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I have an ex who has posted nude photos of me online in the past, linked to my online social media, and posted my full name and where I live. I am concerned he may do so again once he finds out I'm now in a PhD program (he's very jealous of any success I have), and may link to my school bio page, or worse.

Revenge porn is illegal in my state, and the case against him is currently pending. I have also gotten the photos taken down with a DMCA letter (I hold the copyright over the photos in question). At this point, I am concerned with how a future attempt could affect my career. I can handle the embarrassment now that I've been through it once, so if that's the biggest concern, I can deal. I just don't want to lose a career over it, given how small academia really is and how a reputation might follow one around.

My question is, if I don't change my name (I've considered this, assuming I can keep him from finding out) and my photos are circulated and discovered by faculty or students, how likely am I to be thrown out of my PhD program or later lose a job as an untenured prof? Is a name change worth it?

(If it makes any difference, they are essentially just topless portraits; I'm not engaged in any sexual activity or anything weird, and were taken 10 years ago when I was very young and foolish.)

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    Unfortunately, the right to be forgotten has not been applied in the US yet. (Possibly stupid) suggestion: contact Google to ask them apply this rule to you, since they already have the algorithm to handle it.
    – sean
    Commented Nov 14, 2016 at 19:14
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    @qsp Once you properly take it out of the passive voice, it sounds a lot less unfortunate that the Right To Force Others To Forget You hasn't found greater traction worldwide! Commented Nov 14, 2016 at 21:28
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    "how likely am I to be thrown out of my PhD program or later lose a job as an untenured prof?" - extremely unlikely - people with far more controversial pasts are not ejected from academia. Commented Nov 14, 2016 at 23:47
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    Your question reminds me of the Streisand Effect. I hope you are aware of it.
    – user64962
    Commented Nov 16, 2016 at 14:51
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    @Nelson In the US the photographer owns the copyright to pictures that they take, not the subjects. The subjects may have a right to privacy that could be used to prevent the distribution of the photo, but they don't own the copyright. A subject may also have personality rights (right of publicity) that could allow them to control the distribution of a photograph or dictate licensing terms, but again this is not copyright.
    – David
    Commented Jul 14, 2017 at 1:45

11 Answers 11

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I think you can generally trust faculty to be adults when it comes to graduate admissions and a tenure track job.

The biggest problem I would see is when you teach (future undergraduate) students. I'm not sure how you would want to deal with them.

I would say that university administrators tend to be adversity shy and could be a problem.

I would instead look to see if a lawyer might help you DMCA the sites hosting the images as well as file either a legal complaint or restraining order against you ex. This latter bit is best asked on Law Stack Exchange.

University registrars and faculty are used to students having to change their name due to a variety of circumstances. You should be able to get new transcripts and letters issued under your new name without issue. But the abuser can also link images to your new name unless you can prevent him or he loses interest; so a name change is not a foolproof solution.

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    Many of the students will have similar photos in existence from their younger, more foolish days. Commented Nov 11, 2016 at 4:46
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    I wouldn't worry about the students, unless you plan to become a very unpopular professor. One or two idiots might find it funny to show around any pictures, but i'm sure their fellow students will deal with them quite efficiently.
    – Karl
    Commented Nov 11, 2016 at 5:47
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    When you say the biggest problem would be students, do you mean the OP's peer PhD students, or the undergrads that the OP may eventually teach as a TA or professor? (I assume the latter, but it would be good to clarify.)
    – ff524
    Commented Nov 11, 2016 at 6:34
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    OP says they "can handle the embarrassment". I don't think students can pose other threats more significant than embarrassment. Commented Nov 11, 2016 at 8:27
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    @yo' I have honestly never understood the authority issue in the context of teaching, in Academia. There's no authority needed for any purpose: students may choose whether to attend or not, whether to be polite or not, whether to like you or not, whether to hand in the homeworks or not. The purpose of the teacher is by no means to discipline the students.
    – gented
    Commented Nov 12, 2016 at 22:07
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My question is, if I don't change my name (I've considered this, assuming I can keep him from finding out) and my photos are circulated and discovered by faculty or students, how likely am I to be thrown out of my PhD program or later lose a job as an untenured prof? Is a name change worth it?

On the main question, consider the answers and comments on your question as a sample of academic reaction to your situation. I see lots of sympathy, support, and attempts to think of ideas to help you. That is what I would expect from your department if your ex were to try anything while you are a PhD student or professor.

I don't think a name change would be effective in your situation. To continue your academic career you need to maintain some contact with your old life to get letters of recommendation, degree transcripts etc.

