A Long, Slow Revenge

Chrissy Chambers will never forget 11 June 2013. She was in Las Vegas recording her first album with her girlfriend, Bria Kam. The YouTube channel they ran together was taking off – a video they had posted the day before, titled 10 Worst Ways to Come Out, had already been viewed half a million times – and less than a year after they had uploaded their first video, they were among the most popular lesbian content creators on YouTube. Chambers was standing in the lobby of the Monte Carlo hotel, checking her email, when she opened one that made her sink down to the floor.

A friend and fellow YouTuber had got in touch to say she had received a message from someone she didn’t know. “I noticed that you are friends with Bria and Chrissy,” the stranger had written. “Did you know that Chrissy has a porno on RedTube? I thought you should know because your videos are too good to be friends with a trashy cunt like Chrissy Chambers. Just Google ‘Chrissy Chambers porn’.”

Chambers Googled herself. A link came up: “Me fucking my ex Chrissy Chambers”. She clicked on it and pressed play. There was her naked body, her long dark hair, her slim limbs splayed. A man was having rough sex with her while she lay back, still and impassive, her eyes shut. People had left comments underneath the video. “No offence,” one read, “but your girl looks kind of dead.”

Chambers had no memory of the video being made. But she recognised herself, and her old apartment in Atlanta, and the night as the last one she ever spent with her British ex-boyfriend, in September 2009. His face was never in shot.

“It was like getting hit by a train,” she told me. “My world fell out from under me.”

They had met online. She was living in Atlanta, having moved from Clinton, Mississippi to pursue a career in acting five days after her 18th birthday. He was 24, six-and-a-half years older than her, and “at least a chapter-and-a-half ahead in life”, she said. “I was swept off my feet. He was my first love, and I had no other relationship to compare it with. I thought he was strong and smart and capable and protective.”

But she soon discovered he was jealous, controlling and obsessive. She says he would forbid her from going to auditions if the role involved dating another character. He hacked into her email and angrily confronted her when he saw work-related messages from male colleagues in her inbox. He followed her to a photo shoot and made a scene when he discovered she would be posing with another man.

They had been dating for eight months when he moved in. A month later, his controlling behaviour became too much, and Chambers suggested that they needed a break. She didn’t think it would be for ever; she imagined he would go back to the UK for a while, cool off and get some perspective, and then they would get back together when they were both ready. He took it very badly, she told me, but then suggested that they have one final night together. It turned out to be a night of heavy drinking. “I’d never been drunk before – I’d never really even drunk alcohol – and I got blackout drunk on the alcohol he’d given me,” she said. “I woke up the next day, and he told me he loved me, tearfully, and he went back to the UK. And that was that.”

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They never did get back together. He found the breakup much harder than she did, and she was moving on. Two years later, Chambers realised she was attracted to women and started her relationship with Kam. She emailed her ex and told him she was with Kam, and that she was happy. A month or so later, in December 2011, he uploaded the first of several videos of Chambers, all shot that same drunken night, to the free porn site RedTube, with titles that included Chambers’ full name. Oblivious to this, she dropped him a line to wish him happy Christmas. Same to you, he replied, and then uploaded a few more.

“He must have taken out a camera and filmed himself having sex with me, without my knowledge, and never told me about it. He kept all those videos to himself, for years. And then tried to ruin my life with them.”

The videos had already been online for 18 months by the time Chambers became aware of them. At first she thought there was only one video; a couple of weeks later she discovered five more (a total of seven were eventually discovered). They had spread to 37 different porn sites, and had been viewed hundreds of thousands of times.

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Composite: Getty/Vetta/Guardian Design Team

Chambers and Kam had been running their YouTube channel for almost a year at this point. They were already famous online – a fame they had turned into a full-time job. As YouTube’s best-known singing, acting and campaigning lesbian duo, their comedy sketches, songs and vlogs had been viewed millions of times by loyal fans, most of them teenage girls. And now someone whose name they didn’t recognise – the troll who knew about the RedTube videos – was determined to spread the word that Chambers was a slut, a fraud, a terrible role model.

“They were posting [messages about the videos] to our YouTube channel, to our fans’ Youtube channels, to other content creators, to LGBT magazines, media sources, to our fans on other social networking sites – I mean everywhere,” Chambers said, with wide eyes. “We had these 14-year-olds that we’d been trying to inspire writing to us and saying, ‘I had so much respect for you and now you’re a porn star. You’re such a slut. How can I respect you?’”

