Skip to main content

Clevenger explores The Virtual Enemy

image of a book cover for Shelly Clevenger's new book

Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice Shelly Clevenger is part of a team taking an in-depth look at the relationship between intimate partner violence and cybercrime in their upcoming book titled The Virtual Enemy: The Intersection Between Intimate Partner Abuse, Technology, and Cybercrime.

“I think it’s a very interesting and unexplored area,” said Clevenger, whose book is the first to connect intimate partner violence with cybercrime. She noted statistics show victims in these cases are overwhelmingly female, and are suffering at the hands of people they know. “Most people are afraid of the stranger in the bushes, when they should be afraid of their boyfriend or the guy sitting next to them—and it’s the same thing for online victimization.”

Cyber intimate partner abuse can take many forms. “Crimes can include cyber stalking, revenge porn, and sextortion to name a few,” said Clevenger, who added it can consist of an attacker harassing or threatening a victim online through email, messages, or hacking into the victim’s email or social media accounts. “It can also include the offender opening credit cards or mortgages in the victim’s name,” said Clevenger.

Another avenue of cybercrime, revenge porn, has just cropped up in the last 10 to 15 years, and only started fully trickling into the media recently. Here, an angry former or current partner takes nude or semi-nude pictures and/or videos of the victim and posts them on revenge porn websites. These videos or pictures are usually accompanied with profanities, negative descriptions of the person, a link to their social media pages, and possibly a home address, email address, or phone number. “Often the victims don’t even know they are on these sites unless someone alerts them,” said Clevenger, who added many victims she interviewed said, “‘I didn’t think he would do that.’ But no one thinks that at the time, or they wouldn’t share the picture or video.”

The newest form of cybercrime is called sextortion, where the person extorting the victim has inappropriate pictures or videos, and threatens to distribute them through email, on a website, or through social media. “They extort for money, sexual favors, or they may want more pictures,” said Clevenger. Sextortion is unique because it isn’t necessarily someone the victim knows. Instead, the individuals are hacking into webcams and taking pictures or video. “If someone hacked into your computer while you’re having sex with your spouse or changing, you could be extorted using pictures that were taken without your knowledge,” said Clevenger. “These hackers can take control of your computer and you don’t even know it.” Existing files of naked photos or videos on your computer could also be hacked and used for sextortion.

Clevenger said at present there is little recourse for cybercrime victims in the realm of revenge porn. “The victim can report the incident to police, but there is little they can do about it,” she said, though there is an effort emerging to create more laws and statutes to prevent and stop this crime. “The debate becomes the fact of the intellectual property and who owns the pictures. If the victim gave the pictures to the person, it becomes their property,” explained Clevenger.

When teaching about cybercrimes in her classroom, the one thing Clevenger tries to steer her students away from is victim blaming and the notion that victims deserve what happens to them. “There is a lot of inaccurate information out there about these crimes,” she noted. “People tend to blame victims. I don’t tolerate victim blaming in my classes, and I don’t like hearing it from other people out in the world.” Victim blaming tends to start with people asking why anyone would let someone take a naked picture of them, or send naked pictures, and then subsequently blaming the person for having the pictures ending up on revenge porn sites or shared on social media. “Victims don’t think their significant other—whom they love at the time—would do this. It’s the offender’s fault. No matter what happens in a relationship, no one deserves that.”

Clevenger encourages her students and the public to learn about these crimes and the facts related to them, especially as society’s use of the Internet increases. One of her chapters in the book deals with preventative ways for people to protect themselves. “Don’t leave anything on your phone or computer you wouldn’t want the world to see. Nothing goes away on the Internet. You can’t ever be sure you won’t be victimized,” said Clevenger. “You may not be able to prevent it, but you can think about the pictures you would send or the information you would share in regards to cybercrimes.”