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Politics

Revenge Porn is Sexual Violence, not Millennial Negligence

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By Kristen Zaleski for The Conversation

U.S. Representative Katie Hill was the latest victim of a form of sexual abuse that’s become increasingly common: revenge porn.

Intimate photos of her were leaked to the media and published, without her consent, for the world to see – a transgression Hill suspects her estranged husband was behind . The photos implicated Hill in a sexual relationship with a congressional staffer, an accusation that potentially put Hill in violation of House ethics rules.

Hill, a 32-year-old freshman representative, ended up resigning her seat on October 27.
Yet some of the ensuing coverage, instead of zeroing in on the leaked photographs, centered on blaming Hill for not being careful enough.

“The best way to avoid being a victim of revenge porn is to not take nude selfies and send them to people,” political commentator Alice Stewart announced on CNN.

In an article titled “A Word to the Young,” New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd implored millennials to do a better job protecting themselves and their reputations online.

“Don’t leave yourself vulnerable by giving people the ammunition – or the nudes – to strip you of your dreams,” she wrote. “OK, millennials?”

Even House Speaker Nancy Pelosi brought up Hill’s “error in judgment” and noted that what you share online “can come back to haunt you.”

As someone who studies the effects of sexual violence, I’ve heard this kind of victim-blaming far too often. To me, “Be careful of the photos you take of yourself” sounds eerily similar to “Don’t wear suggestive clothing.” Sexual violence happens because of sexual perpetrators. It has nothing to do with the clothing people wear or the photos they take of themselves.

Make no mistake: Revenge porn is a form of sexual violence, with the same motivations, power dynamics and potential for psychological harm at play.

It can happen to anyone

Revenge porn falls under the umbrella of what scholars call “technological forms of sexual violence.”

Other examples include “nonconsensual pornography,” which specifically refers to photos that are taken for a partner’s eyes, only to be eventually disseminated to others; “up-skirting,” which involves snapping sexually intrusive photos, often of someone’s genitals, without their knowledge; and “sextortion,” a form of sexual blackmail that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos fell prey to in early 2019.

What happened to Hill isn’t an outgrowth of millennial culture. The nonconsensual sharing of intimate images and videos has been happening for decades. For example, the first issue of Playboy featured nude images of Marilyn Monroe that Hugh Hefner used without her permission. A sex tape filmed by Pamela Anderson and her then-husband Tommy Lee was famously stolen and leaked in 1995.

But the growing role of digital technology in our everyday lives – and the ever-expanding scope of everyone’s digital footprint – has made more people vulnerable to this sort of abuse and exploitation.

One study from 2017 found that 1 in 12 participants reported that they’d had nude images taken of them and posted publicly against their wishes. In Australia, that number is 1 in 10 – a rate that jumps to 1 in 2 for those who are indigenous or report having a disability.

An Australian survey also found that 1 in 3 members of the LGBT community, like Rep. Hill and her alleged partner, report having intimate photos shared without their consent.

It can happen to anyone, at any age. Research from 2017 shows that almost 20% of reported victims are over the age of 50.

Control, retaliation and humiliation

Just as domestic violence was once misunderstood and tolerated, many people today fail to grasp how nude photographs can be wielded as weapons of abuse.

Yet the nonconsensual sharing of intimate images is a form of control, retaliation and humiliation, just like any other form of sexual violence.

The Power and Control Wheel is a tool used by domestic violence experts to understand the ways in which domestic violence occurs in everyday interactions. Originally developed in 1993 by activists Ellen Pence and Michael Paymar, it demonstrates the abusive tactics beyond physical violence – such as withholding money, threatening to leave and isolating partners from friends and family – that are used to wield power and control.

The Power and Control Wheel. Domestic Abuse Intervention Program

At this year’s Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues conference, psychologists Asia Eaton, Sofia Noori, Amy Bonomi, Dionne P. Stephens and Tameka L. Gillum explained how technological forms of sexual violence can be found in every category of the Power and Control Wheel. For example, one spoke of the wheel is economic abuse; another is coercion. It’s not difficult to see how intimate, private photographs can be wielded by an abusive partner to threaten someone’s job.

Abusive partners don’t even need nude photos to hurt their signficant others; photos or video footage can be altered via deepfake technology to create convincing and humiliating images.

The lasting psychological effects of having nude photographs of yourself shared online are just starting to emerge. The few studies that have been published show that victims deal with many of the same issues that survivors of rape and sexual harassment grapple with. One published in 2017 found evidence of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and suicidal thoughts among revenge porn victims. Other studies have shown how being targeted with revenge porn can lead to the development of trust and privacy issues that last a lifetime.

“Ever since those images first came out I barely left my bed,” Rep. Hill said during her final speech to the House of Representatives. “I went to the darkest places that a mind can go. I’ve hidden from the world.”