However, if you are going to do a name change it would be best done before you start writing papers. Even if you are willing to abandon all connections to your early papers, you will still be publicly part of a network of collaborators, and your ex might be able to guess your new name from co-authorship.

Your ex wants you to curl up and hide. Every day you spend living your own life, ignoring him, and succeeding at what you want to do is a victory for you and for everyone who thinks revenge porn is a contemptible betrayal of trust.

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    "On the main question, consider the answers and comments on your question as a sample of academic reaction to your situation. I see lots of sympathy, support, and attempts to think of ideas to help you." This has made me feel a lot better. I certainly hope it is not an issue in the future, but it helps to know that as long as I can hold my head high (and hopefully be a good, respected professor, so that students don't make a big deal of it), I should be fine.
    – P. Lombert
    Commented Nov 11, 2016 at 20:11
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    @P.Lombert Honestly, if someone gets creepish about it as a fellow coworker tell them it is unacceptable and deplorable behavior and if they continue to treat you in that manner that you will report them to human resources. There's a difference between people knowing about it and people harassing you about it, and the latter definitely shouldn't be allowed at your institution (I'd hope).
    – user64742
    Commented Nov 14, 2016 at 6:36
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How likely am I to be thrown out of my PhD program?

Zero likelihood. You will not be thrown out.

You would not be violating any rules or regulations; and while a few people might - unjustly - form a poor opinion of your character, well, lots of academics form poor opinions on the character of lots of PhD candidates - usually for more valid reasons. Others have elaborated on this point more, I'd say it's pretty obvious.

How likely am I to ... later lose a job as an untenured prof?

Extremely unlikely.

You can't be fired for this reason, as, again, you've not done anything that merits being fired. As an untenured member of faculty your employment does, however, often depend on good relations with administration or senior faculty, and that in turn - with very low probability, mind you may be impacted by your nude photos incident, if people start gossiping about it.

Unless your job is at a super-religious super-conservative school, I really don't see it happening, and even at such a school its likely the effect would be not to want to give you tenure / promote you / socialize with you - at the worst.

Is a name change worth it?

No, it won't help and it may have a negative effect.

First, it's pretty easy for him to find you out - since he knows what you're doing in life, academically and until this time, geographically. It will probably not even be much of an effort (unless you avoid all social networks, all publicly-visible jobs including teaching, and so on).

Second, if anything, changing your name signals you believe you have done something wrong, something you're ashamed of. And you have not done any such thing! The only wrong was for him to publish the photos, not for any of you to take them.

they ... were taken 10 years ago when I was very young and foolish.

You were certainly not foolish for taking them. It's extremely common, especially these days. I would venture to make a two-bit psychological assertion and say that you should not conflate being ashamed of being seen topless by strangers with shame for having been the victim of your boyfriend's revenge. I would say the first kind of shame is wholly unnecessary - but that's a question of personal morals; what's definitely true is that the person who needs to be ashamed for the photos having been published is just your a*****e boyfriend, not you!

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First, I'm sorry this happened and that you've had to learn to "get over the embarrassment", which you never should have had to do.

Second, I think you should consider just letting this go. You said the photos are already down, so I assume they aren't the top search that comes up when you google your name? And even if they are, that will fade over time.

The reality is that as long as they're "hidden" from casual searching, you've covered the vast majority of concerns. If someone is really going to dig into your past, the sort of digging that might turn up old deleted photos, they might just as well turn up your name change too. Especially since I imagine you'll need to link back to your old name for transcripts, if nothing else.

To address one comment I saw, I would absolutely not tell your department. This was a crime against you, and isn't anyone's business. If they find out about it on their own, I expect they'll treat it thusly. It shouldn't be an unpleasant surprise to them, because this isn't about you. The only ones who should be unpleasantly surprised to find this are your ex's future employers.

You can't control what others might do, but recognize that if they respond negatively to this sort of thing that it's an indictment against them, not you.

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I would be extremely surprised if any faculty or faculty member would look down on you for this, possibly unless their religion is involved, although for some topless portraits, I still think it would be unlikely. Even if some old fuddy-duddy did secretly harbour a negative view of it, they would not want to openly dwell on it. Revenge porn scandals are well known to all, and are disgusting to all, certainly of professional age, but the disgust is at the poster, not the victim.

I really think if you have legal proceedings, you say photos are down, it is best to try to leave it alone, it is hard to see any other action not making it more likely that photos will be more of an embarassment for you.

