The naked and
Thanks to the rise of social media and selfie culture, both men and women are being sexually exploited online through a whole range of schemes and scams,
Thanks to the rise of social media and selfie culture, both men and women are being sexually exploited online through a whole range of schemes and scams,
On an anonymous image board, users in Greater Manchester are sharing explicit photos of women. Alongside an innocent social media picture of a blonde girl at Christmas (you can tell by the holly wreaths and festive decorations adorning the fireplace), a local student is described as a “slut”, her hometown and university are named, and a link to her Facebook profile is provided. “If someone can find win can they actually post or tell me how…?” asks the poster. In the forum’s argot, ‘win’ is a fully naked photo.
The hive then gets to work hunting explicit snaps of the woman – either stolen from an iCloud hack or extracted from her network of friends, such as ex-boyfriends. Images are often traded for money. One user on a Stockport forum boasts of having obtained wins in the area through catfishing – luring girls into sharing pictures using an assumed identity – on various dating sites, with the smugness of Indiana Jones showing off his latest haul of rare artefacts.
In the early 2000s, lad’s mag research found that young men would rather view ‘normal girls’ than unattainable Hollywood stars. They wanted to see what the girl next door looked like naked. In many cases now, terrifyingly, they can.
It’s something that Laura Higgins, who manages the government’s Revenge Porn Helpline, encounters on an increasingly regular basis. “Unlike a lot of revenge porn, which is perpetuated by somebody who wants to get back at somebody, there’s a strange behaviour around this which is almost like flirting,” she says.
Boards tend to be focused around a local area, and can be found everywhere from Leeds to West Lothian. “People from the area would be sharing pictures of local girls, saying, ‘I know her. I went to school with her. What’s her sister called? Does anybody have any pictures of her? She was lovely,’” says Higgins.
“It’s a lad culture thing. I think sometimes people share the photos without meaning any malice to the girls. They think everybody should be able to look at her naked because she’s really hot. Because they’re not being insulting, they don’t see anything wrong with it.
“But if you’re a girl, you still feel embarrassed, humiliated, and probably paranoid because you’re aware that it’s people you know, who you went to college with or who live in that area, sharing these pictures.”
Thousands of women are oblivious to the fact that intimate images of them are being traded like porn Panini stickers. Currently, the revenge porn law – introduced in April last year – requires proof of intent to cause distress, so sharing the images is not in itself illegal.
“Obviously, from our point of view, it will have a detrimental effect on the victim,” says Higgins. “But some of these lads say, ‘We only meant it as a joke, we didn’t mean to upset anyone. We thought she was lovely – look at all these nice things we’re saying.’”
“I was really depressed. I couldn’t come out of the house, eat or talk to anyone.”
Since the notorious ‘Fappening’ – when celebrities such as actors Jennifer Lawrence and Kirsten Dunst had their iClouds hacked and private images leaked two years ago – revenge porn has become an ominous, lurid media buzzword. Despite the name, it’s a catch-all term not always motivated by retribution. Indeed, some campaigners prefer to call it image-based sexual abuse. It’s a crime which is growing. Since it was made illegal in England and Wales last year – carrying a punishment of up to two years in prison – more than 200 people have been prosecuted. The true scale of the problem, however, is far bigger.
Through Freedom of Information requests to police forces, the BBC found there had been 1,160 incidents of revenge porn from April 2015 to December 2015, with 61 per cent of reported offences resulting in no action being taken against the alleged perpetrator.
The Revenge Porn Helpline launched 19 months ago and has received over 4,500 calls. “You name it, we’ve seen it,” says Higgins. “Everything from hacked accounts and webcams to people being filmed without their knowledge. We’ve seen new female partners finding the content of an ex-partner [and sharing it], so jealousy between girls. We’ve seen neighbourhood and workplace disputes spill out into it. We had one where neighbours drilled a hole through a wall and filmed their neighbour engaged in sexual activity, then posted it on a community messenger app.”
Victims are female and male, young and middle-aged, and run the gamut of professions: students, teachers and police officers have all contacted the helpline. “In some cases they’ve never shared a photo to begin with,” says Higgins. Photoshopped images are common and the effects can be just as damaging – but digitally manipulated images are not covered by the revenge porn law.