Revenge porn – private sexual images or videos posted online in order to humiliate, degrade and discredit another person, often titled with their full name for maximum exposure – is a particularly modern form of shaming. But for Chambers, it was also a cruel inversion of the medium that had given her a career and a platform. Online videos had been the making of Chrissy Chambers. Now her image was going viral in a disgusting video over which she had no control.

That day in Las Vegas was the beginning of a four-year legal battle that saw Chambers take on the English legal system, and face the wrath of some of the internet’s most misogynistic trolls. The companies behind the porn sites were evasive, and the Atlanta police said it wasn’t their problem. The UK police said the law wasn’t on her side: no other victim of revenge porn had yet managed to win justice in England’s courts. Chambers would be fighting to repossess her image in the full glare of an online scrutiny she had once carefully cultivated. If she won, her case would set a precedent that could change the landscape for revenge porn victims in the UK for ever. If she lost, she could lose everything.

The first time Chambers stepped into a gay bar, a well-known place called Mary’s in Atlanta, she was 20. “I met Bria that night, and it was like a halo was around her.” Bria Kam was a 26-year-old singer-songwriter from Atlanta with curly dark hair and hazel eyes, who had recently featured in the 11th series of American Idol. They quickly became inseparable.

Kam and Chambers say they stumbled on to YouTube nine months into their relationship, with no intention of ever making a living out of it. They posted their first video in 2012 – performing a song Kam wrote with her brother – purely for their mothers to watch. But 10 days later, Dan Cathy, the conservative Christian CEO of fast-food chain Chick-fil-A, publicly condemned same-sex marriage. Chambers and Kam went to their local branch to protest, and then Kam wrote a comedy song about it. Dear Chick-fil-A (Because I’m a Homosexual) got 30,000 views in two days, as well as some press coverage.

After that, every time they saw an opportunity to do social commentary with music, Chambers and Kam made a video and uploaded it to their YouTube channel, BriaAndChrissy, where fans could subscribe and be notified of new releases. They went to the 2012 Democratic national convention in Charlotte, North Carolina in pursuit of anti-gay protesters. A photo of them kissing passionately two feet away from a man holding a placard that read “Homo Sex is Of The Devil” made it on to the front page of the Washington Post.

Soon the landmarks of their life together became charted by the number of subscribers their channel had at the time, and how many views their most popular videos had. As well as music videos, they began performing comedy sketches and making what they call “talking videos”: confessional vlogs discussing LGBT issues and their relationship. When Chambers officially came out to her family around the dinner table in Mississippi, she filmed it for their channel. (There was no emotional outpouring; her dad barely looked up from the magazine he was reading.)

No topic was off-limits. “Over time we got more comfortable and started sharing more of ourselves,” she explained. “The more we started to learn we were making an impact, that was making an impact on us. It pulled us in.” Exposing private moments potentially came with great risks, but Chambers knew that “sometimes being vulnerable to the camera is all that people want”.

They tried to have boundaries: while they chose to put all of their lives online, they didn’t show their naked bodies. Their videos might be cheeky and provocative, but the content was intended to be sincere and innocent enough for fans as young as 13 or 14 to watch.

This was happening during a golden age for YouTubers, when advertisers were throwing money at them. “Our first paycheck from Google, we were like, ‘What? You can actually make money off of this thing?’” Kam told me. But even then, it was never steady money. Google decides the rate that contributors are paid according to a mysterious, ever-changing formula known as the “cost per mille” (CPM): the amount advertisers pay per thousand views.

In 2012, YouTubers typically made about $1 per 1,000 views, but the CPM can vary widely according to the type of content, the country the viewer is watching from, how old they are, what type of videos they usually watch, their gender, and any number of other factors. “There’s no real system to the formula. It’s all completely up to Google, and they are constantly changing it,” said Kam. Still, they were making enough for Chambers to quit her day job as an assistant to an author in Atlanta, and they moved to Los Angeles – the global magnet for agents and advertisers as well as content creators – to be full-time YouTubers.

