Snap of shame: The rough road to stamping out ‘revenge porn’

(John McCann)

(John McCann)

When lecherous strangers began knocking on her front door expecting sex, Greta Potgieter knew who was to blame. What she did not know was how difficult it would be to stop the person: her ex-fiancé. His reaction? Revenge porn.

The men were responding to a mass of lewd personal advertisements linked to nude photographs of her on numerous adult websites and blogs. Attached to these sex ads were her phone number, email address and, at one point, even a map to her home in George.

Persuaded by the man she once loved and trusted, Potgieter, then 42, had agreed to pose for the photos. When those images were used to shame her publicly, it was not only an egregious breach of her privacy but also a deeply personal betrayal as well. The former kindergarten teacher felt stripped down, naked and exposed.

“I’m a real woman with real needs … I do this for recreation and fun,” read one post online.

The farmhouse she shared with her grandmother no longer felt safe when, eight years ago, men arrived brimming with lustful expectation. The cyber personality created for Potgieter —“lust lady” — could not be more different from what she is really like. The daughter of a Christian minister grew up in a house just a stone’s throw away from her father’s church. She was naive and trusting.

The brown-haired, modestly dressed woman was nearly 50 years old when we talked. She had enlisted the help of a computer expert as soon as her troubles began. His job was to get the photos taken down. But, as the years ticked by, her image landed on roughly 150 000 sites.

Potgieter’s internet shaming began in late 2008 when few South Africans were using the term “revenge porn” and years before officials would draft proposals to criminalise it.

Now a recognised phrase in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, “revenge porn” is a misnomer, because not all perpetrators are jilted lovers acting out of a warped sense of justice. The language is also inherently misogynistic, focusing on the supposed motive of the perpetrator instead of what the victim is experiencing.

The former fiancé, a web developer by trade, was married when he struck up an affair with Potgieter — a detail she said she found out about only once their relationship had run its course.

Needing legal advice, Potgieter approached the office of Lefevre Joubert, a pragmatic attorney who persuaded her to file a lawsuit in the high court in Cape Town against her ex-fiancé. They wanted a court order preventing him from posting content about her online and an order giving the computer expert access to the man’s electronic devices. She won the civil case, but it was a hollow victory because the torment continued. Adding to her woes, she had to borrow money to pay her legal fees.

Seriously impairing a person’s dignity is a common-law offence known as crimen injuria. It covers a range of scenarios from using racial slurs to posting nude pictures without consent. Throughout the criminal investigation into Potgieter’s case, prosecutors were unsure what to charge the accused with. It became apparent that the police did not have the experience or the expertise to probe a case like this. “They struggled to pin him on a specific crime,” her lawyer said in a disappointed tone.

Although police officers had evidence the accused had the images in his possession, they had difficulty verifying that he had uploaded them to the internet after Potgieter won the lawsuit.

“I don’t have human rights,” said Potgieter. “It’s not important if someone comes to rape me or not.”

Image-based sexual abuse is a sobering term that describes what happened to Potgieter. Although it affects both men and women, experts argue the emotional, psychological and reputational harm is amplified for women.

Distributing nude photos of women without their consent predates the internet. Hustler magazine led the way by publishing photographs of women submitted by readers under a section titled “Beaver Hunt”. When the magazines gave way to an eruption of online pornography, homemade or “real porn” gathered a sizeable following. California native Hunter Moore is notorious in the United States for profiting from other people’s humiliation. In 2010, he started the website Is Anyone Up?, which allowed people to submit nude photographs of their former partners anonymously. Moore, known as the “king of revenge porn”, would publish the images along with names and his personal brand of commentary. At its height, he said the website drew more than 30-million page views a month. Under a barrage of threats of lawsuits, Moore shut his site down a year and a half later, claiming he was tired of screening for photographs of children.

Image-based sexual abuse also punishes women and girls for their sexual autonomy and in far too many cases they are blamed when nude pictures end up on the web. South Africa has no shortage of examples of how men and women are held to different moral standards such as a disturbing incident in 2008 in which a group of men groped a 25-year-old woman at a Johannesburg taxi rank, and tore off her clothes because they reportedly found her miniskirt too revealing.

“The idea that immorality is a feminine characteristic is deeply rooted and stubbornly difficult to dislodge,” said Lisa Vetten, a researcher in the field of violence against women. “We think we’re a sexually open society, but if that were true there wouldn’t be judgment attached to these images.”

It’s a paradox: on the one level South African society is sexualised, but sex is still a source of shame. Vetten coauthored a research paper in 2008 that is an important study of how cases of sexual violence have been dealt with by the criminal justice system. Rape, the authors found, was a “sexualised act of humiliation and punishment”. Men felt entitled to have sex with their victims.

Cyber rape

The notion that a man can lay claim to a woman’s body has found expression in the digital terrain. Keke, 33, who did not want to give her real name, found out her ex-boyfriend had uploaded a video of them having sex to multiple porn sites after they had broken up. The violation of trust and privacy felt like rape.

