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Know the Laws:

Abuse Involving Texts, Photos, and Videos

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For many people, sending and receiving texts, photos and videos is an important way to communicate with family and friends. However, sending texts, photos, or videos of a sexual nature can have unintended consequences, especially in a situation where there is an imbalance of power and someone feels pressured or forced into taking or sending sexual images or texts.

Abuse Involving Sexting

back to topWhat is “sexting?”

Sexting is a term used to describe the act of sending and receiving sexually explicit text messages, photographs or videos, mainly through a mobile device. These images can be sent through a regular text message or through a mobile texting app.  As texting apps on mobile devices have become more popular and create ways that users can “hide” or anonymize their texting activity, sexting has also increased in popularity. 

There is always a risk that a “sext” could be shared or distributed with additional people electronically without your consent.  Once a photograph or video is sent, the image is out of your control and could be shared by the other person.  However, the act of voluntarily sharing sexually explicit photographs or videos with someone does not give the receiver your permission to post or share those images.  Sharing personal information and images of someone else without his/her knowledge or consent is not okay and in many states can be illegal.  You can learn more about this on our Nonconsensual Image Sharing page.  

It’s important to think about whether you are truly comfortable with sharing sexual or explicit images with the recipient and whether you fully trust that s/he will not re-send them to others.  If someone is trying to force or pressure you into sending a sexual image, find someone (a local service provider, attorney, or law enforcement officer) to discuss your options.  You should never be pressured or forced into sending personal images and threatening or forcing you to do so may be illegal.  The Cyber Civil Rights Initiative has a confidential hotline where you can get more information.  

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back to topIs sexting against the law?

It depends.  Although sexting between consenting adults may not violate any laws, many state laws that deal with sexting make it clear that sending sexually explicit images to a minor or keeping sexually explicit images of a minor is illegal.

If a minor sends, keeps, or shares sexually explicit photographs of a minor (including himself or herself), there could be criminal consequences for that behavior.  Sending, keeping, or sharing sexually explicit images or videos of a minor could result in criminal prosecution under state or federal child pornography laws or sexting laws (if the state has a sexting law that addresses that behavior).  Such behavior may also be illegal under state child sexual assault or child abuse laws.  Notably, even if the minor sends a sexual image of himself/herself (as opposed to sending pictures of another minor), this behavior can still be illegal and the minor could face legal consequences.  You can find a list of states that have criminal sexting laws on cyberbullying.org.

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back to topWhat are some ways an abuser could use sexting?

The act of sexting can be consensual and is not itself a sign of abuse.  However, an abuser could use photographs, videos, or messages shared through sexting to maintain power and control over you.  For example, the abuser may later threaten to share these images or may actually share them with others.  Our Abuse Involving Nude/Sexual Images page has more information about the laws related to the nonconsensual sharing of intimate images.

Additionally, an abuser may blackmail you once s/he gains access to images and messages shared through sexting.  An abuser may also pressure or threaten you to continue to send photographs, videos, or messages even if you do not wish to do so.

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Abuse Involving Nude/Sexual Images (photos/videos)

back to topHow can an abuser use images to harass and harm me?

An abuser could use nude or sexual images of you as a way to gain and keep power and control over you.  S/he may do this by sharing, without your permission, with others an intimate image that you sent during your relationship, by taking photos or videos of you without your consent, or by threatening to share images as a way to scare/ harass you or as a type of blackmail (to try to get you to do something you don’t want to do, for example).  These actions can be part of a pattern of domestic abuse and/or harassment and there are laws that may protect you from this type of behavior.

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back to topWhat is nonconsensual image sharing (often referred to as “revenge porn” or nonconsensual pornography)?