One suggestion if the ex was to do it again, and you feel he will continue, which is definitely wholly dependant on many factors that only you might be able to gauge, is, as silly as it sounds - tell his mum ( or family, whatever). legal proceedings are hard with stuff like this, but in a lot of family dynamics, family disapproval can be extremely powerful, especially around such a horrible crime. Dangerous game though, obviously.

Really though, nobody is going to be against you on this, the media is full of this stuff constantly, some topless pics are very tame compared (I'm really not trying to play down your embarrassment, it is a very horrible thing). And academia, more than some fields, is not where you generally find the type that might mock you for it, maybe in wolf of wallstreet type environments.

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    Funny enough, he was living with his parents when this happened. The state police went to his parents house when everyone was home and took the family computer to run the scans. His mother is a very conservative, religious woman. I can only imagine when she said/did to him.
    – P. Lombert
    Commented Nov 11, 2016 at 20:13
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    Well, that sounds great. This kind of act is the sort of thing that will hang over his head for the rest of his life, his family will never look at him in the same way, irrelevant of whether a conviction can ever be achieved. It's not the same as other wrong-doings like stealing etc, it is a real show of being a nasty person. And almost certainly, as it's known about, he wouldn't dare do it again, it would just be crazy. Commented Nov 11, 2016 at 21:07
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    Get on with your PhD, it's hard enough concentrating anyway. As everyone on here will know, it is really hard not to be distracted by stuff, especially this. Don't let him win, it's over. (I hope that's not patronising) Commented Nov 11, 2016 at 21:10
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For your PhD program, the university rules should be pretty clear about what is serious enough to be chucked out. Normally that needs something like a criminal conviction. So it seems unlikely that you'd have problems there.

Similarly as a professor/lecturer, you'd be an employee. At that point your employment contract will be relevant, and again you would need to be guilty of gross misconduct to be fired. It could be an issue if the pics surface during the hiring process though, because it's very hard to prove why you haven't been asked back for a second interview. Of course "at-will" employment is an issue, but most places would rather hold onto good people than train up someone unknown.

Thing is though, it's not like you're the first person this has happened to. There's a laundry list of Hollywood A-listers who've had naked pics of themselves broadcast without their permission, never mind all the regular Joes and Janes who've been double-crossed by their exes. And more intriguingly, the wife of the President-Elect of the USA once posed for a lesbian photoshoot for a well-known porn magazine, with pictures publicly available and not able to be taken down.

I've had a similar problem with my ex. In her case, she posted stuff to my company's Facebook page. My boss has enough class that his question was not "what are you up to?" but "please can you stop her doing this again?", because clearly it wasn't done with my consent! Luckily I didn't have to get the cops involved. And TBH, if the people you're working with are likely to be unprofessional about this, you really don't want to be working there anyway.

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    I must confess that I thought of Melania Trump when reading the question as well. Two comments: (i) the OP didn't choose to have her photos shared, so in my view her actions are not just not "serious enough to be chucked" out -- rather she has done nothing wrong. (ii) You characterize Trump as posing for "a lesbian photoshoot for a well-known porn magazine." That seems a bit much. Commented Nov 11, 2016 at 16:10
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    (ii) You characterize Trump as posing for "a lesbian photoshoot for a well-known porn magazine." That's simple fact. That's what the photoshoot was, and it was a soft-porn magazine. Exactly who touched what where, we'll never know, but that's what the photoshoot was purporting to show.
    – Graham
    Commented Nov 14, 2016 at 15:35
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    This is not very relevant to the site or the question, but the magazine in question would, when translated into American periodicals, lie somewhere between Maxim and Playboy. The phrase "porn magazine" seems to connote magazines which primarily specialize in nudity and/or sexual content, so seems to give the wrong idea. "Exactly who touched what where, we'll never know, but that's what the photoshoot was purporting to show." Again I think you're stretching to make this sound more extreme than it actually is, but since I for one don't care "who touched what where," I'll let it drop. Commented Nov 14, 2016 at 15:44
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Frankly, we live in a time where no "misdeed" ever can be assumed to stay hidden forever; you can assume that there is simply a photograph of anything you do in your life; you can assume that anyone will be able to plant cameras or take drone photographs at any location and time, at a level that was previously only accessible to top specialists of the secret arts.

As therefore unsavoury exposures become increasingly more common, my estimate is that minor slips will therefore, in future, be of diminishing importance and offer less potential of threat.

My experience is that with the more boldness, chutzpah and/or indifference you would treat any confrontation of that kind, it sends a message that you are not influenced by that and that it's not an effective way for anyone to exert power over you. This is not a guarantee that it won't have an effect on a hiring committee, but, frankly, a hiring committee that is more worried about youthful misdeeds (if these should indeed be considered misdeeds) rather than the professional quality of a candidate is not worth its salt - and, as for students, you can remind them that you were one of them, once, too.

