When she was 19 years old, a young woman who agreed to pose nude for a college art class project said she was lied to, manipulated and intimidated by the photographer into posing for more-revealing photos.
Afterward, Reese Townsend wanted only to forget the frightening, traumatic experience.
What happened next was far worse.
Starting two years later, in 2005, those pictures of her naked body have appeared on the internet, everywhere from porn websites to Craigslist. Her 11-year battle to have the images removed requires constant immersion in the depths of the web, as well as frustrating exchanges with companies that require her to prove she has copyright to images of her own body that were taken under duress.
Worse, because the man who took the photos labeled them with her name and address, people have posted the photos alongside professional photos of her, mocking her. She has been deluged with emails from strangers.
“The worst thing is not knowing who is doing this,” said Townsend.
Townsend’s naïveté and innocence made her easy prey for the photographer, but she has plenty of company. More-sophisticated but similar ruses, starting with deception and ending with consent forms signed under duress, still ensnare inexperienced young women, according to an attorney who specializes in online privacy and exploitation issues.
And those teenagers, unlike Townsend, are growing up in an era when image exploitation and cyberprivacy are constantly discussed, when a lecture about sexting is often delivered along with a first cellphone. The photos of Townsend were taken in 2003, when only 61 percent of households had a personal computer, MySpace was brand new, and public Facebook was years away.
Many people learned for the first time about the pervasive damage done by internet posts of photos and videos during the lawsuit filed by former ESPN sportscaster and “Dancing With the Stars” co-host Erin Andrews. Although the circumstances were different – Andrews was unaware that she was being videotaped in a hotel room – the sense of violation and futility is the same.
“It’s always there. It’s always on my back,” Andrews emotionally told the court during the civil trial, after which the sympathetic jury awarded her $55 million in damages. When she first learned of the video, Andrews said, her thought was, “We’ve got to get it off. And we are never going to get it off.”
For her part, Townsend has sought help from Google, from online privacy groups and reporting sites, from an attorney specializing in cyberharassment, and from a district attorney’s office, all to no avail.
“I really don’t know what else I could have done,” she said.
For her own safety, Townsend, who lives and works in Erie County, has asked to be identified by the pseudonym she is using to write a book about her experiences, “Pictures of Her.” She said, “Someone is still doing this to me. I don’t want to attract more attention to this than there already is.”
How it started
At age 19, Townsend said, “I would have considered myself worldly. I had traveled to seven countries at that point and had seen firsthand what nude models had been doing since antiquity in places like Italy, France and Spain through the beauty of Renaissance art. ... I was worldly at that point, I just hadn’t been exposed to the artless defilement of women’s bodies in pornography.”
Shy and innocent but passionate about art, Townsend had grown up in a conservative family, where her parents changed the channel if characters kissed on a TV show. They insisted that she get a business degree, but her heart was in the fine arts.
At 18, she modeled for a sculptor who cast her body in bronze. “That was an artist,” she said. During a semester in Binghamton, Townsend was drawn to the fine arts building, where she posed for a figure drawing class, a “very good experience” during which she was treated with respect, she said. She was pleased to participate in the age-old collaboration between model and artist.
So when she spotted a notice on a bulletin board in the arts building seeking models for a university photo project, she called the photographer, who said his name was John. He told her he was photographing models whose pictures would be used in figure drawing classes.
John came to Townsend’s dorm suite with portfolio books. A “short and kind of round” white man in his mid-40s, he seemed ill at ease and “almost intimidated by me,” she said, but she dismissed any odd feeling. “I just assume everyone is nice and genuine,” said Townsend. He asked to talk in her bedroom, then spoke in hushed tones so, he said, her suitemates would not hear him.
John showed her his work, starting with landscapes and ending with tastefully posed nudes, both men and women. He told her, “You’d have to pose like this, and we could do what you do in your class.”
“I never thought to call the art department, and I didn’t have any friends there at school, so I didn’t think to mention it to anybody,” Townsend said. “I didn’t ask him where his studio was; I thought it was on campus or close by.”
