Holly Jacobs' nightmare began in 2009. That's when naked photos of the Florida International University PhD student first popped up online. They soon went viral, appearing on hundreds of so-called revenge porn sites along with her name, phone number, and email address. Photos and videos were even sent to her bosses.
After futilely battling for four and a half years to remove them, Jacobs is now coming out of the shadows. She's sued her ex-boyfriend and several sites and created her own advocacy page — endrevengeporn.com — to lobby Florida lawmakers. Bills to enact tougher penalties for revenge porn failed in Tallahassee this year, but Jacobs says her fight will continue.
"Somebody is trying to ruin your life, maybe even drive you to suicide by posting these images," she tells Riptide. "I wish [politicians] would take this issue seriously."
Jacobs, then named Holli Thometz, met Ryan Seay at Hillsborough High School in Tampa. They began going out in 2005 after Jacobs returned from college. When Jacobs moved to Miami for graduate school, they dated long-distance.
"We shared photos to keep the intimacy alive," Jacobs explains. "I completely trusted him." When the couple split in 2008, it was a "normal breakup," Jacobs remembers.
But on New Year's Day 2009, a friend called to say Jacobs' Facebook account had been hacked. "You need to get on Facebook right away," the friend said. "Somebody has changed your profile pic to a nude photo of you." When Jacobs called Seay, he denied involvement, even saying he had been a victim of the same prank. "He was the only one with those photos," Jacobs says. "I think he was pretending to go through the same thing so we would reconnect again on some level."
(Contacted by Riptide, Seay said, "I would love to talk about it, but my lawyer has given me a gag order. I'm paying him a lot of money, so I should probably listen to him.")
Jacobs' life became a nightmare as Seay allegedly posted photos and a video, which spread like wildfire. Her university bosses were sent emails with the photos and a video of Jacobs titled "Masturbation 201 by Professor Holli Thometz." Jacobs even had to cancel a conference presentation when Seay allegedly encouraged internet trolls to show up and proposition her. "Everything just started snowballing," she says. When she began dating someone new, she received email threats.
Ultimately, Jacobs gave up battling websites to take down the photos, only for them to pop back up a week later. "That was what Ryan wanted me to be doing," she says, "spending all my life [fighting websites] instead of being successful, getting my PhD, and putting my energy into a healthy relationship.
"So I just kind of let the search results go," she says. She also changed her name. The fight to save her reputation, however, had made her realize that she was one of thousands of American women victimized by vengeful boyfriends with sex photos.
Jacobs says she contacted Miami and Miami-Dade police but was told that because she was over 18 and Seay hadn't technically stolen the photos, there was nothing they could do. That's because there is currently no law in Florida banning revenge porn.
Jacobs wants to change that. A House bill in this year's session would have criminalized posting a photo along with personal information, but it died when Panhandle Rep. Matt Gaetz proposed three amendments designed to neuter the bill. ("I can't read those amendments in any other way than a serious sign of his contempt for the issue and for its victims," says University of Miami law professor Mary Anne Franks.) A Senate version of the bill also stalled.
"I am very saddened to see that Florida lost its chance to be the pioneer in legislating against revenge porn at a time that it is so rampant in our nation," Jacobs says.
Nonetheless, Jacobs is now using her website — which both comforts other revenge porn victims and challenges apologists to consider how they'd feel with their own nude photos all over the web — to urge concerned residents to contact legislators and sign a petition. Otherwise, Florida could soon see its own version of Amanda Todd, a 15-year-old Canadian girl who killed herself in October after becoming the target of revenge porn trolls, Jacobs warns.
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"Revenge porn destroys women's lives," she says. "It's called 'revenge porn,' but it is really cyber rape. It's just another way of exploiting women."
Her lawsuit, which she filed April 18 against Seay and various sites, will take time to resolve, says her lawyer, Patrick J. McGeehan, although he adds that the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office recently launched a criminal investigation into Seay for cyber stalking.
But Jacobs wants justice sooner than that. For a start, she'd like Florida politicians to pass real legislation next year to help victims.
"I'm trying to do what I can," she says of going public with her ordeal. "Now they just need to make the changes and pass the bill already."