Although Kam and Chambers are professional YouTubers, they have never spoken to anyone at YouTube; they have no handler, no contact to nurture their career, and they are paid purely according to their numbers. YouTube works through analytics, the vast reservoir of data the company gathers on who watches the videos, who makes them and how valuable they are to advertisers at any given time. That means that when the market changes – as it did in March 2017, when YouTube faced mass advertising boycotts after Google’s automated system placed ads for brands including HSBC, Sky and Vodafone alongside neo-Nazi content – YouTubers have no way of anticipating how they might be affected. They just have to generate the greatest number of views they can, and hope it translates into a decent paycheque.

Chambers and Kam became expert at creating clickbait. Their most popular video is titled Lesbians Touch Penis for the First Time!, and features Kam and two other lesbian YouTubers (not Chambers, who had always been open with viewers about her previous relationships with men) awkwardly touching a man’s genitals behind a blacked-out censorship rectangle and clinically describing what it feels like. It is deliberately unsexy and somewhat ironic – a gentle debunking of the cliche that lesbians just don’t know what they’re missing.

It was all about hits, but done in an earnest, mock-scientific way. It got more than 37m views, which could have earned them tens of thousands of dollars, had YouTube not decided to pull the advertising from it out of fear that brands wouldn’t want to be associated with such a controversial title. But Chambers and Kam got the video licensed, and when different news organisations around the US picked it up, they got paid whenever the clips were shown. “What started as a view-grabbing idea evolved into something with a message,” said Chambers. “Sensational ideas are important. Things that are going to make you stand out are important. But it also depends on how you’re sharing that story. We intend to entertain, but we also want to enlighten.”

The more subscribers they got, the more pressure they felt to keep producing. “There’s an expression every YouTuber knows: it’s called Feeding the Beast. If you don’t create content constantly, people will find somebody else, people will click on other videos,” Kam told me. Uploading once a week on a Sunday morning was no longer enough. After a year they started their second channel, Our Lesbian Love, a behind-the-scenes look at what “a normal lesbian relationship looks like”, where every banal and mundane aspect of their daily lives, from buying camping gear to going to the gym and visiting the physiotherapist, was documented in daily vlogs for their fans.

When they found out about the revenge porn videos in summer 2013, “everything came crashing to a standstill,” Chambers told me. Whoever was spreading the links to discredit Chambers was succeeding: their main channel suffered its greatest drop in subscribers ever that month, with tens of thousands of fans leaving them. They began to fear the beast they were feeding. “The more people that saw our content, the more likely it was that people would find these [revenge porn] videos and see my girlfriend in such a vulnerable way,” said Kam. “I didn’t want anybody to know we existed any more. We were never going to be advertiser-friendly. Other content creators were judging us. I just wanted to curl up in a ball.”

The videos damaged their brand as YouTube’s most popular lesbian duo, because they showed Chambers with a man. “It delegitimised our channel, it delegitimised my sexuality. It made me have to fight to prove to people that my love for Bria was real, that our relationship was genuine, and that I wasn’t actually just pretending to be gay for attention.” This was a level of personal exposure they weren’t used to – one they could not control.

The damage to their business was not the worst of it. For months after discovering her ex’s videos, Chambers couldn’t stand to be touched, couldn’t take a shower without feeling intense shame, and couldn’t look at her body in the mirror without seeing the girl on RedTube. Two or three times a week she would have night terrors: she would dream that her ex or some other man was trying to rape or kill her, and she would wake up with sleep paralysis, trapped in the nightmare.

She began to live in fear of men. “A crosswalk at Rite Aid, going to the store, every man that I pass, I have to have a defence plan in case they attack me.” She started drinking heavily and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. As well as making her constantly anxious, the condition left her emotionally detached.

Kam suffered too, but tried to keep it to herself; the trauma wasn’t hers, after all. “I also felt violated,” she told me, her voice quiet and unsteady. “Knowing that your partner’s most private self was being shown to the world in such a disgusting manner … this is something that is between me and my partner, an intimacy me and my partner share. He took that away from me.”

In the first few weeks after the videos came to light, Chambers emailed RedTube to say she wanted them taken down, but had no reply. Then Kam’s father, a conveyancing lawyer, helped draft a legal-sounding letter stating that she was under 21 when they were shot. Again, no response, but at some point five of the videos disappeared from RedTube. They still had 36 other porn sites to appeal to.

