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What's Up with the Washington Post's Story About Susanna Gibson?
Virginia House of Delegates candidate Susanna Gibson is the subject of a new WaPo story after allegedly doing cam work with her husband.
Hello, readers. Parker here.
Yesterday, the Washington Post published a story about Susanna Gibson, a nurse practitioner who is running for a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates, alleging that Gibson “performed sex acts with her husband for a live online audience and encouraged viewers to pay them with ‘tips’ for specific requests,” on the website Chaturbate.
It’s a classic “sex scandal” story and something that I thought was a relic of journalism’s past. The story is lengthy, you can really sense that the Post struggled to justify running a piece that didn’t allege any legal wrongdoing on Gibson’s part.
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The “Terms and Conditions” trap
I was a bit confused by the story’s focus on the terms and services of Chaturbate, the website where Gibson and her husband streamed videos of themselves.
There are seven references to the words “tips” and “tipping” in the piece. For instance:
Gibson, 40, can be seen in the videos soliciting “tips” for performing specific acts — in apparent violation of Chaturbate’s terms and conditions, which say: “Requesting or demanding specific acts for tips may result in a ban from the Platform for all parties involved.”
But if you read the site’s support page, you’ll see that not only is it not a “violation of Chaturbate’s terms and conditions,” but is actually something the site expressly encourages:
A lot of independent broadcasters have certain token amounts that make them want to do certain things, like remove their shirt or play a game. Consider creating a tip menu within your bio and/or within an App or Bot to let community members know what token amounts get you excited and how. This can also help set guidelines for what you are comfortable with doing. There are also helpful Bots available that post your tip menu when a viewer comes into your room.
The “requesting or demanding specific acts for tips” line is pretty clearly about viewers making requests and demands for the performance of specific acts, not the other way around.
This portion, and the Post’s repeated references to “tips,” confused me. Yes, that’s how people make money on that website: viewers give them tips. Repeatedly pointing to this as if that’s not simply how that website works seems bizarre. And I wasn’t alone in thinking this, either:
I emailed Laura Vozzella, the author of the Post piece, to ask what role the possible violation of a site’s terms of service plays in the piece. Setting aside whether or not her interpretation of the terms was accurate, I was curious about that focus’s function. Unfortunately, the reply I received simply said, “I assume I missed your deadline. I’d probably have to send you to the company spox anyway.” My email listed my deadline as 11am ET on 9/12; her response was sent at 8pm ET on 9/11. So, unfortunately, I don’t have a great answer or understanding of that particular problem.
Revenge porn law?
The Post story leaves a lot of questions unanswered. For instance, the piece is built on videos that were originally streamed on Chaturbate, but archived on separate sites. The Post received this tip “after a Republican operative alerted The Washington Post about them.”
Chaturbate videos are streamed live on that site and are often archived on other publicly available sites. More than a dozen videos of the couple captured from the Chaturbate stream were archived on one of those sites — Recurbate — in September 2022, after she entered the race. The most recent were two videos archived on Sept. 30, 2022. It is unclear when the live stream occurred.
While still listed on Recurbate, those videos were no longer available for viewing as of Saturday, after a Republican operative alerted The Washington Post about them. But the videos remained live on another non-password-protected site, which The Post viewed. At least two other publicly available sites displayed explicit still photos from the videos, The Post confirmed.
The story doesn’t say whether or not Gibson or her husband were the ones who recorded and uploaded the videos or not. Daniel P. Watkins, Gibson’s lawyer, told the post that Gibson “was not aware of, and had not authorized, the posting of Chaturbate material on other sites,” but that doesn’t come up for a few more paragraphs.
Later in the story, Watkins points to Virginia’s 2014 revenge porn law, which made it a Class 1 misdemeanor to “‘maliciously’ distribute nude or sexual images of another person with ‘intent to coerce, harass, or intimidate.’” What followed in the story was, again, interesting to me:
The Post typically does not identify victims of alleged sex crimes to protect their privacy. In this case, Gibson originally live-streamed these sexual acts on a site that was not password-protected. The couple had more than 5,700 followers there. Many of the videos remained available to the public on other unrestricted sites as of Saturday. Watkins said Gibson was not aware of, and had not authorized, the posting of Chaturbate material on other sites.
Asked why Gibson had a reasonable expectation of privacy on Chaturbate, Watkins pointed to a 2021 Virginia Court of Appeals ruling that found it was unlawful for a man to secretly record his girlfriend during a consensual sexual encounter even if he did not show the video to others.
In that case, Ronnie Lee Johnson v. Commonwealth of Virginia, the court found that consent to being seen is not the same as consent to being recorded, writing that there was a “stark distinction between an image existing only in someone’s memory … [and] a permanent file that may be shared or re-viewed indefinitely.”
Some of the right-wing commentators gleefully sharing this story are mocking the idea that distributing Gibson’s videos could possibly constitute “revenge porn.” And while I’m not a lawyer, it seems at least somewhat reasonable to think that yeah, passing around videos that were live-streamed (and presumably not recorded by Gibson or her husband) with the intent to hurt Gibson’s political career matches that definition of the law pretty clearly.
That said, the argument isn’t that the Post may have violated any laws here (the article itself does not include any of the videos themselves), but that the person who shared the videos with the Post may have. This makes the Post’s decision to grant its source, a “Republican operative,” anonymity a bit frustrating for readers and, of course, for Gibson.
What’s the point?
My biggest criticism of this piece is that it doesn’t seem to tell a specific story, and is instead a Frankenstein-ed collection of 1,500 words that bounce from “A Democrat running for a crucial seat in Virginia’s House of Delegates performed sex acts with her husband for a live online audience,” to a misinterpretation of the camming site’s terms and conditions and a general misunderstanding of the role that tokens play in all of this, to granting a GOP operative anonymity “to avoid being drawn into the controversy,” to some boilerplate about the importance of the election.
Gibson’s campaign website displays pictures of her smiling in a white lab coat and scrubs, a stethoscope over her shoulders. Other photos show her interacting with her husband and children over a meal and a board game.
Okay? And? I could see the relevance of this had Gibson been running on an anti-sex work platform, but she’s not.
The site says she has worked in the medical field for nearly 15 years in the greater Richmond area, including in geriatrics, home-based primary care, emergency medicine, internal medicine and obesity medicine. It also identifies Gibson as a graduate of the University of Virginia and Columbia University, a Virginia native and a resident of western Henrico for more than a decade.
“The site says” this? Is it true? Shouldn’t the Post be able to let us know if this is true?
The whole thing feels like a petty attack, right down to including the filler word “like” in one of Gibson’s quotes [bolded highlight mine], something reporters or editors would regularly clean up:
“I need, like, more tokens before I let him do that,” she responds to a request that they perform a certain act. “One token, no. More. Raising money for a good cause.”
Now, for better or for worse, this story is out there. As soon as the Post ran its piece, it gave other news outlets justification to run their own write-ups of the Post’s work.
Maybe there is a legitimate and interesting story to be told about Gibson’s cam work with her husband. Unfortunately for Gibson and for readers, we were treated to a confusing and question-filled story that put an odd focus on Chaturbate’s terms of service, instead.
That’s it for me today. Let me know what you all think about the Post story and if you think it was in good taste or not. Thanks!