Maryland woman urges state lawmakers to outlaw ‘revenge porn’

The Internet allowed Annmarie Chiarini to connect with a former high school boyfriend and even conduct a long-distance relationship with flashes of intimacy after they had rekindled their romance.

But the Internet also became what she said was a vicious tool of revenge after she tried to end their relationship. To punish and humiliate her, she said, her spurned lover posted sexually explicit pictures of her, upending her life, threatening her career with scandal and overwhelming her with feelings of helplessness.

“The last words I heard were, ‘I will destroy you,’ ” Chiarini said. “That sentence rang in my head.”

On Tuesday, Chiarini told her story before the Maryland House Judiciary Committee while calling for new criminal laws to prevent what is known as revenge porn. Dels. Luiz R.S. Simmons (D-Montgomery) and Jon S. Cardin (D-Baltimore County) have proposed legislation that would that prohibit someone from intentionally disclosing sexually explicit material depicting another person without that person’s consent. Simmons’s bill would also require evidence that the posting was intended to cause emotional distress.

A similar measure is under consideration by the Virginia General Assembly.

Cardin told the panel that the measures would essentially extend protections against sexual harassment to the Internet. He said study by an Internet security service found that people sometimes spend as much as $5,000 to try to wipe away images posted on the Web in a form of cyber sexual harassment.

But Toni Holness, a lobbyist with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, urged lawmakers to take care not to infringe on First Amendment rights or criminalize lawful communications.

She told the panel that Simmons’s measure could also run into problems about the expectations of privacy around images that are transmitted over the Internet, citing the sexting scandal involving former congressman Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.). Weiner resigned after it became known that he had sent lewd photos of himself to several women. Holness said those women could have faced criminal charges for sharing the photos for the purpose of disclosing his sexting.

Holness said the bill should include proof that the person who posts such pictures did so with the intent to harm the other person. The civil rights group argues that it should also require proof that actual harm is caused, and that the penalty should apply only to the person who violated the confidential understanding against disclosing the pictures, not a third party who publicized them.

California and New Jersey have passed laws making revenge porn a crime. In Virginia, Del. Marcus B. Simon (D-Fairfax) has submitted similar legislation that would impose criminal penalties on anyone who intentionally disseminated sexually explicit images of another and whose target suffers “substantial emotional distress.” Another would allow victims to collect civil damages of up to $10,000 for such acts. His bills will be considered at subcommittees of the state House’s Courts of Justice on Wednesday afternoon.

Chiarini, who teaches English at a Maryland college, said legislation would be an important first step to helping victims to fight back. Every day, she said, e-mails arrive from others who have been through similar ordeals.

“Hopelessness and despair exasperated by law enforcement officials who shook their heads and said, ‘There’s nothing I can do. No crime has been committed,’ drove me to the point that I was convinced that I had ruined my life,” Chiarini said.

In an interview after the hearing, Chiarini said her ordeal began after she tried to break off a relationship more than two years ago.

Chiarini said she had known the man since 1985, when they dated in high school. They had even planned to marry but ended the relationship in 1990, when she decided to go to college. Nearly two decades later, after her marriage to another person fell apart, her high school boyfriend looked her up on Facebook in 2009, she said.

“The same magic was still there. It was all those wonderful feelings with that rush of high school love,” Chiarini said, without identifying the man. “We rekindled the relationship.”

Chiarini said during the relationship, she reluctantly agreed to transmit explicit images of herself.

“I was not comfortable with it,” she said. “But we were in a long-distance relationship, and he swore up and down that he would keep these private, that he would keep these secret. I have e-mails still of him saying, ‘I promise you, no one will ever see these. Your body is sacred. Our privacy is sacred.’ He said everything a woman would want to hear in order to feel safe.”

But the relationship soured after five months. She began to see him as manipulative and controlling. “So, I attempted to end it. And that’s when the fight happened and the threat came down: ‘I will destroy you,’ ” she said.

She said the man threatened to sell images of her on eBay, and they were posted to pornography Web site with her name, creating a scandal that threatened her job. She said she received creepy e-mails from strangers and worried about her and her children’s safety. Chiarini went to police and the FBI, but law enforcement officials told her there was little they could do unless she received a death threat. Unable to stop the harassment, she also began to blame herself for her predicament.

“That’s when I realized, this is my life. There was no escaping this. There was no getting out of this,” she said. “I had ruined my life, and my behavior — my choices — had come back to haunt me, and that’s when I attempted suicide. That was my low.”

Instead, she transformed her anger into action. Chiarini said she has declined to turn the tables on the man who harassed her because she does not believe in vigilante justice. She has focused on changing the law, even though she said she is uneasy about the publicity necessary to shape public debate.

“I go on auto­pilot,” she said. “I hate being in front of a camera. I hate being in front of a microphone. It makes me very anxious. But I just keep reminding myself that I don’t want anyone else to feel the way that I did.”

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