Title IX and Revenge Porn: A Welcome Expansion of the Law

A recent decision in a Massachusetts federal court has broken new ground in the fight for justice for victims of revenge porn.  In Jane Doe v. Town of Stoughton et al, the judge denied the defendant’s motion to grant summary judgment on herTitle IX claim.  Title IX, which forbids sex discrimination in publicly funded schools and colleges, has long been used to protect students who suffer verbal and physical harassment based on their sex.  Increasingly, though, sexual harassment and abuse is happening online: from revenge porn to cyber-bullying, the internet is used as a vehicle to attack girls and women.  Doe v. Stoughton is a definite step forward in adapting existing legal norms so they can protect against these new forms of abuse.

The plaintiff, at the time 14 years old, sent a fellow student (a 17 year old boy) nude photos of herself after he asked her to do so. She was subsequently raped by the same student.[1]  Allegedly, after the plaintiff confided in a friend about the rape, word spread around the high school they both attended. In response to the rumours, the boy sent the nude photos of the plaintiff to two other students, who then showed and sent the photos to other students.

This triggered a severe campaign of bullying and humiliation against the girl.  Over the following months, her classmates insulted and harassed her almost daily.  She frequently complained to school staff.  They admonished the bullies, but didn't escalate their discipline after the harassment continued.  The plaintiff ultimately made a number of suicide attempts, developed an eating disorder and was hospitalized for two weeks.  After that, she did not return to Stoughton High School as a student.

The ruling, by Judge Patti B. Saris, states for the first time that harassment and bullying that follows from the sharing of sexual images in schools can constitute illegal sexual harassment.  In these cases, the bullying itself does not have to be explicitly sexual – it can constitute pointing, laughing or whispering – but is assumed to be sexual by context.  By making schools potentially liable if they do nothing effective to combat this kind of harassment, they should be prompted to take more resolute action to protect students.  The ruling should also help other girls being harassed like this to understand that they don't just have to accept it.  

A number of recent cases have brought the practice of revenge porn into the public eye, including the prosecution of two high school football players in Steubenville, Ohio, and the high profile lawsuit of revenge porn advocate Holly Jacobs against the website www.texxxan.com.  These aren't isolated incidents; as the boundaries between the internet and private life continue to blur, women (and men too) and children become more vulnerable to digital abuse.  As many as 36 per cent of young women have sent nude or semi-nude pictures of themselves, and 64 per cent of young adults report receiving one. [2]

As social norms change, the law tends to follow. So far, lawmakers have been slow to grasp this problem or to figure out effective remedies.  Meanwhile, those subjected to revenge porn are still looking for ways to bring the perpetrators to account.  Our law firm has been representing some revenge porn victims, in the UK and US.  There are some solutions in existing law -- and although they're not perfect or applicable to every case, we believe that targets of revenge porn can and should fight back using the tools the law now gives us.  Jane Doe v. Stoughton is a welcome sign that even before better laws are passed, victims can fight back. 


[1] The 17 year old student pleaded guilty to indecent assault and battery in relation to this incident.
[2] http://www.thenationalcampaign.org/sextech/pdf/sextech_summary.pdf