A month after finding the videos, Chambers reported her ex to the Atlanta police and travelled to Georgia to make a statement. The police eventually told her that although the videos were shot in the US, they were uploaded in England, so it wasn’t their business to investigate. Chambers and Kam then tried to get help from the police in the UK, who kept referring them back to Atlanta.

By this point, Chambers felt helpless and defeated, unable to get out of bed. Kam spent weeks calling dozens of lawyers across the US, none of whom would take on the case. In despair, she rang a rape crisis line. They suggested she call Ann Olivarius, an American feminist lawyer who coined the term “date rape” while an undergraduate at Yale in the 1970s, and argued her first sex-discrimination case aged 22. She was now running her own law firm in London. She’ll be too busy to take your case, they warned, but she might be able to recommend someone who could.

A few weeks before Olivarius was contacted by Chambers, she had answered the phone at midnight to a distraught mother calling from a small town in Kansas. The mother told Olivarius that, a few Fridays earlier, her 17-year-old daughter Sally had said she was staying over with a friend, but instead had gone to a party, got extremely drunk, and passed out. While she was unconscious, the other teenagers there – both boys and girls – took her clothes off, wrote on her body, put things into her vagina, and filmed it all on their phones.

Sally woke up the next morning, gathered her clothes, oblivious, and went home. Her friends avoided her over the rest of the weekend, and kept their distance at school. By Wednesday, someone sent her the videos of what had happened on Friday night – videos that by now most of the school had already seen. Sally went home, told her mother, “Today was not a good day,” and went upstairs. Forty five minutes later, her mother found her in her bedroom, dead.

Her firm wasn’t licensed in Kansas, which meant there was nothing she could do. She was devastated that she couldn’t help this woman, and haunted by the story. A couple of weeks later, she took the call from Chambers.

Olivarius had long experience of prosecuting sex discrimination cases. In 1977, when she was just 22, she won a legal action against Yale, proving a culture of “pervasive campus sexual assault”, arguing that sexual harassment at the university was a form of discrimination. Her victory established for the first time that sexual harassment was illegal in the US.

“I came of age in the United States just at the time of Roe v Wade, just on the back of the women’s movement, and the civil rights movement,” she told me. “It was all in the air, and I took it seriously.” Much of her student feminist campaigning involved high-profile stunts – such as the time she got the women’s swimming team to drop their towels and expose their naked bottoms in front of newspaper photographers to protest against the fact that only the men’s team were given free kit.

Lawyer Ann Olivarius, who has been prosecuting sexual discrimination cases since the 1970s. > Facebook > Twitter > Pinterest
Lawyer Ann Olivarius, who has been prosecuting sex discrimination cases since the 1970s. Photograph: MCO Law

Olivarius and her husband came to the UK in 1999, when he became Time magazine’s London bureau chief, and she started her own firm, specialising in sexual harassment and discrimination cases. At her firm’s London office in Hammersmith (she has since moved her HQ to Maidenhead in Berkshire, closer to her home), the meeting rooms were lined with books with titles such as The Price of Motherhood, Sexual Harassment of Working Women and The Bitch in the House.

She took on Chambers’ case, on a no-win, no-fee basis. At that time, England had no civil or criminal laws outlawing revenge porn. There was no legal framework to fight Chambers’ corner.

Videos and photographs have been shared online for decades, but laws against posting revenge porn have only been passed in the UK and the US over the past three years, and in the US there is still no federal law against it. Olivarius thinks this is because of lack of sympathy for victims – the belief that they must have done something worthy of humiliation – but it’s also the case that, for many years, lawmakers in both the US and the UK believed that existing legislation relating to harassment, extortion, breach of copyright and breach of privacy was enough to provide redress for victims. In practice, this meant revenge porn cases went unprosecuted.

Olivarius saw Chambers’ case as an opportunity to change the legal landscape for victims in England and Wales. In 2014, Olivarius began lobbying for the introduction of a criminal law, hosting private dinner parties with coalition MPs at her country home, and calling in favours with politicians across the political spectrum. She told them about women who had lost their jobs and custody of their children as a result of revenge porn, and women who had been dragged back into abusive relationships by the threat of films or photos of them naked or having sex being published online.

