The public trauma of revenge porn

“Men who have seen the video look at you like a prostitute.”

Sitting at your desk surrounded by colleagues, the ping of a WhatsApp message rings through the office, followed by a cascade of phones going off.

Many, but not yours.

Colleagues snigger and laugh but all you can do is wonder, “is that the video of me and my ex that they’re watching?”

For victims of revenge porn, the shame and fear of people watching you at your most intimate is unrelenting.

It follows you home after work and onto your social media feeds. In cafes and at the supermarket you dare not make eye contact with anyone around you.

“When it was at its worst, when I had stopped being a person and started being the girl from the video, being a “whore” and a joke… that’s when I considered killing myself,” says Jessica*, a young accountant.

 She had an intimate video of her leaked onto social media last year.

People might use the word suicide loosely, but she wasn’t joking.

“For a long time, I thought about suicide, and then it became even worse. I really wanted to die,” she says, looking back at the months of ridicule and self-loathing she was made to endure. 

The low point was having to look her boss straight in the eye and hand him forms for his approval. She knew he had just been watching the leaked video of her moments earlier, she had heard its unmistakable sound, the sound of her voice and that of her boyfriend, as she walked up to his desk.

“I remember feeling sick. I cried in the bathroom. I was empty inside,” she recalled.

A recent graduate with a bright future ahead of her, Jessica (not her real name) told The Sunday Times of Malta how one night in 2015 she and her then-boyfriend had been out drinking with friends on an ordinary Saturday night.

When they got home, loosened up by a few vodkas, they decided to throw caution to the wind.

“It didn’t feel like we were doing anything wrong. I was in love and there was total trust in the relationship.”

Whipping out an iPhone and starting to record a video seemed like nothing more than a silly bit of fooling around, Jessica recalls, her hand trembling as she lights a cigarette and looks over her shoulder.

She started smoking after the video was leaked. That was also when she started seeing a therapist and taking antidepressants.

After her relationship ended, the video stopped being an intimate expression of sexuality between two loving partners and became public pornography – herself unwittingly cast as the lead actress in a video that would be seen by thousands of people across the island.

Jessica is not alone. Last Sunday this newspaper revealed how reports of sharing explicit images of a person without their consent had doubled this year to more than 100.

I had to look my boss in the eye after he saw my leaked sex video

Police have been inundated with investigations since 2014, when a Tumblr blog loaded with nude images of Maltese women exploded onto social media.

The website was eventually taken down, after police received multiple reports and complaints from women targeted, many of who had no idea how the images had made it online.

Sharing such images without consent is illegal, and from time to time, the abuse comes to the fore.

Earlier this year, for instance, a video of a woman engaged in a sex act with her partner spread through messaging apps, even prompting Prime Minister Joseph Muscat to promise the woman justice.

But any form of court justice can hardly make up for the trauma revenge-porn victims undergo. “Men who have seen the video look at you like a prostitute. Women look at you like a whore, like it’s your fault for being in this situation, and you are less of a person,” Jessica says.

The ‘slut shaming’ lasted for months. Women, she says, would roll their eyes at her and talk about her while she was still in the room. She knew she was being talked about throughout the country.

“And it wasn’t just strangers. Many of my friends laughed at my expense,” she says, once again looking over her shoulder, her face grimacing at the thought of seeing someone who might have seen the video.  

Unlike victims of rape or abuse, Jessica’s search for a shoulder to cry on came up dry.

“I even went to one of those group sessions for women who have been mistreated, but I didn’t belong there.”

For victims of rape and abuse their suffering was done in private, but Jessica’s trauma, she says, was “very, very public”.    

“There isn’t a support structure in place, or at least I couldn’t find it. I had my mother, but of course I had to go through the trauma of telling her first, and the look of disappointment on her face.”

It took Jessica a year to pick herself up again and now that she’s on her feet she wants victims to know that they are not alone – that she went through this too and the pain and embarrassment can pass.

Her message to society, however, is scathing: “For those of you watching these videos: these girls could be your wife, sister or daughter.

 “And for the women who slut-shame the girls in these videos: it could be your boyfriend who posts a video or photo of you without you knowing. You could be the girl everyone thinks is a whore.”

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Internet Safety, Safer Internet for Children, Online safety - Malta Communications Authority
Internet Safety, Safer Internet for Children, Online safety - Malta Communications Authority