Nonconsensual image sharing or nonconsensual pornography refers to the sharing or distribution of sexual, intimate, nude, or semi-nude photographs or videos of you without your permission.  This is also commonly referred to as “revenge porn,” although that term suggests that a scorned partner has shared an ex-partner’s intimate images as a way to “get back” at the ex-partner, and that is not always the actual motivation.  In most  instances, the abuser posts or threatens to post the images as a way to gain power and control over his/her partner, to harass the person, or to cause the person distress, humiliation, and shame.  Nonconsensual image sharing/pornography can include both images or video that was originally shared with consent in the context of an intimate relationship and those obtained without consent through the use of cell phone cameras, hidden cameras, recording a sexual assault, or hacking of devices.

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back to topIf someone shares my sexual or personal images, is that a crime? What is the crime commonly called?

In many states, there are laws addressing nonconsensual image sharing/nonconsensual pornography.  These laws generally prohibit anyone from taking or distributing intimate photographs or videos without the consent of the person shown in the photo/video, or even threatening to do so.  Some state’s nonconsensual image sharing laws also specifically prohibit the stealing of personal content, such as images, from a computer or other technological device (in states where there is not a specific nonconsensual image law, stealing of images or content from a device would fall under another law). The term “sharing” refers to the abuser distributing the content in any way, which could include sending it to others over text message or email, posting it on a website, social networking site, or app, or even printing out the pictures and mailing them to others. 

The specific name of this crime and the exact definition varies by state.  For example, if  a person shares intimate photographs or videos of you, these crimes are often referred to as unlawful dissemination of intimate images or unlawful disclosure of private images.  In some states, the threat to share or publish the photos or videos can also be a crime, even if they are never actually shared.  If the images are taken without your consent or without your knowledge, these crimes often are called unlawful surveillance or invasion of privacy.  If image are stolen from your computer, that behavior may be covered under a data theft or computer crime law in your state.  You can look for the actual crimes in your state on our Crimes page by entering your state in the drop-down menu.

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back to topIf I send a sexually explicit or intimate image to someone, can that person send it to others?

If you send someone intimate pictures of yourself (often referred to as “sexting” if done over texting or a messaging service), it may be unlawful for that person to post or share those pictures without your permission.  The very fact that you sent the pictures to a person does not give that person automatic permission to share the image with anyone or to publish it widely.  However, whether or not it is against the law to share those photos will depend on your state’s specific definition of the crimes related to nonconsensual image sharing as well as the age of the person in the image.  If someone sends (or possesses) an image of a minor in which the minor is “engaging in sexually explicit conduct,” which could mean that the minor is nude or semi-nude, this may violate federal child pornography laws.  You can read more about what types of images may come under federal child pornography laws on the U.S. Department of Justice website.

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back to topIs it a crime for someone to take or record private or intimate video or images of me without my knowledge or consent?

It depends.  Taking video or photographs of a person committing sexual acts or in a nude or semi-nude state without his/her consent is usually a criminal act if the pictures or videos are taken in a place where you can reasonably expect to have privacy.  For example, if someone places a hidden camera in your bathroom or bedroom and without your knowledge, this is almost always illegal.  However, if you are on a nude beach or in a public park and someone takes a video of you nude or doing sexual acts, it may not be illegal to share these images since you likely cannot expect to have privacy in that public place.  Again, the specific laws in your state will make it clear what is and is not illegal. 

In some states, the same law that prohibits sharing intimate images may also address the act of capturing images without your knowledge or consent.  In many states, crimes that cover both behaviors may be called violation of privacy or invasion of privacy.  However, in other states, the act of capturing your image without your consent may be covered under a different law, often known as voyeurism or unlawful surveillance.  You can look for the actual crimes in your state on our Crimes page by entering your state in the drop-down menu.

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back to topWhere can I get help if I am the victim of abuse involving sexual or personal images?

A lawyer may be able to give you legal advice and help you determine what laws apply to your situation.  You can find legal resources in your state on our Finding a Lawyer page by selecting your state from the drop-down menu. You can also talk to a local domestic or sexual violence program or law enforcement for information on your options and the applicable laws.

Additionally, you may also be able to find help through one of the resources listed on our National Organizations - Posting Nude/Sexual Images Without Consent/"Revenge Porn" page. 

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