Revenge porn: the YouTube star who won damages in landmark UK case

Lucy Purdy

US YouTube star Chrissy Chambers made history last year, when she won a landmark revenge porn civil case. She explains where she found the courage to fight back

“When I realised those videos existed, it devastated and invaded every part of my life. Everything came to a standstill.”

Chrissy Chambers was just 18, when she started a relationship with a British man she had met online. They moved in together briefly in Atlanta, Georgia, where Chambers had moved from her native Mississippi to pursue an acting career. But he became angry and controlling, and Chambers ended the relationship after nine months. “I was a teenager. I wanted to figure out life and who I was and he didn’t take kindly to that,” says Chambers. “He wanted me all to himself.”

Fast-forward a few years, and Chambers had come out as gay. Together with her now-fiancee Bria Kam she had become one of the most popular lesbian content creators on YouTube. The pair’s witty, big-hearted sketches, songs and video diaries had been viewed hundreds of millions of times, and they were looked upon as LGBTI role models by thousands of young subscribers.

While she was “blissfully ignorant,” this is when Chambers’ former relationship came back to haunt her. It emerged that her ex-boyfriend had filmed them having sex – without her consent or even knowledge. She only found out because he had uploaded seven videos to a website for free porn. Now 26, and speaking to Positive News from the stables in LA where her beloved horse Cheyenne lives, Chambers recalls with a shudder the realisation that they were live for anyone, anywhere to view. “It uprooted everything in my life.” The title of each video included her full name.


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Though she recognised her old apartment, she had no memory of the videos being made, subsequently piecing together that she had been filmed secretly during a drunken night near the end of their relationship. When she became aware of them, the films had already been seen thousands of times. Hundreds of shocked YouTube fans got in touch to say they felt betrayed, unsubscribing from her channel in their droves.

It quickly took a toll on her health. Chambers became an alcoholic; was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and developed severe anxiety and night terrors. “Even now, I’m afraid of being in big crowds. I’m incredibly anxious in situations when I can’t control how people are perceiving me,” she says. Any form of sexual assault can devastate the victim’s life. But Chambers believes revenge porn presents unique challenges. “Every time I went online and saw something, I was retraumatised. I felt complete helplessness.”

After a while, Chambers gathered herself enough to decide to fight. She felt a responsibility to the people who looked up to her and Kam. “Because we try to inspire LGBTI young people to stand up to injustice, it was a no-brainer that when I got my feet underneath me again, I had to speak out.”

It was a no-brainer that when I got my feet underneath me again, I had to speak out

It has been illegal since April 2015 in England, where her ex uploaded the videos, to post private sexual images online without consent. However, the videos of Chambers were uploaded in 2011, meaning the criminal law did not apply. Undaunted, Chambers and Kam turned to their community, crowdfunding to raise money to explore other options. In March 2016, Chambers brought a civil case in the UK, settling out of court in December 2017 – a settlement that was made public in January. As well as a payout from her ex, Chambers won back the copyright to the videos that he had posted.

After making a statement on the steps of the High Court in London in January, Chambers proposed to Kam. (She said yes.) “Besides being amazing for our relationship, that was incredibly healing in itself,” Chambers says. “It was me saying ‘I’m going to move on with my life. I won’t let this hold me back from anything that I love and care about any more.’”

After a four-and-a-half-year legal battle, it will take time for the victory to sink in. Chambers has started sleeping better and feels more relaxed, “but I’m still dragging around the weight, the trauma”.

She has become a figurehead in the campaign around revenge porn. What needs to change? A federal law is urgently needed in the US, says Chambers. Legislation there currently varies state by state. Laws around much of the world, in fact, are of “varying degrees of weakness”, says Chambers. “Ruining someone’s life is punishable by a slap on the wrist and that’s just outrageous.”

In the UK, she believes it’s wrong that the law requires a proof of intent to cause distress. “People who share revenge porn as a laugh or a ‘joke’ can get away with it. But it’s never funny, it’s never innocent,” Chambers argues. “The result and the damage to victims is the exact same, so the crime should be punishable regardless of the intention.”

Ruining someone’s life is punishable by a slap on the wrist and that’s just outrageous

Under the terms of the settlement, Chambers’ ex-boyfriend cannot be named and details of the payout have not been made public. But lawyers at her law firm McAllister Olivarius described it as substantial. Senior partner Ann Olivarius tells Positive News: “Chrissy’s perseverance and courage have achieved an important victory. She has found the strength to keep fighting, and the winners are all of us. The losers are everyone who thinks it is fair or funny or a good way to make some money to put intimate images online. We look forward to the day when spreading someone’s intimate images without their consent, a form of sexual assault using the internet, is a thing of the past.”

Chambers doubts she would have got through everything – “mentally, emotionally, physically” – without Kam. “For weeks, I couldn’t get out of bed. Hundreds of times a day, if I looked in the mirror or took a shower, all I could see were the videos.”

Chambers, left, with fiancee Bria Kam

By speaking about her experience, Chambers hopes that revenge porn survivors in the future won’t be viewed with confusion or judgement, “but with open arms, compassion and support”.

“I wouldn’t want to go through it again,” she says, “but I’m glad it happened to me. For whatever reason, I had the strength to stand up and fight back. Now, I feel like I can get through anything.”

Photography: Mathew Scott


 

This article is featured in issue 93 of Positive News magazine.

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