Those words ring all too familiar for victims who have endured sexual violence, both online and offline.

Instead of engaging in a victim blame narrative that accuses millennials of being shortsighted, let’s focus on the 1 in 20 Americans who perpetrate this form of abuse that violates privacy, causes psychological harm and ends careers.

By Kristen Zaleski is a Clinical Associate Professor of Social Work, University of Southern California and does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

The Conversation publishes knowledge-based journalism that is responsible, ethical and supported by evidence from academics and researchers in order to inform public debate with facts, clarity and insight into society’s biggest problems.

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Politics

White House Gift Shop Selling Coronavirus Commemorative Coins

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White House Gift Shop Selling Coronavirus Commemorative Coins

WASHINGTON, DC (TMZ) — The White House Gift Shop is hawking some odd memorabilia … a coronavirus commemorative coin no one asked for.

The COVID-19 coin features the names of President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence … and it depicts an empty presidential podium on one side, and a graphic of the novel coronavirus above the world on the other side.

The coin also shouts out the rest of the COVID-19 task force … with smaller printed names for Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, Surgeon General Dr. Jerome AdamsDr. Deborah Birx and Dr. Anthony Fauci.

The collector’s item is emblazoned with tons of slogans … including “Together We FOUGHT The UNSEEN Enemy,” “Everday HEROES Suited Up,” and “Everyday CITIZENS Did Their Part.”

The White House Gift Shop is already taking pre-orders for the coin … and the price is slashed from $125 down to $100. The store, which is privately run and only loosely related to the actual White House, claims proceeds will be donated to hospitals.

The COVID-19 coin is the 11th in the gift shop’s “Historic Moments” collection, which also commemorates Trump’s meetings with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

So, at least the coronavirus coin is in … good company.

Trump's Coin Collection

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Politics

Trump Thinks Armed Michigan Protesters Are ‘Very Good People’

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Trump Thinks Armed Michigan Protesters Are 'Very Good People'

MICHIGAN (TMZ) — President Trump has found another group of “very good people” … the gun-toting right-wing extremists who stormed the Michigan statehouse to protest coronavirus restrictions.

Trump is strongly supporting the heavily-armed protesters … he says they are very good, very angry people who deserve a seat at the table with Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer.

Mind you, Michigan does not meet the very same federal guidelines for reopening that the President and his coronavirus task force announced last month.

Trump tweeted out his support of the rifle-clad protesters and tried to shift the onus on Whitmer, saying … “The Governor of Michigan should give a little, and put out the fire. These are very good people, but they are angry.”

POTUS added … “They want their lives back again, safely! See them, talk to them, make a deal.”

The protesters are up in arms over the fact Gov. Whitmer extended the state’s emergency stay-at-home order until the end of May.

Of course, Trump started the battle cry for the “liberation” of several states — including Michigan — just hours after he laid out the federal guidelines. He, at least, said reopening should be done slowly and smartly … based on data.

That’s apparently out the window.

It has to be said … Trump’s comments about the Michigan protesters are reminiscent of the Charlottesville rioters, who he called very fine people.

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Health

Trump’s Own Officials Depended on WHO. Then He Turned Against It.

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Trump’s Own Officials Depended on WHO to Fight Coronavirus. Then He Turned Against It.

As President Donald Trump publicly bashed the World Health Organization over its response to the coronavirus pandemic last week, American aid officials tried to delicately sidestep the political tensions, internal documents shared with ProPublica show.

And Trump’s campaign upended weeks of partnership between his own administration and the WHO, which provides advice and support for health officials in developing countries. The U.S. Agency for International Development had chosen to funnel much of its pandemic response through the WHO.

Even as they dealt with the fallout of Trump’s decision to cut off WHO funding, his administration leaned on it for expert advice.

“Given the political dynamics, I do not recommend reference to WHO here or below,” wrote one U.S. Agency for International Development career official in a comment on a draft report about how emergency funding would be spent. “Recommend deleting.”

The April 10 comment on the document prompted a rebuttal a few days later from another career official, one of many who argued that the WHO’s role in the health crisis should not be caught up in a political spat.

“It’s actually important to reference WHO standards during this type of emergency pandemic response – even with current political dynamics,” wrote the official, who argued for leaving in the mention of the WHO. It’s unclear which wording made it into the final version of the document.

A redacted image of comments left on a USAID draft document suggesting omitting a reference to the WHO.

The exchange was just one example of the angst that spread throughout USAID as it became clear that Trump would follow through with his April 10 threat to cut off WHO funding, and it was indicative of efforts by officials to downplay the role of an important public health partner. Just a few days later, on Tuesday, Trump paused all U.S. funding for the WHO, upending crucial plans for containing the virus in developing countries and bolstering China’s narrative that it is stepping into the traditional U.S. role of global leader.

