. The Web site continues to operate despite at least four lawsuits filed against its operators, including one that alleges that the site published images of under-age girls. The alleged owners and operators of yougotposted have either not responded to the lawsuits or have denied the allegations.
Ms. Taschinger is one of 25 plaintiffs, five of them under age, who are suing Texxxan.com, along with its operators GoDaddy, the company that hosted the now-defunct site, for invasion of privacy.
Ms. Taschinger’s ex-boyfriend, Eastwood Almazan, is also named, along with seven other men who the suit claims uploaded photos of plaintiffs. In a telephone interview, Mr. Almazan, 35, denied posting the images of Ms. Taschinger or any other women. He said he was not familiar with the Texxxan.com Web site and did not own a computer at the time the photographs appeared.
“I don’t know where they’re getting this information from,” Mr. Almazan said.
John Morgan, a lawyer in Beaumont, Tex., who represents Ms. Taschinger and the other plaintiffs, said that Texxxan.com is under investigation in Texas by the F.B.I.’s cybercrimes division and the Orange County Sheriff.
Aaron McKown, a lawyer representing GoDaddy, which has filed an appeal contending that Section 230 of the federal Communications Decency Act exempts it from liability for posted material, said in an e-mail that the company does not comment on pending legislation.
Messages left for a lawyer representing Hunter Taylor, the operator of the Web site, were not returned. (In a document filed with the court denying the allegations in the lawsuit, Mr. Taylor said, “Attempts to contact Hunter T. Taylor by the press will be of no use, as there will be no comment.”)
Revenge porn first drew public attention in 2011, when Hunter Moore, the unapologetic creator of a site called isanyoneup.com, said in a television interview with Anderson Cooper that he had no qualms about profiting from public revenge.
“Why would I?” Mr. Moore said. “I get to look at naked girls all day.”
Mr. Moore — who shut down the Web site in 2012 but was reported to have earned $10,000 a month in advertising when it was operational — drew outrage, including from the hacker collective Anonymous. In a video announcing the creation of “Operation Hunt Hunter,” the group called Mr. Moore a capitalist who “makes money off of the misery of others” and said, “We will hold him accountable for his actions.” Mr. Moore is under investigation by the F.B.I.
Not everyone agrees that criminalizing revenge porn is the best strategy. Marc Randazza, a Nevada lawyer who represents plaintiffs against yougotposted, says that he thinks civil remedies are preferable.
“As horrible as I think people are who do this,” he said, “do we really need another law to put more people in jail in the United States?”
And some experts, like Eric Goldman, a law professor at Santa Clara University, have said that any state law would be vulnerable to First Amendment challenges.
But Eugene Volokh, a First Amendment scholar at the University of California, Los Angeles, said he saw no constitutional obstacle to a law written narrowly to address naked or sexual images distributed without permission.
“I think that’s a kind of invasion of privacy that the courts would say can be prohibited,” he said.
An example of what such a law might look like has been drafted by a law professor at the University of Miami, Mary Anne Franks, and posted on the Web site endrevengeporn.org, founded by Ms. Jacobs.
Professor Franks said that opposition to legislation often stems from a blame-the-victim attitude that holds women responsible for allowing photographs to be taken in the first place, an attitude similar in her view to blaming rape victims for what they wear or where they walk.
“The moment the story is that she voluntarily gave this to her boyfriend, all the sympathy disappears,” she said.
Ms. Taschinger said even now, her friends continued to send nude pictures of themselves to their boyfriends.
“You don’t want to really think that five years down the line, your boyfriend at the time could be your not-boyfriend and do something really bad to you,” she said.
Revenge porn is one of those things that sounds as if it must be illegal but actually isn’t. It’s the term of art for publishing sexual photos of someone without his or her — usually her — permission, often after a breakup.
Consider Holly Jacobs, founder of the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, who exchanged intimate pictures with a boyfriend while in graduate school. When the relationship ended he started posting them online. She sought help from law enforcement, but the police said she didn’t have a case because she was over 18 when the pictures were taken, and they were her ex-boyfriend’s property.
So far only two states have restricted this humiliating, reputation-killing practice. In 2004, New Jersey adopted an invasion-of-privacy law aimed at voyeurs, which also prohibits the dissemination of sexual recordings or pictures without consent. This month, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill making revenge porn a misdemeanor punishable with up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. But it contains a large loophole: it applies only if the individual who distributed the pictures was also the photographer.
California’s law does not cover situations where someone took a self-portrait and shared it with a partner, who then uploaded it to the Internet. The Cyber Civil Rights Initiative has estimated that 80 percent of revenge-porn images were recorded by the victim.
California’s law, though inadequate, has at least brought attention to the problem, and other states are considering action. New York Assemblyman Edward Braunstein, a Democrat, and State Senator Joseph Griffo, a Republican, recently announced revenge porn legislation that would make non-consensual disclosure of sexually explicit images a Class A misdemeanor. It would include pictures taken by victims.
Neither current nor proposed state laws are likely to have an effect on the Web sites that make the explicit images available to the prurient public, because they can claim protection under the Communications Decency Act. Section 230 of that statute has been interpreted by courts to shield sites that host third-party content from liability, unless that content, like child pornography, violates federal law. (Or unless sites cross the line from aggregators to co-creators of the material in question.)
It is not clear how many people have been affected by revenge porn — activists rely on self-reporting — but Ms. Jacobs has said that over 1,000 victims have reached out to her since she started speaking out on this issue. And a tour through a site like Private Voyeur reveals a depressingly large cache of photographs.
Going through a breakup is bad enough; going through a breakup and finding out that your ex is a horrible person is worse. Although lawmakers can’t do much to help their constituents with these difficulties, they can work to provide recourse for when exes seek revenge through un-consensual pornography.