Folami Prehaye, from Bristol, knows what it feels like to be violated in this way. In a targeted attack, her ex-boyfriend set up a spoof Facebook account with her details and posted intimate sexual photos they had taken together, before inviting her friends and family to see them. Within hours, the pictures had spread to porn sites across the globe and had been viewed more than 50,000 times. She describes the fight-or-flight choice she had to make and says she quickly went into “do-mode”. She had to report each of the images individually to Facebook, then contact webmasters to request that they take the pictures down one by one.
“At first it was hard to comprehend,” she says. “I did go through a time at the beginning when I was really depressed and couldn’t come out of the house, eat or talk to anyone. I kept myself hidden away. If I did go out, I put a hood up, so nobody knew it was me. You’re convinced everybody has seen the pics, knows who you are and is looking at you.
“It was demeaning in that I had people in the community come up to me and make comments on the pictures they saw of me. One person said, ‘Oh, you have a nice arse’ – it’s hard to deal with.
“Some people say, ‘Oh, you deserved it because you allowed him to take the pictures,’ but what I did behind closed doors should stay behind closed doors. I had pictures of him. I deleted them.”
Prosecuted under the Malicious Communications Act 1988 – before the new legislation was introduced – Prehaye’s ex, Thomas Samuel, was given a six month suspended jail sentence, meaning he didn’t serve any time, and was ordered to do 180 hours of community service.
Agonisingly, when she went to the police station to report that her pictures had ended up on porn sites, she had to give the police officer the web addresses of these sites and then watch him open them up and take screenshots of them for evidence. “That almost broke me,” she says.
Politicians are beginning to take the issue seriously. Conservative MP Maria Miller has raised the prospect of victim anonymity – something that Prehaye feels might have helped her. When she took her ex to court in order to regain control of her life, the local newspaper printed her name. “That just blew everything out of the water. That’s when the pictures started coming to the top of search engines, because everyone was looking for them. So people should have the option of anonymity. I also believe that offenders should be put on the sex offenders register.”
Why do people do this? Is it the modern extension of somebody scrawling an ex’s number on the toilet wall? “Anybody can do it,” says Prehaye. “Nobody polices the internet. Nobody should be able to put a picture of anyone in a demeaning sexual way on a site. You can’t go into a shop and steal something – because there are deterrents like security guards to stop you doing it. There are no deterrents on the internet.
“It’s about power. They’re saying, ‘Look what I can do – I can embarrass you and make you depressed.’” Having founded her own website, VOIC (Victims Of Internet Crime: Speak Out!), offering emotional support, Prehaye says she has been contacted by people who want to take their own lives. “That’s how bad this gets.”
By speaking out, Prehaye refuses to be just a statistic – she’s a person too. “At first, it was about sharing my story. I wanted to speak up so other victims wouldn’t feel so alone. Helping other people is helping me heal myself.”
Others are similarly standing up. Challenging the defence that users can upload whatever they want and websites have no responsibility to remove it, a law firm recently became the first to use British courts to sue a site that featured a revenge porn video of American YouTube star Chrissy Chambers. And last week, Facebook lost a legal bid to halt court action over a naked image of a 14-year-old girl being repeatedly posted on an online ‘shame’ page.
While we may assume revenge porn affects mainly females, a quarter of the clients Higgins deals with are men. “It’s a form of abuse and therefore potentially anyone is a victim,” she says. “Sometimes it’s within LGBT relationships. Sometimes it’s people who are questioning their sexuality and they’ve been on webcam chat – then they’re particularly vulnerable. If people don’t know they’re gay, that can be used as an additional weapon. Extortion is a big thing. Married males are probably the most vulnerable group to that.”
Browsing online after a night in the university bar, first-year-student Will* met an attractive girl who called herself Tanya on Chatroulette, where you can interact with new people over text-chat, webcam and mic. She added him on Facebook and suggested they continue their conversation on Skype. “I didn’t think anything of it,” he says. Only problem was, Tanya didn’t exist – she was a virtual cam whore (VCW), a collection of pre-recorded footage that can be manipulated to give the impression of a real person. ‘Tanya’ was a scammer from Morocco.
“We had some fun, she stopped the video, and then the video of her turned into a video of me.” She – well, he – requested $250 be paid by 9am the next morning, or the video of him masturbating would be published on his Facebook wall and sent to his Facebook contacts, including close family members.