The next day, he showed up at her dorm. He waited with the engine running, calling, “Come on, come on!” She said, “I didn’t know why he was rushing me, and there was no time to think at all.”
She figured they would drive to a nearby studio. Instead, without any explanation, he headed south.
He pulled into the driveway of his isolated house in Montrose, Pa. The first room in the small house was furnished as an office. But when she glanced at the walls, she got a shock: “His walls were wallpapered in pages from pornography magazines.” Townsend did not realize the implications. “I had never seen pornography in my whole life; that was the first time I saw it,” she said. “I didn’t understand it. Picture the reaction of a little girl.”
John asked her to go upstairs and undress. The attic room to which he directed her contained a bed with pink sheets. When John entered with his camera, she stood in the classic contrapposto stance of ancient sculpture, her weight on one foot.
As Townsend remembers, her eyes lose focus and she slips into the present tense. “He is telling me to look comfortable and relax. I am thinking that people are going to be drawing me from this. I’m standing there smiling. Then he puts the camera down, is putting his hands on me,” to pose her in a more revealing way.
After more photos, “he tells me that he wants to get some shots of me on the bed.” She said, “I was not thinking clearly. I think if I had had sex before, or had been exposed to a lot of pornography, I would have said no.” Instead, uneasy and frightened, she complied.
John was “dripping sweat,” she said. He put his hands on her body again, positioning her, telling her to “smile and look comfortable,” although she was overwhelmed by confusion and dread. Perhaps sensing that, John said, “We’re going to be out of here soon, just a few more pictures.”
Finally, she spoke up, saying that she had a lot of homework to do and she hadn’t realized that the studio was so far away.
Looking back, and grasping the fact that no one knew where she was or who she was with, she believes that her numb compliance helped her. “I absolutely feel that any resistance would have caused him to become combative,” she said. “I was at his mercy. I had no phone and I had no way out. I did whatever he said.”
John finally left the room.
As Townsend dressed, fear and anxiety began to flood her. Downstairs, he asked for her driver’s license. “I didn’t know why he needed my driver’s license, but I was definitely scared, and I didn’t want him to know that I was scared.” She handed it over and he made a copy of it. “He gave me a sheet of paper, said it was a standard release for me to sign. I didn’t even read it, I was just thinking, ‘Get me out of this house.’ ” She scrawled her signature on it.
In his vehicle, feeling sick, Townsend “scrunched up toward the door.” She refused the $50 he offered. By the time they arrived at the dorm, she was “terrified. I said goodbye really quickly and got out.”
Within a few days, he emailed her, asking her to pose again, “which indicated to me that he had no idea how uncomfortable I was,” she said. By this time, Townsend was angry. “Clearly he did not work for the art department, and he wasn’t doing anything artistic. I remember emailing him, ‘You lied about your intentions and I have no interest in posing for you ever again.’ I was so embarrassed,” she said. She deleted his emails and tried to forget what had happened.
Townsend said nothing to anyone about the incident, but she never again modeled for an art class “because I was so embarrassed and nervous.” However, “I didn’t realize I was traumatized,” she said. “I had a really hard time in school after that, but I did not realize why.”
‘Pain and sickness’
After completing her degree, she moved to New York City and began working in fashion. In 2005, she created a website for her business. One day, she decided to Google her name to see the website. She saw a few mentions of her name and company, then scrolled down and stopped.
“I said, ‘What is this?’ ”
It was her photos, and her name, on a porn website.
“I can’t describe the pain and the sickness in my stomach,” she said.
But she was sure that the photos could be quickly taken down. She emailed the webmaster, explaining the situation, and eventually the photos were removed from that site.
But the genie was out of the bottle. The photos began to pop up on other sites, some specializing in pictures of teens. “They just started multiplying,” she said.
With a few technological updates, almost the same tactics are being used today on young women, said attorney Carrie A. Goldberg. Goldberg, who is not Townsend’s attorney but specializes in internet privacy and sexual consent issues, said her Brooklyn office is seeing more cases involving the abusive use of signed agreements, cases they call “coerced porn.”
