Can leaked nude pictures damage one's academic career?


    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.)

    • RoboKaren

      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 are (future undergraduate) students. I’m not sure how you would want to deal with them.

      And administrators are also notably adversity shy.

      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.

    • Topher Brink

      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.

    • Leon Meier

      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.

    • Patricia Shanahan

      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.

    • espertus

      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.

    • dionys

      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.

    • einpoklum

      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 2-bit-psychology assertion and say that you should not conflate your being ashamed of being seen topless by strangers with shame for having been the victim of your boyfriend’s revenge. I wouldn’t say even the first kind of shame is appropriate – 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!

    • DVK

      I will write a partially dissenting opinion.

      While I agree that all in all, this wouldn’t greatly damage your career, it may do so in one specific field – if you’re dealing with computer security.

      It wouldn’t ruin the career, but the fact that you exhibited such an obvious security carelessness (allowing someone else to have naked photos of you) will cause some people to question your professional judgement in your own field. In other words, your sin wouldn’t be the existence of naked pictures, it’s being demonstrably not security conscious.

      Just to be clear, I am not saying they would be right – your career would be in academic research and not as actual practicing security expert where such lack of judgement is actually meaningful. But I would expect that there IS a risk for some people to be that judgmental either way.

    • ben horseradish

      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.

    • Graham

      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.

    • Jeff L.

      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.

    • Captain Emacs

      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.