The “revenge porn law” – which criminalises the disclosure of private sexual images with intent to cause distress – was passed in England and Wales in April 2015. Although she had been involved in its early stages, Olivarius considers the law “very defective”, because the intent to cause distress element allows perpetrators to escape conviction if they can prove they were posting the images for money, or just for a laugh. “That was put in to protect the companies who are selling the material, but aren’t they causing harm, too?” said Olivarius. “Because they are making a profit, that somehow exonerates them? It doesn’t make any sense to me.”

Under the new law, fewer than 40% of reported offences have resulted in action. The law doesn’t classify the offence as a sex crime, so victims are not given anonymity. That means their names can be reported in the press once their cases come to court, and a new wave of strangers have all they need in order to search for the images online.

The new ruling came in too late to apply to Chambers, because her ex uploaded the videos in December 2011. “The laws that are on the books have been put in place for different purposes and in different times. None of them quite work at all,” Olivarius told me in 2015. “We’re taking the best pieces that we can of existing law and applying it to Chrissy’s situation.”

If Chambers had sent selfies, she would own the copyright, and could sue for infringement wherever they were posted, but since the videos were filmed without her knowledge, she had no power over their distribution. For Chambers’ case, Olivarius would have to go back to using a patchwork of different laws, including harassment and privacy legislation.

“We’re going to ask for an apology from him,” Olivarius said. “We’re going to ask for the return of all the videos – it’s a control issue, we want them back. We want him to assign the copyright to her so that she owns those materials. We want him to make an agreement that he’s not going to do this again. And then we want money. He should pay for the hurt he’s deliberately and profoundly caused.”

In April 2015, Chambers came to the UK to tell her story at a seminar Olivarius had organised for MPs and academics to discuss the implications and deficiencies of the new law. She also gave a statement to the Metropolitan police, in the hope that a criminal case could still be built against her ex under harassment legislation that still applied when the videos were uploaded in 2011. By now her lawyers had succeeded in getting the videos taken down from the porn sites they knew about, but thumbnail images of Chambers naked still came up in a Google search. But going to the police meant new sets of eyes would watch her naked and humiliated: her lawyers would have to show the videos to the police.

I shared a cab with her to Hammersmith police station. “Naturally, I feel anxious,” she told me, without sounding anxious at all. She was glad that something was finally being done to advance her case. “Things have been so slow,” she said. “It’s like trying to wade through a sandpit.”

After taking her statement for more than three hours, the police told her it would be hard to bring any criminal case against her ex. Even after two years of work by a top law firm, there probably wasn’t enough in her case to press charges under harassment legislation. Chambers was devastated.

It was at this point that Chambers decided to go public with her story. On 3 June 2015, she posted a video to her YouTube channel entitled I’m a Victim Of Revenge Porn. “I want to take away the shame society puts on victims of revenge pornography, and also encourage other victims of revenge porn to come forward and begin seeking justice,” she told her fans. “I’ve suffered in silence for so long. This is the moment when I get to begin to help make a difference,” she added to me. By speaking out, she hoped to take some ownership of the exposure that had become so unmanageable and frightening.

But even with her prestigious lawyers and her army of supportive fans, she couldn’t control how people would respond to her story once it was out there. While most of the people commenting on YouTube supported Chambers, many didn’t.

“Saw her porn, she’s definately fuckable,” wrote one.

“Where can i watch it ?” asked another.

“well she is a lesbian now sooo. i dont blame him.”

“Another dumb slut who got what she deserved.”

“Just what did she do to piss this man off? That isn’t being discussed.”

“‘I let my bf film us while having sex, and now that the video’s been uploaded, it’s ruined my YT [YouTube] viewership and he should be punished.’ What a lying, vindictive cunt.”

“This woman is a clown and hypocrite.”

Internet trolls saw hunting down the revenge porn videos as a game, a challenge. A messageboard on 4chan, where anonymous users gather to share images, memes and hacking tips, filled up with users trying to unearth and recirculate the clips. Someone created a dedicated Twitter account for soliciting information about where they could be found. A seventh video that neither Chambers nor her legal team had seen before came to light: it had been uploaded around the same time as the others, but only discovered in 2015.

While Chambers gave interviews and rebranded herself as a campaigner and activist, Kam began to obsessively Google her girlfriend to check what the search engine suggested when people looked for “Chrissy Chambers” or “Bria and Chrissy”. In spite of their millions of YouTube views, the top search terms in connection with Chambers were now “Chrissy Chambers sex tape” and “Chrissy Chambers naked”.

