Throughout August, The Texas Tribune will feature 31 ways Texans' lives will change because of new laws that take effect Sept. 1. Check out our story calendar for more.

When naked photos of Hollie Toups were posted on a website three years ago without her permission, the Nederland resident vowed to prevent the same thing from happening to other women.

Toups was a victim of "revenge porn" — a term used to describe sexually explicit images of individuals posted online without their consent. In the dark corners of the internet, revenge porn has proliferated, victims' rights advocates say. And it has been difficult for victims to fight back because many states did not have laws criminalizing its distribution.

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But thanks in large part to the work of Toups and other advocates, that will change in Texas on Sept. 1, when a new state law makes it a class A misdemeanor to publicly post intimate photos of a partner that were sent with the understanding they remain private. A conviction could bring a fine of up to $4,000 and a sentence of up to one year in jail. Under the law, the person who shares the photos and whoever hosts the website they're posted on can be prosecuted.

"I wanted to make something out of it and didn't want to lay down and suffer and continue to be a victim," Toups said of her efforts. She has become a victims' rights advocate and helped push for Senate Bill 1135, which was signed by Gov. Greg Abbott in June. "It was really amazing to know that I helped to craft something that was going to help other women."

The legislation, authored by state Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, passed the Legislature with overwhelming support.

"This bill gets at a very disturbing internet trend," Garcia said at a hearing in April.

In 2012, Toups learned from a friend that naked photos of her were on a website where men posted personal images and information about their ex-girlfriends without permission.

Shocked, Toups rushed home from work to look at the website and found eight topless photos of her along with links to her social media pages and home address. Dozens of other women were also shown.

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"I was kind of numb at first and when I scrolled to the bottom it showed how many people had viewed it," Toups said. "I saw that it was thousands and with all these comments. They were saying horrible things. That's when I got scared and I felt humiliated, knowing that as I was looking, so were thousands of other people."

In 2013, 17 women joined Toups in a class-action lawsuit against the website, which is still pending. A judge ordered that the website be taken down while the case is ongoing.

Victims of revenge porn have been the driving force for getting laws passed across the nation because they pressure state lawmakers to take action, said Annmarie Chiarini, the victim services director for the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, a national nonprofit that has offered resources to more than 3,000 other revenge porn victims since 2013. Those resources include pro bono legal counsel and guidance on removing unwanted posts.

Chiarini said the next step on her organization's agenda is to pursue federal legislation. The Cyber Civil Rights Initiative wants a sweeping federal law that would protect women whose states don't already address revenge porn.

Matt Simpson, policy strategist for the ACLU of Texas, testified as a witness for the Texas bill at a March legislative hearing.  He argued that the bill's language needed to be narrowly written so as to not create unintended victims. If the law doesn't make it clear that the images are shared with the intent of harassment and lack of consent, then there's a chance that an art display including explicit images could be criminalized, said Simpson, who backed the final legislation.

"Everyone involved agreed to the fundamental problem of ex-partners shaming people online, which is a goal we can make policy to try to address," Simpson said. "I'm hopeful that now we have something on the books we can continue to refine and target the bad actors."

Toups said she's resigned herself to the fact that she'll probably never know how those photos of her got online. But she said it brought her an opportunity to stand up for herself and others.

"It comes to a point where you let them win, or you just have to move on and reroute your life," she said.

 
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