They Used to Call It Blackmail

by | June 26, 2020 | General | 6 comments

Two things that popped up in my emails recently have reminded me that “revenge porn” can still be used to harm women. Someone with an obviously fake feminine name said she had found my “self-pleasuring video” and would send it to all my friends, relatives, and coworkers if I didn’t pay her off in bitcoins.

I would really like to see my “self-pleasuring video.” I was tempted to ask whatshername (Elise? Amanda? I really can’t remember) to send it to me. If I were to make a hot video of myself masturbating, I would try to avoid showing the cellulite on my aging thighs, and that might be hard to do. It might even require a level of skill in using Photoshop that I never acquired.

I’ve definitely written about masturbation, and I’m obviously not ashamed of those stories. I’ve even been paid for them. I’ve never tried to keep my stories out of the hands of willing readers.

I deleted the email, and hoped never to hear from the sender again.

Then I saw the latest issue of “Medium,” an on-line collection of essays (or e-zine) that I subscribe to. One of the articles was about a woman’s discovery that her ex-husband had posted sexy videos of her on a porn site, from where they were available for download for about three days until the woman found them and was able to force their removal. However, she was unable to get this stuff completely off the internet, let alone out of the private stash of individual porn collectors.

The article was a grim warning about the limits of the law and the potentially eternal, ubiquitous nature of anything that has ever been posted on-line. (Actually, “revenge porn” sounds amazingly close to the kind of curse that witches were accused of casting, circa 1480-1700.)

The unwilling porn star was writing under a pen name, and said it has not been safe for her to appear in public or to use her real name anywhere since her ex decided to trash her reputation beyond repair. She explained that some of the videos show her naked body, and some show her being pleasured — presumably by her husband at the time. So why would the widespread display of this material harm her immensely, and not harm him at all?

Apparently this is the kind of thing that predators like my surprise correspondent hope women will do anything to prevent. “Revenge porn” is assumed to be a kind of assault that can cause more lasting damage than a physical violation.

I remember the heady atmosphere of the 1960s, when the guys I dated all told me that a “Sexual Revolution” was happening, or had already happened (they were usually vague about the timing), and therefore I had no reason to worry about a bad reputation or an unwanted pregnancy. One of their slogans was “We’re in this together,” and they encouraged me to trust them.

Remembering my youth, I’m so glad I never starred in a sexually-explicit film or photo. The only person who ever invited me to do this was my pimp in the 1980s, when computers were just beginning to pop up in local offices and cafes. Even though the man was in the sex biz, he didn’t pressure me at all. He asked if I would be interested, and I said no because I was working on a Master’s degree, and I was afraid this kind of evidence could turn up to damage my future academic career. He graciously accepted my refusal because he wasn’t planning to make films himself; he only wondered if I wanted him to introduce me to someone who did.

It seems I dodged a bullet.

“Blackmail,” as it was called in past centuries, was often associated with sex. Either the sex was the payoff to prevent someone from exposing a secret or a crime, or the sex was the secret that could be used as leverage to pressure someone into spying for a foreign government or embezzling funds or any other thing they didn’t want to do.

Victoria Woodhull, a colourful character who ran for President of the United States before women had the right to vote, apparently encouraged single women to respond to sexual harassment by married men by demanding money in exchange for not exposing the lechers to their wives and associates. The implication was that men, like women, could lose friends, families, careers and fortunes if they were known (or even believed) to have behaved badly.

The word “mail” originally referred to a bag that could carry correspondence or money, and it came to be attached to the renting of farmland. “Whitemail” was rent paid openly in money, or silver coins, and “blackmail” was “rent” paid in livestock (e.g. Black Angus cattle), usually to cattle rustlers who would otherwise take even more than the tenant was willing to give. So “blackmail” came to mean something like “payment for protection,” and seems to have a surprisingly non-racist genesis.

“Blackmail” is no longer a legal term. It has been replaced by “extortion.” What surprises me more than the change in definition is that anyone can still be persuaded to cooperate with an extortionist, and also that consensual sex and even nudity can be used as weapons.

