(Warning: This news story concerning the sexting, sextortion and cyber rape epidemic contains potentially distressing content.)
The internet is king, and sexting and pornography have become a global obsession, but a disturbing trend known as "cyber rape" is leading to the tragic, self-inflicted deaths of young women.
On Sept. 15, the world was stunned when a toxic mix of "revenge porn" and cyber bullying tragically claimed the life of Tiziana Cantone, a 31-year-old raven-haired beauty in Italy.
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Revenge porn, also known as "cyber rape," is the unauthorized sharing of private sexual photos or videos or another person, often for the purpose of harassing the victim. Many times, the pornographic content includes victims' names and other identifying details.
The phenomenon causes such distress to victims – who see sexually explicit images and videos of themselves plastered on social media and porn websites – that an estimated 51 percent report having suicidal thoughts due to being victimized. According to an analysis by the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, 90 percent of revenge porn victims are women.
Cantone, who posted sexy photos of herself on social media networks such as Instagram, reportedly sent six videos of herself to trusted acquaintances, including an ex-boyfriend. One video showed her performing a consensual sex act on a man.
Cantone never imagined the racy footage would be posted on the web in 2015 and go viral on pornography sites and social media.
The sex video became such a sensation, Cantone was forced to go to court to request that it be removed for violation of privacy.
Cantone was mortified when cyber bullies harassed and taunted her. Her face became so familiar that passersby recognized her on the street. According to her friends, Cantone became deeply depressed. She quit her job, moved from her home and petitioned to legally change her name.
Finally, Cantone committed suicide to escape the torment.
News of her death sent shockwaves around the world, leading many to ask: Why did the life of this beautiful woman end so tragically?
In separate cases in the U.S., mothers, daycare operators, wives of military personnel, teachers and young women were targeted for revenge porn when their images were posted without their permission on Kevin Christopher Bollaert's website, UGotPosted.com. In February 2015, Bollaert was found guilty of operating the revenge-porn website. Testimony by digital forensic experts revealed more than 10,000 images of victims of cyber exploitation. One female victim reportedly attempted suicide.
RollingStone reported: "Diane Rosenfeld, director of the Gender Violence Program at Harvard Law School, says such incidents are far more common than just those that wind up in court or involve suicide. Most, she says, don't make the local news or even reach school administrators because the girls are too embarrassed to do anything. ... Many are too humiliated to stay in school."
Furthermore, the ability to post photos and videos to the web – and make them go viral – is adding a whole new dimension to the horrifying epidemic of cyber rape, sextortion and revenge porn.
From Snapchat to Instagram and sexting, young Americans are sharing what experts say legally qualifies as child pornography.
"It's a perfect storm of technology and hormones," lawyer Lori Andrews, director of the Institute for Science, Law and Technology in Chicago, told RollingStone. "Teen sexting is all a way of magnifying girls' fantasies of being a star of their own movies, and boys locked in a room bragging about sexual conquest."
Donna Rice Hughes, president and CEO of Enough is Enough, a nonpartisan organization promoting the fight against online pornography, told WND: "Whether it's sexting or whatever the case may be, when a sexual image or a sex video ends up online, however it gets there, if it was unintended by the person who it's depicting, then it can cause a tremendous amount of harm to that person, psychological harm and emotional harm."
She continued: "This happens to preteens. It happens to teenagers. It happens to adults like this Italian woman. Harassment and the reputation devastation can cause depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts. We've seen many, many cases of suicide [following] all kinds of bullying and harassment. It happens so often."
It has the makings of the perfect storm: The cyber-rape epidemic is further fueled by a booming amateur pornography trend.
Seventy percent of young adults in the 18 to 24 age group say they receive sexually suggestive photos and texts, according to the Scientific American.
So perhaps it's no surprise that pornography in general is becoming more widely accepted among younger generations.
"Around half of adults 25 and older say viewing porn is wrong (54%), and among teens and young adults 13-24, only a third say viewing porn is wrong (32%). This posture toward porn among younger Americans is confirmed by how they talk about porn with their friends: the vast majority reports that conversations with their friends about porn are neutral, accepting or even encouraging. They generally assume most people look at porn at least on occasion, and the morality of porn is rarely discussed or even considered."
Perhaps most disturbing, another study found one in 10 visitors to porn sites is under 10 years old.
Despite growing acceptance of pornography among young generations, Hughes said both hard-core and soft-core material is harmful because it objectifies sex and the people portrayed in sex acts.
"Women are viewed from the exterior and judged by the size and shape of their body and how they perform sexually as opposed to their whole person," she explained. "I believe that any sane woman would say that's not a good thing, especially for girls and women in general. We are human, and we're a whole person. We're not just about our physical appearance and certainly not just about the size and the shapes of our body parts."
Just as Cantone's sex video was splashed across pornographic websites, Hughes said the culture of pornography has changed with the Internet and moved toward amateur and hard-core content that's increasingly growing more extreme and more deviant.
"This isn't airbrushed nudity, Playboy and Penthouse-types of pornography anymore," she said. "There is professional pornography but there's also amateur pornography. The United States is the largest producer of pornography, DVDs as well as web porn, and much of the material that is being produced is prosecutable under our current obscenity laws. That means it's a crime to produce it and to distribute it. It's certainly a crime to distribute it to children."
With regard to revenge porn and cyber rape, at least 34 U.S. states have laws on the books addressing the trend.
Enough is Enough has launched a pledge, called the "Children's Internet Safety Presidential Pledge," which asks presidential nominees to "uphold the rule of law by aggressively enforcing existing federal laws to prevent the sexual exploitation of children online, including the obscenity, child pornography, sexual predation and sex-trafficking laws."
Hughes is asking Americans to join the effort by signing the "Citizen's Pledge," which states:
"I support the tenants of the Presidential Pledge for the next President of the United States to uphold the existing federal laws designed to prevent the sexual exploitation of children online. I pledge to do my part as an American citizen to protect children online and offline, whether they be my own children, or the children of others."
'Think before you post'
While sexting and sharing explicit sexual photos and videos may be all the rage among young adults today, Hughes said parents must step in and teach their children about the consequences of such behavior.
"This is where parent involvement is so important. This poor girl (Cantone) who just gave up, she's beautiful, and she had her whole life in front of her, but she was so humiliated and devastated that she took her own life. She didn't see a way out of it. It's so sad," Hughes said. "We can help our young people. Tell them, look, you're not immune.
"Adults need to understand that, too: We are not immune to the negative consequences of our choices. And especially when you've got a medium like the Internet, there are no take-backs. Drill it over and over again."
Hughes said once any content is posted to the web, it's exceedingly difficult to get it removed – even if the victim has legal recourse against the person who posted it. People save photos and videos to their hard drives. They post and share the pornographic material on hundreds of websites.
"The best defense is a good offense," she said. "The wisest thing to do is to think before you post. And think before you share. Nothing is truly private.
"Even if you share something in a personal text or sext or email, that can go public. That person you send it to in confidence may make it public. That's what happens with revenge porn. This happens with cyber bullying all the time."
Hughes said her organization shares a few rules of thumb when it comes to sharing and posting content on the web:
"If it's not something you would say or do in front of your school assembly if you're in school, don't do it," she said.
"If it's not something that you would want your grandmother to see or know about, don't do it.
"If it's something you wouldn't want your worst enemy to know or see – in other words, someone who can use it against you – don't do it."