Interviews with current and former U.S. officials and the internal documents and communications show that despite Trump’s recent disparagement of the WHO, his administration was for weeks relying heavily on its expertise and global reach to fight the pandemic. And in a public relations battle between China and the U.S. over global leadership, American diplomats and aid officials have cited robust U.S. funding of the WHO as a key supporting argument.

The WHO’s expertise is a critical resource for developing countries that lack their own strong public health sectors, said Jeremy Konyndyk, a former USAID official during the Obama administration. Cutting the WHO out of funding means the U.S. is eliminating its own ability to control the pandemic in those countries, he said.

“If you want to try and fight a public health crisis in a developing country without the WHO, you are lost from the outset,” Konyndyk said.

Particularly in conflict zones where the U.S. has limited or no reach, such as Syria, Yemen and Libya, working with the WHO is crucial, one U.S. official said on the condition of anonymity.

Just one day after Trump’s announcement, on Wednesday, WHO staff held a presentation for USAID’s Global Health Bureau on health care in conflict settings, according to a description of the meeting seen by ProPublica.

USAID, the State Department and the White House did not respond to requests for comment. The WHO referred ProPublica to comments on Wednesday by its director general, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, saying that his organization hopes the U.S. will continue to be a “generous friend” and that his agency “works to improve the health of many of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people.”

The State Department and USAID turned to the WHO soon after the agencies received nearly $1.3 billion in new funding from Congress to address the pandemic in March. That funding had few strings attached, meaning officials could disburse it largely as they saw fit and did not have to channel it through the WHO or any other specific entity.

In a March memo outlining the administration’s global pandemic response, obtained by ProPublica, officials wrote that the U.S. would work “in close coordination with” the WHO. Several strategy elements mentioned the WHO.

In a March 31 public statement, the State Department highlighted U.S. assistance to the WHO, boasting that the agency’s “broad-based effort would not be possible without U.S. support.” The statement made repeated swipes at China, comparing U.S. funding of multilateral organizations to China’s much lower contributions.

That view was also reflected in an internal document dated April 13 and titled “Countering People’s Republic of China (PRC) Propaganda on Health and Humanitarian Aid.” It cited “critical support” from the U.S. to “the World Health Organization, UNICEF, the World Food Program and dozens of other organizations.”

Internal State Department guidance sent in early April, with diplomatic talking points about U.S. assistance, encouraged “Ministries of Health to reach out to the local WHO representative and other local partners to inquire about laboratory test kits, reagents, and supplies, laboratory supplies, and test kit availability in your region.”

The guidance also served as an endorsement of the WHO’s unique capabilities. “WHO uses existing agreements and its vast network of procurement mechanisms to purchase tests on behalf of countries that cannot afford them,” it said.

The U.S. quickly funneled nearly $700,000 each to Morocco and Iraq via the WHO last month. In response to a White House query this week, USAID officials compiled information on several grants they had made to the WHO that were supporting coronavirus relief and detection efforts in South Africa, India, Angola and elsewhere, according to a spreadsheet seen by ProPublica.

U.S. officials working on the response said they now worry about how they can help countries if they can’t channel the assistance via the WHO.

“For several countries, the WHO is the only way we can help them,” one official said. “We know nothing about anyone else who’s operating there.”

The significant U.S. reliance on the WHO in the Middle East prompted officials in the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs to write a memo to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warning of the consequences of a funding halt. The memo, a draft version of which was seen by ProPublica, warned of undermining the global response to the pandemic, threatening American lives, and ceding ground to China.

Indeed, Trump officials have been preoccupied with the idea that China is winning the global PR battle. On Thursday morning, White House, State Department, USAID and Pentagon officials held a conference call to discuss the issue, focusing on the Middle East. Several diplomats in the region said that talking points against China gain little traction in their countries, according to someone with knowledge of the call.

Privately, USAID officials acknowledge that China is well ahead of the U.S. in pushing the narrative that it is the leading humanitarian actor responding to the pandemic, according to meeting notes and emails seen by ProPublica.

One U.S. embassy in North Africa reported to officials in Washington this week that the Chinese had until recently avoided bashing the U.S. in favor of boosting their own donations of medical equipment. There was one exception, they noted: The Chinese took the opportunity to highlight the U.S. decision to halt funding to the WHO.

Do you have access to information about the U.S. government response to the coronavirus that should be public? Email yeganeh.torbati@propublica.org. Here’s how to send tips and documents to ProPublica securely.

ProPublica is an independent, nonprofit newsroom that produces investigative journalism with moral force. We dig deep into important issues, shining a light on abuses of power and betrayals of public trust. Follow on Twitter at @ProPublica 

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