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When “Receipts” Look More Like Revenge Porn

The reality TV couple are known for airing their dirty laundry, but now that habit has taken a disturbing turn

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

When Rob Kardashian and Blac Chyna got together, the union was satisfyingly scandalous, a social media soap opera. The romance appeared driven by spite as much as ardor, as the aspiring rapper Tyga had previously spurned Chyna for Kardashian’s half-sister, Kylie Jenner. Keeping Up With the Kardashians and the sour, short-lived Rob & Chyna documented an unhappy union, but while they are no longer an item, Rob and Chyna took photos at Disneyland last week with their baby daughter, Dream, suggesting amicable co-parenting. On Wednesday, however, Kardashian published a series of Instagram and Twitter posts featuring explicit, nude photographs of his ex, and accusing her of infidelity and drug use. After Kardashian lashed out, Chyna used Snapchat to accuse him of assaulting her. Their relationship has always been volatile, but this latest incident is a leap toward unprecedented darkness.

The relationship is now too unsettling to be entertaining. Even if Kardashian had limited his posts to written accusations, the campaign to publicly humiliate the mother of his child would still be startlingly tawdry. But broadcasting nude photos is another level of malice. By posting Chyna’s nude photographs without her permission, Kardashian could be accused of distributing revenge porn. TMZ is arguing that posting the photos does not violate California’s revenge-porn law — which stipulates that a person must suffer from emotional distress from the circulation of explicit photographs without their consent — because Chyna “liked” them. This is a shallow interpretation of what an Instagram like signifies. Just because Chyna chose to “like” the photos does not mean she approves. Whatever she intended by liking the photos, the act does not render her incapable of feeling distressed by Kardashian’s behavior. Anyway, it’s not clear if Chyna will file criminal charges, but she has a compelling argument should she choose to do so. Given the high profile of her ex’s family, the images he posted on social media were set up to go viral, to maximize the damage.

Many reasonable observers would say that Rob Kardashian now is the most famous revenge porn disseminator. And revenge porn is not a receipt. Instead of providing evidence that Rob is correct, publishing these photos proves that he wanted to violate Chyna’s privacy as a means to hurt her. They are telling on someone, just not who Rob thinks. The lone male Kardashian sibling has made it a habit to lash out on social media in the past, even tweeting Kylie’s personal phone number as a way to punish her. That action demonstrated Rob’s willingness to expose someone’s personal information to the public as a form of retribution, and now he has escalated. Publishing private, sexually explicit photos without the subject’s permission is a crime, and should be investigated as such.

Rob and Chyna are seasoned reality stars. They have played their relationship for ratings, and they have likely exaggerated tensions to appeal to an audience. Wondering whether conflict is real or manufactured is completely reasonable when dealing with anyone who has an E! contract or Ryan Seacrest’s phone number. And yet the graphic details in this most recent spat are so gritty that it is difficult to imagine that Chyna wanted those photos published in this context, framed with disparaging remarks about her body. In this specific scenario, the cruelty exceeds cable-drama stakes and tips into what appears to be criminality.

The Kardashians have a history of aggressive behavior and public feuding on the internet, sometimes with each other. As I mentioned before, Rob tweeted Kylie’s phone number as revenge, after she did not invite Chyna to a party. Chyna, for her part, tweeted out Rob’s phone number as a way to compel him to change it and make it more difficult for him to text other women. They tend to save their harshest responses for perceived enemies, though. Last summer, for example, after Taylor Swift insisted that Kanye West had not asked her permission to sing about her, Kim Kardashian West posted a video on Snapchat of a phone call between Kanye West and Taylor Swift which seemed to affirm Kanye’s side of the story. Kardashian West had produced “receipts” — that is, evidence. The Kim vs. Taylor beef efficiently punctured Swift’s go-to media narrative as a perpetually wide-eyed ingenue. While surreptitiously recording a phone conversation was a little underhanded, it was easy to root for Kim because it seemed like she was exposing a lie. But it was also far more restrained than the normal Kardashian clash. When the then-teenaged actress Chloë Grace Moretz sided with Taylor Swift, Khloe Kardashian tweeted a sexually explicit image of a woman who looked like Moretz in an attempt to humiliate her. Khloe made a half-hearted apology, but her decision to post what appeared to be the private parts of a literal teenager indicated a willingness to cross the line from posting a bitchy comeback to invading someone’s privacy. Internet ruthlessness is part of the Kardashian playbook, but Rob’s posts are a jarring escalation of this ethos.

It has been dispiriting to observe how some media outlets, like the Instagram tabloid The Shade Room, respond to this incident as a trashy-but-fun scandal instead of a serious privacy violation. The Shade Room slapped cutesy cupcake emoji over Chyna’s genitals and casually disseminated barely-censored revenge porn to its 9.7 million followers. It’s also notable and disappointing that Twitter allowed the explicit images of Chyna to remain visible for 30 minutes before pulling them. Instagram suspended Kardashian’s account for repeatedly posting the photos of Chyna; for violating the terms of service so flagrantly, he should be permanently banned.