“I spent a lot of my time – and by a lot of my time, I mean pretty much all of my time – monitoring all the comments, deleting, blocking and screenshotting, and getting that evidence to the lawyers,” Kam said. Once she started, she found she couldn’t stop. She was Googling while Chambers was asleep, spending her nights trying to police the internet.

Chambers threw herself into her new role as the voice of revenge porn victims. She went to Capitol Hill and knocked on senators’ doors, lobbying to have state revenge porn laws passed. When Hillary Clinton had a public meeting with YouTube creators on the presidential campaign trail in 2016, Chambers introduced herself as “one of the first public figures who was a victim of revenge porn”, and asked Clinton what she was going to do to ensure that a federal law was established. (Clinton was a little flummoxed – she was expecting questions from beauty bloggers and gamers, after all – but promised to do everything she could “to try and figure out how we can give victims like you the tools you need”.)

When it came to her own case, Chambers struggled to make any progress. The websites that host and profit from revenge porn proved impossible to pin down: RedTube is based in Houston, Texas, with servers in San Francisco and New Orleans; it currently belongs to MindGeek, who bought the site from Bright Imperial Ltd in July 2013, long after her ex posted the videos. Trying to establish who was legally liable for what website in which jurisdiction at the time the videos were uploaded would require unlimited legal resources, which Chambers didn’t have. Once the CPS officially confirmed they wouldn’t be pressing criminal charges against her ex, her only hope of getting any redress was to sue him for damages in England.

But there were hurdles before she even got to the civil courts. In March 2015, court fee increases were brought in by the Conservative government as part of a drive to generate an extra £48m a year for the public purse. This meant Chambers had to pay £20,000 up front to file charges against her ex – money she didn’t have. So she and Kam did what they knew best: they wrote a song, made a video and started a crowdfunding campaign, selling everything from advance copies of the single to one-on-one Skype chats for anyone willing to contribute. Within a few days, they raised nearly £30,000.

Even with the support of their fans, Chambers and Kam were now seriously out of pocket. They had spent thousands on travelling to the UK to work with their legal team, at the same time as they lost subscribers and became toxic to advertisers on YouTube.

After three years of gathering evidence and countless letters between Olivarius’s firm and her ex’s lawyers, Chambers’ claim against him for damages and copyright – the first civil case of its kind in England and Wales – was finally filed in the high court on 1 March 2016. The process was painfully slow, involving mountains of legal process before a judge would even be allocated to the case. Olivarius and her team had warned Chambers that this was just the beginning of yet another long journey. Even with Olivarius’s confidence and experience behind them, this was still uncharted legal territory.

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Then, in April 2017, just as Chambers’ ex was about to submit his plea in writing to the court, Olivarius got an unexpected call from his legal team: he had finally agreed to settle. Chambers’ four-year legal battle was over. As well as damages, Chambers has won copyright of the videos so she can pursue any websites that host them, the right to have all his devices inspected to ensure there is no trace of the videos on them, and an apology from him.

Having broken new legal ground once again, Olivarius is delighted. She told me Chambers’ victory would set a landmark precedent for other revenge-porn victims to follow, paving the way for other victims of revenge porn to sue for damages. With both a civil and a criminal path to justice, it has become less likely that those who post revenge porn will get away with it. “Chrissy is to be admired as an example of how fighting back works.”

The terms of the settlement mean Chambers can’t disclose the sum she is being paid, but Olivarius made it clear that it is substantial. The terms also mean her ex can never be publicly identified: he gets to remain completely anonymous after exposing her so entirely.

In late August last year, Chambers and Kam were perched together on the end of their L-shaped grey sofa at home in West Hollywood. Bathed in the flattering glow of the ring light that surrounded their Canon camera, they checked their hair in the flip viewfinder, gazing up at it with big eyes and bright smiles, while Liam, their Siamese cat, slunk around in the background.

They weren’t able to tell her fans about the victory, as the final settlement still had to be approved in court. Instead, they were making a video about Chambers getting her first tattoo: she’d had the word “Wonder” inked in black cursive script along the left side of her rib cage – “a reminder to continue living my life full of wonder”.