“It hit me like a brick wall what had happened,” he says. He did the right thing, deactivating his Facebook. “I was checking my computer every day, every hour, for weeks after. I lived in fear and isolation for months. You have a lingering, needling fear in the back of your head all the time. It ate away at me. I was looking around thinking, ‘Has he seen it?’, ‘Has she seen it?’ They can really get inside your head. It took a long time – and therapy – to be able to accept it as a silly mistake.”
Daniel Perry was not so lucky. In 2013, the 17-year-old from Dunfermline was tricked into a Skype conversation with someone he believed to be a girl the same age as him. In reality, he was being tricked into a ‘sextortion’ scam. The perpetrators threatened to release the footage to friends and family, and he was ordered to put cash in a specific account or he “would be better off dead”. Within an hour, he had taken his own life by jumping off the Forth Road Bridge.
Wayne May runs Scam Survivors. In the last 12 months, his website has received 60,000 reports of sextortion. Typically, males in their late teens and early twenties are targeted, but he has dealt with cases where the ages range from 13 to 73. “We’ve even had them turn up on sites like LinkedIn, where the scammers are specifically targeting businessmen. Sometimes they’ll target certain groups of people, such as the military, where they have more to lose.
“It’s very scary and scammers will turn round and say, ‘We’re going to have this show up in the media.’ The threats they make are completely ridiculous when you step back and think about it – some have said, ‘We’re going to have you on The Ellen DeGeneres Show.’ But at the time, people are not thinking straight – they’ve just seen themselves in their most vulnerable state and are ready to believe anything the scammer will say.
“Another thing they’ll do is put the video up on YouTube and claim the person was caught masturbating in front of an eight-year-old girl,” May adds. “The threat level is increased many times then, because you’re going to be accused of being a paedophile.”
Victims will also often be hounded by phone calls. A large number of offenders operate outside the UK – mainly in the Philippines, Ivory Coast and Morocco – through sophisticated organised crime groups. “For them, it is a low-risk way to make money and they can reach many victims easily online,” says a National Crime Agency spokesperson.
Although the majority of those involved in such cases are male, another similar scam involves people claiming to be modelling agencies in order to persuade young girls to agree to mock Skype interviews. “They’ll say, ‘OK, we need to know that you’re comfortable getting changed in front of others because, obviously, that’s what models do,’” says May. “What they’re doing is recording that footage to blackmail them for more footage.”
When men are victims, there is little sympathy, says Higgins. “They’re just told to man up. People don’t understand why they should be upset by it, but it’s just as violating.” When Orlando Bloom or Justin Bieber are snapped naked, Twitter erupts in smirking comments about the length, girth and circumcision of their penises – posted by the same high-profile columnists who’ve previously decried the objectification of Jennifer Lawrence et al as sinister. In a world where women are dodging a deluge of unsolicited ‘dick pics’ on Tinder, it’s seen as fair game. If revenge porn turns women into chattel, it reduces men to mockery.
“We supported a young reality TV star who had content leaked and he was devastated,” says Higgins. “He was just starting his career – it was in no way set up. He felt violated and it went viral. Even his own agent was saying, ‘There’s no such thing as bad publicity – go with it.’ But that was not who he wanted to be known as. There was no sympathy for him at all.”
With an estimated 44 per cent of people having sent naked snaps to partners, isn’t it time society stopped acting like fusty High Court judges? Shame, as Julie Burchill once wrote, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. “If everyone was a little more open-minded, then the power would be gone from people trying to use it abusively,” says Higgins. “People often ask what advice we would give to the victim. Actually, the question should be what you would say to someone who’s a perpetrator. The onus should be switched.”
Education is the key. Prehaye has already sat her 17-year-old son down and had conversations about the etiquette – and potential consequences – of sharing intimate images. “Parents might be horrified about having to talk about their children’s sex lives – but we got over talking about safe sex in the eighties.”
She feels that the culture of victim-blaming and finger-pointing will take a while to erode. “How long has it taken for people to stop blaming women for being raped?” she says. “It’s not the same, but it’s very similar – the only difference is it’s not physical.”
“This is a problem that can only get better,” concludes Higgins. “Because it can’t get any worse.”
* Surname withheld to protect identity.
You can contact the Revenge Porn Helpline on 0845 6000 459. Victims Of Internet Crime: Speak Out! can be reached at voic.org.uk
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