Today, I am so excited to have author Robin York dropping by the blog to talk about her debut NA novel Deeper and revenge porn.
What inspired you to write Deeper?
The idea actually came from my publisher, Random House, who asked me to consider writing a New Adult romance (a romance whose protagonists are in the 18-25 age range) for the Bantam imprint. I’d been following the rise of New Adult and was interested in trying my hand in it, but I didn't have a story in mind immediately. I did know that I wanted to write a New Adult romance set at a small liberal arts college. It wasn't until I read an article online about revenge porn — and then stumbled into reading the comments, which were appalling — that I found the story I wanted to tell.
One of the primary focuses of Deeper is revenge pornography. Can you tell us what this is, and why you were moved to write about it?
Revenge porn — also called “non-consensual pornography” — involves a perpetrator sharing photographs and videos of the target in a public forum (usually on the Internet) without the target’s consent. In the stereotypical case, a man will publish intimate pictures of his ex-girlfriend or ex-fiancée on one of a number of websites that exist for this purpose, and then a bunch of other guys will view them, comment on the woman’s appearance, smear her morals, and share the pictures all over the place. These sites often also publish women’s social media details — Facebook page, Twitter handle, and so forth — so that the men who see the pictures can take their hateful comments to those pages, as well.
As I mentioned above, I first located the story for Deeper in the comments of an online article about revenge porn. What I noticed immediately was how hurtful and victim blaming so many of these comments were. So many of them said the same thing: She shouldn't have shared those pictures if she didn't want this to happen to her. These girls should be more careful. They shouldn't trust people who don’t deserve it. They should know better -- everything that goes on the Internet is forever. The comments made me so angry, because it seemed so obvious to me that revenge porn is a breach of trust and an act of emotional violence -- and the person who is responsible for this act isn't the person whose body appears in the photographs and videos but the person who publishes them.
I wondered what kind of effects comments like these might have on a college-age woman who had been the target of revenge porn. How would she feel about herself, her sexuality, her reputation, her future? How would she carry on, and how would the experience change her? Particularly if this young woman was smart, with a bright future, and so many of the comments suggested that she’d been “stupid” to trust the man who published her pictures — stupid to let him take the pictures in the first place, and stupid to think she deserved anything but for those images to follow her around for the rest of her life.
Revenge porn has such devastating effects for the victim. Trust is betrayed, the victims feel violated and exposed, people are looking at them differently, and complete strangers leave disgusting comments online. And the internet being what it is, it's very easier for such photos to suddenly go viral. Yet, as Deeper shows, revenge pornography is not a crime.
Right — not most places. In the United States, it’s not a federal crime. Several states (including my own, Wisconsin) have enacted legislation that imposes penalties for sharing intimate photographs online without consent, however, and it’s starting to look as though this is a trend that will continue. I know there’s been some movement in Israel, a law proposed in the UK, and some other positive steps in this direction. I'm hopeful that in five or ten years, revenge porn will be a prosecutable offense in most parts of the world.
Although what happens to Caroline is awful, I feel Deeper is less about the terrible and more about beating it and moving forward. That although it's a disgusting thing to have happened to her, it doesn't have to ruin or be the sole focus of her life. Was it important to you to show this?
Definitely. I wanted to write about a young woman whose experiences with revenge porn — and with love — begin to transform her sense of self, helping her find her way into a more adult and fully actualized version of herself. Caroline is never a passive victim, but at the beginning of the story she accepts a lot of the blame that has been directed at her. Over the course of the story, she begins to understand that the only person who can decide how she should feel about the pictures that were published of her is herself; that she’s in charge of her own future; and that she’s done nothing to be ashamed of.
The only other novel I know of that covers a similar topic as Deeper is Good Girls by Laura Ruby, which was released in 2006. Why do you think there is such a lack of discussion about non-consensual pornography, when it's something we hear a lot more of now?
Certainly, discussion of non-consensual pornography has picked up since I began working on Deeper, but it’s still limited primarily to Internet media. I haven’t seen any other fictional approaches to the topic.
I would argue that this is because of sexism. Sexism frames our entire public conversation about non-consensual pornography. Sexism was behind all of those online comments that so enraged me — the sexist assumption that female sexuality is a problem, that women should be ashamed of their bodies, of their sexual activity, of themselves.
Running into this, there’s also the (sexist) assumption that we only want to read novels about girls and women who are admirable, and that a woman who is the target of revenge porn necessarily is not a “heroine.”
I've read you say that the victims of revenge porn are often seen as the ones to blame for having the photos taken, rather than the person who uploaded those compromising photos. I find it absolutely incredible that people would blame the victim for doing something private and personal – never meant for anyone else’s eyes – with someone they trusted and possibly loved. It doesn't seem far from the “asking for it” excuse people throw out for rape.
Exactly. This is my point exactly. And again, this is sexism — the “asking for it” argument is inherently sexist, victim-blaming, and it’s insidious. It finds new guises for itself all the time. These are battles that we have to keep fighting again and again, every time in a new venue.
What research did you do for Deeper? Was there anything that surprised you?
I read a lot online in news media, on activist websites, and on the revenge porn websites themselves. I also spoke to several current college students about what they knew about revenge porn, whether it had happened to anyone they knew, how they would feel if it happened to them, how they thought they would handle it. I think the thing that surprised me most was that the young women I talked to kept telling me they would blame themselves. The reason for this is, I'm guessing, partially the fault of messages teenagers receive these days about how they use the Internet. Be careful, they’re told repeatedly. The Internet spreads pictures and embarrassing information so quickly. Watch what you post. Watch how you behave. Watch what you do. And I understand where these messages are coming from, but I think the risk is that they also mean that when a young woman who tries to follow the rules, to be good, is exposed online due to photographs that she consented to, she’s going to feel like she did something wrong — that she wasn't careful enough.
What do you think about how teen fiction deals with sex, generally?
I guess I’d say that teen fiction is as variably successful in dealing with success as our society at large is. There are books that do amazing and wonderful things — books that reinforce hurtful attitudes — and everything in between. Overall, though, I’d argue that teens have access to more information all the time, which has both positive consequences (easier to get questions answered about embarrassing or sensitive questions surrounding sex) and negative ones (ubiquity of porn affects early sexual experiences in a lot of bad ways) but is probably, on the whole, a good thing for teens today.
Anything else you would like to add?
I think you covered a lot of important bases! Thanks so much for asking me to participate in this important conversation.
Thank you, Robin, for such an amazing interview! Such an important topic! What are your thoughts on the issue of revenge porn?
Check out my review of Deeper, and be sure to visit Robin's website.