“Part of the reasoning for this tattoo was the shame I felt about my body,” she told the camera, while Kam’s doleful eyes flitted from her girlfriend to the lens. “A tattoo was a really great way for me to move on, so that when I’m thinking of [the revenge porn videos] I think: that was me in the past, and this is a different person. I feel like I can move on, shed my skin and start anew.”

The shoot took 15 minutes from start to finish, and looked effortless. There was no hint that they had a MacBook at their feet with a script on it. If either of them stumbled on their words, they launched into another take without stopping. It takes practice and preparation to look this spontaneous.

Bria Kam (left) and Chrissy Chambers recording a video for their YouTube channel at home in Los Angeles in August last year. > Facebook > Twitter > Pinterest
Bria Kam (left) and Chrissy Chambers recording a video for their YouTube channel at home in Los Angeles in August last year. Photograph: Dan Tuffs for the Guardian

When they had finished filming, we sat down and drank soda water together, our glasses on marble coasters Olivarius had given Chambers, emblazoned with the words “Well behaved women rarely make history”. Since we first met in London two years before, Chambers, now 26, seemed wirier and tougher, and wore clothes that showed more of her body: shorts and a grey crop top that revealed a sliver of her muscular belly. She was no longer the teenager in her ex’s videos.

“The idea that it could be finished is something that’s not really sunk in quite yet,” she said, smiling and frowning at the same time. “Any kind of suffering that he had to go through was going to be a sense of justice. The apology was really important, but the damages are what’s going to help me heal.” She told me she was planning to spend the settlement on transporting her beloved horse to California from Mississippi, on continuing therapy, and on moving to the relative calm of the outskirts of LA.

The settlement has come at a welcome time for Chambers and Kam: despite having close to a million subscribers, it has become impossible for them to make a living from YouTube alone. They say the CPM Google has calculated for their videos has dropped so much that they now make around $50 per 200,000 views; when they began their channel five years ago, they could expect to get $200.

Lesbians have the lowest CPM of all content providers, Kam told me: they don’t represent the marketing opportunity that gamers, makeup artists or “pretty white boys talking about their skin, or dates they’ve been on, or anything” do, so they aren’t paid as much for the hits they generate. “If we decided we wanted to make content about us going to the mall and getting cute clothes, and we just happened to be lesbians but we didn’t talk about it, we would make more money.” They’ve had to find other sources of income, such as personal appearances, licensing, brand promotion and direct support from their fans.

Their relationship almost did not survive the turmoil of those years. It was Kam who came up with most of their content ideas, edited the videos and moderated the user comments; she was used to being able to control how they were seen online. The fallout from the revenge porn videos and her desire to protect Chambers led to pathological behaviour. She developed irrational fears that Chambers was going to die: she didn’t want Chambers to drink Diet Coke in case she got cancer, and she was so afraid of Chambers choking that she would hide grapes from her.

By the summer of 2017, Chambers said she needed some time apart, and for the first time Kam asked for professional help. “I’ve been trying to realise that she’s OK, she’s a badass, she can do this with or without me. I’m just happy to be part of her life,” Kam told me.

Of course, they still made a YouTube video about it – it was titled We Almost Broke Up (Not Clickbait) – but have decided, for the sake of their relationship, to no longer feed the beast quite so much. They have stopped daily vlogging on their second channel, no longer giving away the intimate minutiae of their relationship, and freeing up Kam from editing duties that used to take up two days of her week.

Chambers’ career was made through exposure on Google-owned YouTube, and she was almost destroyed by online videos and Google search results, but says she has no regrets about living her life online. She believes her YouTube fame ultimately helped her: “I had already got used to hateful comments, and we had so many fans who were so protective of us, and still are, who give us a bubble of protection most people wouldn’t have.”

No matter how groundbreaking her victory, the videos will also always be out there. Ten days before we met in LA, Chambers had received two emails from a man with some of the original clips attached, asking to commission her for another “performance”, just for him. “Obviously I’m so happy to have won, and to be able to put this chapter to rest,” she told me. “But this is a battle that will never be over, in myself and in fighting these videos. I’ll never be able to rest easy and feel like they’ve completely gone away.”

Main photograph by Dan Tuffs for the Guardian

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Source : https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/jan/18/chrissy-chambers-youtube-revenge-porn-legal-victory

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