Revenge porn: Nude photos of woman sent to her grandma and workplace — and she gets fired
In early May, a Chicago woman was floored when her grandmother shared a text message she received the night before.
The woman, 27, recognized herself immediately: the text included a picture of her posing naked on a bed in what she thought was a private moment with her then boyfriend.
“I was embarrassed. I couldn’t believe he would do that,” the woman said in an interview with the Sun-Times. “What kind of person would send something like that to someone’s grandma?”
But the second, and harder, hit came next. A supervisor at The Chefs’ Warehouse at 2801 S. Western Ave., where the woman operated a forklift, had also received a graphic photo.
She was fired.
The woman’s story is increasingly common and illustrates how in a digital age victims of so-called “revenge porn” are vulnerable to harassment, mental health problems and even termination from their jobs, according to advocates and legal experts who spoke with the Sun-Times.
Since 2015, Illinois has made it illegal to share these private pictures without the consent of the person depicted in them, but a First Amendment challenge currently before the state’s Supreme Court could change that.
If the law is repealed, it would leave victims — primarily young women — with one less avenue for justice as they already face a difficult uphill battle to protect their dignity and their privacy, advocates say.
The woman’s ex-boyfriend, 30-year-old Charles McKee, was charged May 21 with a felony count of nonconsensual dissemination of a private sexual image — the official charge under state law for revenge porn. He was released on bond.
The Cook County public defender’s office, who represented McKee for his bail hearing, declined to comment.
The Cook County state’s attorney’s office has brought nearly 50 cases under the law since it was passed four years ago. Of those, 15 cases have led to convictions and sentencing, according to data reviewed by the Sun-Times. Slightly less than half of the cases, including some involving other charges, resulted in prison time, with the highest being three years. The rest were given probation.
The vast majority of the cases charged were brought against men, most of them under 40 years old, the data shows.
Supreme Court challenge
But some women have faced legal consequences, including Bethany Austin, who was charged in 2016 with sending nude images of a woman her fiancé was in a relationship with to alert family members as to why the couple’s pending nuptials were being called off.
The case was dismissed last year by a McHenry County judge after her attorney, Igor Bozic, disputed the charges on constitutional grounds.
“This law is dangerous,” Bozic said. “I’m not saying [revenge porn] is ethical by any means, but you should not limit freedom of speech by any means.”
The judge’s decision was appealed by the attorney general’s office to the Illinois Supreme Court. In arguments made May 14 before the justices, Bozic argued the law was too vaguely written — suggesting even a person who only described a nude person in a photo could be charged with “disseminating an image.”
Among Bozic’s other arguments: The state already has laws to protect people if such images are stolen from them or otherwise illegally obtained, and against blackmail, all of which can factor into a revenge porn case. But a person has no right to privacy over an image they freely give to another person, he says.
“The Illinois statute is extremely specific,” Franks said. “It has to be a situation where a reasonable person would have known this was supposed to be a private image and that this person did not consent to it being distributed in this way.”
It is expected to be months before the justices issue their ruling.
Franks says the primary intent of the law is to protect people from the “tremendous harm” that can result, including harassment and the psychological trauma of someone’s most private moments being made public.
A study conducted by Franks’ organization, which is cited in the state’s arguments before the Supreme Court, determined that young women are the greatest risk of being targets of revenge porn.
Franks said that privacy is in itself essential to free speech.
“We have a very long history in this county of regulating information for privacy reasons,” Franks said, citing restrictions on releasing biometric information, medical records and even records of a person’s video rentals.
Bozic stressed that he finds the sharing of private sexual images abhorrent but believes the greater danger to society is the diminishment of free speech rights in favor of a right to privacy that isn’t explicitly written into the constitution.
To prevent such images from being made public, he said, don’t share them in the first place.
When McKee allegedly sent the images to the woman’s supervisor at work, the company’s human resources manager told her it was her fault that her ex-boyfriend had gotten the supervisor’s number, she said.
“I think it’s sexist. I’m a female, and they’re all males,” she said of her supervisor and the company’s HR manager. “If it was done to [a man], I think it would be [handled] different.”
The Chefs’ Warehouse did not respond to requests for comment.
In Illinois and other “at-will employment” states, nothing prevents an employer from firing her over the photo — even though she was the victim of a crime, according to Cesar Rosado Marzan, a law professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law who specializes in workplace issues.
Absent legislation in Illinois that would require employers to provide a just cause for termination, low-wage and nonunion workers face particular difficulties bringing wrongful termination cases against bosses, Marzan said.
Franks said she hopes employers will support workers if they’re victims of a crime but said the woman’s story wasn’t unique in revenge porn cases.
“It happens all the time,” she said.