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If this happened with one of my graduate students, I wouldn't care about the photos. I would care that someone with a personal grudge was harassing my research assistant, and I'd consider what might be done to see that the harassment stops. I think this view is shared by quite a few people in academia. We are concerned with the your contributions to research and teaching, and your personal life isn't our business for the most part.

However, indiscretions as minor as those you describe can and have damaged people's careers. So I think it is prudent to take reasonable steps to limit how these photos are connected with you. I would tread carefully with regard to acknowledging them at all, unless you know beyond any doubt that they are genuine unaltered photos and you are compelled to address them.

How you approach the issue has a lot of influence on how others will handle it. If you can manage to take it in stride and not let it affect your activities at the university, that will probably be noted and appreciated. I think this is much less of an issue in a graduate program and in college teaching situations where we are all, ostensibly, adults. Unfortunately, all it takes is an administrator or person in a position of sufficient authority with the wrong attitude to make this difficult for you.

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  • Most likely it will never come up in the first place, unless the ex re-posts them somehow. I wouldn't mention them unless someone raises the issue first. Commented Nov 14, 2016 at 22:37
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Good for you for defending yourself and being in a PhD program. I wish you great success.

I agree with the other posters that topless photos are unlikely to hurt your career, although I would add that you may have problems if you're at a religious institution. For example, topless photos could get you expelled from Liberty University, a Christian college run by Jerry Falwell's son. A professor was fired from Wheaton College after wearing a hijab in solidarity with Muslims, although the school claims it was for her views on Islam. According to this article, professors at religious colleges "have been fired or forced to resign for coming out as transgender, for getting pregnant outside marriage, or for getting divorced".

On the positive side, there might be sympathy for you as the victim of a crime from some religious colleges. Brigham Young University recently announced an amnesty policy for sexually assaulted students, who "will no longer face the possibility of punishment for honor code violations, such as drinking or extramarital sex."

To summarize, if you're at a secular university, you should be okay. (I assume you would have said so if you were at a religious university; correct me if I'm wrong.) You should think twice before becoming a faculty member at a university with religious requirements, although these vastly vary by denomination and geography.

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Apparently, you were good on these photos. So, in private talks, do whatever you wish, but in PhD matters, it's none of their business. Nobody will ever dare say a word if you do proper research. If asked, you can be witty or not, depending on your skills ("Ha-ha, you were not that good 10 years ago!"), but do change the topic immediately ("Could we speak about the zeta-function?").

Other than that, try to pay as little attention as possible to these matters; they will only take your time and make you procrastinate.

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If you were to go and work in a situation where security is concerned, this may effect your suitability for the position. This is not about the fact that you let the photos be taken or the content of the photos, it is about the fact the photos exist and that you wish to keep them private.

There is some risk that someone may pursued you to do things against the interest of security in exchange for them doing/not doing something with the photos. Depending on how high the security is for the position you wish to hold if this will effect you. In terms of academia, this will most likely effect what projects you can work on e.g. you will be unlikely able to get national security clearance so any law enforcement projects would be unlikely for you to work on.

ps although this is like @DVK's answer the reason behind the answer is different.

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    I downvoted this answer because I do not believe that anyone would be denied a security clearance because nude photos of them exist.
    – Tom Church
    Commented Nov 17, 2016 at 2:35
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    please look at news.clearancejobs.com/2010/02/16/… both "sexual behavior that causes an individual to be vulnerable to coercion, exploitation, or duress;" and "sexual behavior of a public nature and/or that which reflects lack of discretion or judgment." would be classed here and these are both "Conditions that could raise a security concern and may be disqualifying" Commented Nov 17, 2016 at 10:44
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    From your link: "Of approx 1160 cases ... in 2009 only 36 cited “Sexual Behavior” as a security/suitability issue. Almost all of these 36 cases involved criminal conduct, and about half involved criminal convictions for sexual offenses. Involvement with prostitutes was cited in 4 cases, 5 cases cited possession of child pornography, and 15 cases cited sexual acts with children. The remaining cases involved voyeurism, exhibitionism, and compulsive, self-destructive viewing of pornography."
    – Tom Church
    Commented Nov 17, 2016 at 21:44
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    and "Most sexual misconduct is either not a potentially disqualifying condition for a security clearance or can be fully mitigated by “passage of time without recurrence” and the absence of any susceptibility to blackmail or coercion."
    – Tom Church
    Commented Nov 17, 2016 at 21:44

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