Who would trash a woman who 1) has a naked body under her clothes, and 2) used to enjoy sex with her husband? Whatever happened to the Sexual Revolution? And who first defined nonconsensual porn as a form of “revenge?” Are hordes of Christian men still furious with women for being “daughters of Eve,” who supposedly persuaded Adam to join her in eating forbidden fruit?

It all seems as repulsively retro as the slave trade. But that is a whole other topic.

Jean Roberta

Jean Roberta once promised her parents not to use their unusual family name for her queer and erotic writing, and thus was born her thin-disguise pen name. She teaches English and Creative Writing in a university on the Canadian prairies, where the vastness of land and sky encourage daydreaming. Jean immigrated to Canada from the United States as a teenager with her family. In her last year of high school, she won a major award in a national student writing contest. In 1988, a one-woman publisher in Montreal published a book of Jean’s lesbian stories, Secrets of the Invisible World. When the publisher went out of business, the book went out of print. In the same year, Jean attended the Third International Feminist Book Fair in Montreal, where she read a call-for-submissions for erotic lesbian stories. She wrote three, sent them off, and got a letter saying that all three were accepted. Then the publisher went out of business. In 1998, Jean and her partner acquired their first computer. Jean looked for writers’ groups and found the Erotic Readers & Writers Association, which was then two years old! She began writing erotica in every flavor she could think of (f/f, m/f, m/m, f/f/m, etc) and in various genres (realistic contemporary, fantasy, historical). Her stories have appeared in anthology series such as Best Lesbian Erotica (2000, 2001, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, Volume 1 in new series, 2016), Best Lesbian Romance (2014), and Best Women's Erotica (2000, 2003, 2005, 2006) from Cleis Press, as well as many others. Her single-author books include Obsession (Renaissance, Sizzler Editions), an erotic story collection, The Princess and the Outlaw: Tales of the Torrid Past (Lethe Press), and The Flight of the Black Swan: A Bawdy Novella (Lethe, also in audio). Fantasy stories by Jean include “Lunacy” in Journey to the Center of Desire (erotic stories based on the work of Jules Verne) from Circlet Press 2017, “Green Spectacles and Rosy Cheeks” (steampunk erotica) in Valves & Vixens 3 (House of Erotica, UK, 2016), and “Under the Sign of the Dragon” (story about the conception of King Arthur) in Nights of the Round Table: Arthurian Erotica (Circlet 2015). This story is now available from eXcessica ( Her horror story, “Roots,” first published in Monsters from Torquere Press, is now in the Treasure Gallery of the Erotic Readers and Writers Association. With Lethe Press publisher Steve Berman, she coedited Heiresses of Russ 2015 (Lethe), an annual anthology of the year’s best lesbian speculative fiction. Her realistic erotic novel, Prairie Gothic: A Tale of the Old Millennium, was published by Lethe in September 2021. Jean has written many reviews and blog posts. Her former columns include “Sex Is All Metaphors” (based on a line in a poem by Dylan Thomas) for the Erotic Readers and Writers Association, July 2008-November 2010. The 25 column pieces can still be found in the on-site archives and in an e-book from Coming Together, Jean married her long-term partner, Mirtha Rivera, on October 30, 2010. Links:


  1. Lisabet Sarai

    Excellent article, Jean. I had no idea about the origin of the term “blackmail”. (Has this been dropped in favor of “extortion” because of the supposedly racist echoes? Guess I am behind the times…)

    People are not rational when it comes to sex. In fact I could imagine a woman losing her job and certainly losing reputation if sex videos in which she’s a participant showed up on the Internet, regardless of how they got there. This is particularly true of someone who works as a teacher or in some other profession that supposedly requires sterling “morality”. The fact that this situation has nothing to do with morality at all makes no difference.


    • Jean Roberta

      Thanks for commenting, Lisabet. A female Canadian politician resigned her job after nude photos of her appeared on-line. At the time, I wished she had stood her ground, but I don’t know how much pressure she was under to resign. I doubt whether a male politician would have been expected to do the same thing in the same situation. The persistent double standard is crazy-making.

