Why Mischa Barton's 'Revenge Porn' Fight Is One We Should All Care About

Mischa Barton
Xavier Collin/Image Press/Splash
It's the ultimate betrayal of trust. Mischa Barton says her "absolute worst fear" was realized recently when she reportedly learned that her ex was shopping an alleged sex tape featuring the actress to pornography companies. But Barton is determined to fight back, along with the help of her attorney, Lisa Bloom, who said that they plan on prosecuting her ex under "every available civil and criminal law."

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So what does that mean? For Barton, that means turning to California statutes protecting victims of domestic violence. Bloom reporetdly explained during a press conference with Mischa:

Because Miss Barton has dated him, we contended that she was protected under California's laws against domestic violence which prohibit all forms of abuse by a former intimate partner .... In short, we consider this to be a form of domestic abuse. The court agreed and gave us everything that we asked for, including the order to stay away from Miss Barton and to not contact her.

Most importantly, the court ordered that this individual and his agents 'may not sell, distribute, give away or show any naked pictures of videos of any type of Mischa Barton.'

Under this order, anyone who tried to traffic the images would be considered an agent and could go to prison. 

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The domestic violence prosecution works in this case of so-called "revenge porn" because Barton's reported brief relationship with her ex fits the definition of an intimate relationship under California law -- but this approach isn't always appropriate, says David Ward, an attorney with Legal Voice, an organization which specializes in fighting for women's rights. And, for the record, the preferred term is "nonconsensual pornography" -- because not all "revenge porn" is actually motivated by revenge (sometimes it's money, or just for a person's own "entertainment"). 

"Sometimes nonconsensual pornography is perpetrated by someone who's not in an intimate relationship with the subject, so in those cases domestic abuse laws aren't much help," Ward tells CafeMom.

A variety of other factors, including the particulars of each state's laws, also influence how nonconsensual porn cases are handled. In 2004, New Jersey became the first state to pass a law addressing this issue with a statute making it a crime for a person who knows "that he is not licensed or privileged to do so" to disclose "any photograph, film, videotape, recording or any other reproduction of the image of another person whose intimate parts are exposed or who is engaged in an act of sexual penetration or sexual contact, unless that person has consented to such disclosure." Since then, 33 more states and the District of Columbia have passed similar laws. 

"There's sort of a patchwork of state laws right now," says Ward. "In most states there are at least some laws on the books that deal with this problem but we really need a federal law." 

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Not only would a federal law help to ensure consistency, but oftentimes nonconsensual pornography cases cross state lines, Ward points out. In the absence of a nationwide statute, attorneys are forced to prosecute nonconsensual pornographers on other grounds, such as extortion, harassment, dissemination of unlawful surveillance, and public display of offensive sexual material. Copyright law can also be helpful in getting images removed from the Internet, says Ward -- particularly if the image in question is a selfie (if you took the photo yourself, it's your property). 

Still, successfully prosecuting a nonconsensual pornographer can be difficult. "A perpetrator can say they've been hacked, and how do you prove they weren't?" Ward points out. Because of the technological aspect often requiring the assistance of computer forensics experts, these cases are often expensive, as well, which can discourage victims from speaking out (and lawyers from getting involved). Thankfully, there are resources available for victims in need: The Cyber Civil Rights Legal Project, for example, helps victims of nonconsensual pornography by providing them legal assistance on a pro bono basis. 

Because, after all, it's important to remember that while celebrities are often targets of this particular kind of exploitation, with some of the more high-profile nude photo hacks including stars like Jennifer Lawrence, non-celebs are at risk, too -- and it's much harder for them to fight back, because they don't have the resources of the rich and famous. Barton echoed the feelings of many when she said of the allegations in a statement:

I just want to say that I've been put through an incredibly hard and trying time. This is a painful situation, and my absolute worst fear was realized when I learned that someone I thought I loved and trusted was filming my most intimate and private moments, without my consent, with hidden cameras. Then I learned something even worse: that someone is trying to sell these videos and make them public. I came forward to fight this not only for myself but for all the women out there.

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The more public awareness, the better. Not only will the attention help to put more nonconsensual pornography laws and an actual federal law in motion, it will also -- hopefully -- help to reduce the stigma and shaming that those victimized suffer.

"Let's avoid victim blaming," said Ward. "We know people share intimate images in private relationships ... if you know you received something that was meant to be private, you should not distribute that without consent." And that goes equally for people who were filmed/photographed without their knowledge and those who knew what was going on (but expected the results to remain confidential). 

"From an advocacy perspective, it doesn't matter," said Ward. 

We couldn't agree more. No one deserves to deal with this horrible invasion of privacy -- not Mischa Barton, and not you. 

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