Usually, college-age women are hired for a modeling job, “only to later learn that the gig is for porn,” Goldberg said. “They are verbally assured that distribution will be to a ‘limited audience overseas.’ At the shoot, often in a location they’ve flown alone to, and surrounded by unfamiliar men, they may receive an agreement, but feel too pressured to read it carefully or afraid to question the terms or ask for a copy. Months later, the victims are on major porn sites online and receive harassing communications hundreds of times a day.”
Like Townsend, these young woman are misled or worse, taken alone into unfamiliar surroundings, and intimidated into signing a photo release.
Goldberg said a release signed under duress is legally invalid, but proving those circumstances is difficult. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which restricts the use of copyright images, “can only be used by the owner of the image,” which in Townsend’s case is the photographer. The idea that the unknown man owns the rights to images of her naked body infuriates Townsend.
Early on in her battle to get the photos removed, Townsend contacted a volunteer group called Working to Halt Online Abuse, one of the earliest such organizations. WHOA helped with some ideas, but the group’s letter to Google “got us nowhere,” Townsend said.
Finding the photos and asking to have them removed “was almost like a full-time job,” she said. As one site took them down, they sprang up on two more. “Whoever posted these could probably tell that I wanted them removed, which probably made them want to put them up even more,” she said.
Then the emails started arriving. The writers would ask her, “Is this a publicity stunt for your company?” Some offered to help get the photos taken down, others wanted to see more or recent photos. All were anonymous, creepy and intrusive.
Townsend called the art department at Binghamton to find out if other young women had been victimized by John. “They said no, not that we know of,” she said.
Believing that the man who took her pictures might have done the same or worse to other young women, she combed the lists of sex offenders for that area, but didn’t see him. Law enforcement officials in and near Montrose said they did not recognize the description of the man and had never had reports from anyone else of experiences similar to Townsend’s.
Townsend reported the situation to IC3.gov, the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center, which never replied. In 2009, the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office investigated emails she had received, but, she said, encountered “an impenetrable wall of anonymity” set up by people using the “dark web” to mask not only their identities but their physical locations.
“I really don’t know what else I could have done,” she said.
Goldberg would like Google and other search engines to ban images that were coerced, even if the person photographed was intimidated into giving consent, “so that a mistake (or crime) during one’s teens does not ruin their online reputation for the rest of their life and subject them to harassment by the bottom feeders of the internet.”
A law is pending in the Assembly that would make it a Class A misdemeanor to share images with others without the subject’s consent, even if the images were willingly shared with one person. If passed, this law would give victims “a new privacy claim against those who spread images without their consent,” said Goldberg.
The photographer is “obviously the first person to put them on the internet, because he’s the only one who had them,” Townsend said. She said she thinks about going to Montrose and trying to find him, or even writing the last chapter of her book in a diner there. “To be honest, I’m afraid to go there, but I wouldn’t go there alone. With a population of less than 2,000, I could very easily bump into him.” If she identifies him – something a private investigator has not been able to do – “I couldn’t prosecute him, but could maybe sue him.”
It is difficult for Townsend to imagine how different her life would be if she had never seen the poster looking for models. “My sense of identity and figuring out who I was was totally shattered and fractured, because who I was on the Internet was nothing like who I actually am,” she said. “I became very angry, socially withdrawn, limited in my professional career.”
The anger she has toward those who repost her photos and send her emails is leavened with some pity.
“In a way I feel almost sorry for them,” she said. “That’s how little of a life they have that they have to corrupt mine.”
Meanwhile, she works on her book, “Pictures of Her,” for which she has set up a website. On it she writes, “It’s not like being murdered in an instance or in a series of instances by a weapon or by physical force. It feels like being murdered little by little, every day for the rest of my life by a bunch of links to my teenage naked body on the internet.”
Telling her story, in her own words, is the sole thing that is helping her, said Townsend. “Writing it all down and organizing the overall experience is how I am dealing with it since no other avenues I’ve turned to were able to help me,” she said. “I decided I would take healing into my own hands and not expect someone to fix this for me.”