  2. Rose B. Thorny

    “And who first defined nonconsensual porn as a form of “revenge?” Are hordes of Christian men still furious with women for being “daughters of Eve,” who supposedly persuaded Adam to join her in eating forbidden fruit?”

    I suppose “revenge porn” is the so-called Christian men’s equivalent of stoning, or “honour killing,” which is acceptable revenge (they call it punishment, but let’s get real, eh?) in other belief systems. (I’m an atheist, so I have no horse in the religious dogma race. My horse enjoys grazing, galloping around free, and kicking up its heels, with no one telling it it’s sinful or needs to be saved or “if you don’t do x you’ll be punished.) In any case, anyone who would do the revenge porn (blackmail/extortion) thing, is someone with a seriously pathetic case of the toddler’s “I’ll get evens.”

    No one with an iota of self-possession and/or integrity would resort to the “get evens.” Revenge fantasies, in matters of “feeling hurt,” are normal — who hasn’t fantasized himself/herself smacking someone, who has pissed them off, upside the head?), but acting on them is both immature and irrational. A self-possessed, rational person, who has been dumped, steps back and chooses to disengage. Not disengaging is tantamount to continuing to handle poison ivy once you realize it’s poison ivy. In other words, if you take the high road, you’re much more likely to retain your dignity, integrity, and, if it counts to you, the admiration of those whose respect you may wish to keep or earn. (And really, I’ve never, ever been able to figure out why, when someone is dumped, they wish to have anything more, at all, to do with the person who dumped them. What’s the point? How do you become a better person by choosing to turn your personal evolutionary clock backwards? To me, it makes much more sense to take the experience, feel the emotions, mull them over, dwell in them for a while, do some — of lots of — introspection, accept that you can’t make someone care for you if they don’t, or if they’ve stopped caring, and then evolve. Get on with your life, because madly spinning your wheels in the mud is pointless and will eventually blow your tires and you won’t be any further ahead than when you started spinning them.)

    Both men and women can be (and are) equally capable of behaving vengefully, i.e. immaturely and irrationally. In matters of break-ups, “revenge porn” being used as a threat against a woman is, in my opinion, the equivalent of “child abuse” as a threat against a man.

    People who spend any time plotting *and* taking real revenge on a former love (and I use the term “love” loosely), obviously have way too much time on their hands.

    Walking away and living well (i.e. enjoying your life and being happy with what you have, instead of dwelling on what you may have lost, or don’t have) are the best “revenge.”

    Imagine how different the world would be, if the combined energy of all those petty vengeful activities were, instead, used to lend a helping hand to those who need it, and/or in simply getting on with living, minding one’s own business, and not bothering others.

    Rose 😉

  3. Donna George Storey

    Very interesting indeed about the origin of “blackmail.” From my copious historical research, misogyny has been described as the policing arm of the patriarchy. And how better to police than to make pretty much everything about being a woman “shameful”? I agree heartily that the person who posts intimate photos and videos without the subject’s permission is the party to be shamed and despised! I regularly receive mistake-ridden emails from people threatening to send my relatives and friends videos they’ve recorded of me self-pleasuring at porn sites (and they always mention my tastes are “interesting”). I have never self-pleasured to porn in front of my computer–perhaps the only human on the planet who hasn’t–nor do I even have a camera on my monitor. So it’s certainly spam. But also a reminder of how sex-phobic and hypocritical our society still is!

    • Jean Roberta

      Heh. Donna, it’s probably an advantage to belong to a generation that came of age before everyone had a computer. It never occurred to me to self-pleasure in front of a computer either–possibly because I still find erotic writing sexier than videos. It amazes me that “pretty much everything about being a woman” can still be considered shameful and can be used for all sorts of harmful purposes. I really hope that laws against sexual spammers and former lovers/spouses who post “revenge porn” can be tightened. But of course, tighter laws wouldn’t be necessary if no one paid attention to this stuff, except to laugh.

  4. Jean Roberta

    I tried posting a response, but it disappeared. I’ll try again tomorrow.

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