Keke’s dedication to early morning workouts is evident in her physique. Six years ago her day began like any other. She was up early to exercise when a friend sent her a link to a website. She stared incredulously at her phone as she watched the video of herself having sex with a man she once dated. She tried to believe, somehow, that it was not real. She had never consented to being filmed and her ex-boyfriend had deliberately cut himself out of the shot. If you did not know it was Keke, her name and her employer’s name next to the video would have cleared up any uncertainty.

“He raped me as a human being and violated my rights,” she said.

Image-based sexual abuse has also been referred to as cyber rape — a term notably used by Charlotte Laws, an American author and mother whose daughter was subjected to online humiliation. But cyber rape is not a common phrase for reasons that are explained by law professor Danielle Keats Citron, author of Hate Crimes in Cyberspace. Sexual violence is its own separate thing with its own harms, Citron told the Mail & Guardian.

“You’re not going to convince anyone of your argument if you don’t recognise the differences between physical violence and sexually threatening and demeaning harassment,” Citron said, making the point that one risks trivialising both by equating them.

Keke dated the man for a few months until she caught him cheating with another woman. Several months later she discovered what he had done. “If you googled my name the first 20 things that came up about me was this stuff,” she said. “It was really hard,” she added, her voice cracking.

Women victims of image-based sexual abuse exhibit a similar range of mental health problems as rape survivors, according to an academic paper published by Canadian researcher Samantha Bates. She recommends “revenge porn” be treated as a sexual offence. In her qualitative analysis, Bates wrote that the women in her study had experienced posttraumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression. Although participants struggled to cope early on, they showed positive coping mechanisms after going to therapy and getting involved in advocacy work.

Keke managed to keep the compromising video a secret from her employer, but she carried the shame for years.

Clinical psychologist Gershen Kaufman, who has written books on the topic of shame, wrote: “No other emotion feels more deeply disturbing, because in the moment of shame the self feels wounded from within.” Shame is an internal injury with potentially enduring consequences.

Digital scarlet letters

Potgieter and Keke are victims of “digital scarlet letters” even though the men in their lives were the cheaters. The two women were publicly shamed to the same degree as author Nathaniel Hawthorne’s fictional protagonist, Hester Prynne, in The Scarlet Letter. She endured public humiliation by having 
to wear the letter A on her dress 
for committing adultery in 17th-century Boston.

Keke would not have succeeded in getting the sex tape removed from the internet if it were not for the help of two lawyers who offered their services for free. Finding them was serendipitous, triggered by her decision to share her story (under a pseudonym) on a local radio show several days after she found out about the existence of the video. Advocate Nicholas Tee was driving when he heard Keke’s voice. “I pulled over and listened attentively … she almost had me in tears,” he said, recalling the moment he made up his mind to contact her.

So where does a 54-year-old lawyer with rudimentary computer skills begin when trying to get a sex video of his first ever “revenge porn” client taken down? Tee did what most people would do — he combed the web for answers, using searches as basic as “How does the internet work?” He found contact numbers at the bottom of most properly constructed websites, he explained.

Luckily for Tee, he had a savvy colleague — an attorney named Emma Sadleir, who had just returned from London where she had completed a degree in information, technology, media and communications law. The laborious task of removing the content proved to be a learning curve for Sadleir too — an experience that led her to coauthor a book on legal advice for the digital age. “I realised that once it happens to you, there is so little you can do,” she said.

They offered Keke practical support, but legally, there was little they could do for her because her ex-boyfriend had left the country. “With the nonconsensual distribution of pornographic images, the practical considerations outweigh the legal considerations, so what we landed up doing [is contacting] every one of the websites,” Sadleir explained.

That was 2011, several years before tech companies updated their policies. In June 2015, Amit Singhal, a former Google Inc executive, announced the company would “honour requests from people to remove nude or sexually explicit images shared without their consent from Google search results”.

There are various ways in which compromising images can end up on the internet. People are filmed without their knowledge or electronic devices are hacked with the intention of blackmailing victims for money or sexual favours. “Something like the screenshot has changed the game,” Sadleir said. “Anyone can appropriate another person’s private image if it’s posted to a public platform.

This may have been the undoing of a woman who became a national example of how photographs can be distributed for reasons that have little to do with revenge. Last August, a photo of Margaret van Wyk’s vagina circulated on social media and popular mobile messaging platform Whatsapp. Van Wyk, a hockey mom who used Whatsapp to communicate with a network of about 17 other parents in the small town of Schweizer-Reneke in the North West, had accidentally sent the image to the chat group. The image became public fodder when someone apparently leaked it.

“Margaret van Wyk’s case made me so angry,” Sadleir said of the flurry of memes that followed the mass distribution of the photo. Although Van Wyk’s case did not fit the strict definition of “revenge porn,” her story is an example of why this language is inappropriate. “I think she should be treated as a victim of a sexual offence,” Sadleir said.

Sadleir’s colleague in the legal fraternity agrees. Sharing a video of somebody’s private parts without consent is abusive and humiliating, said advocate Ben Winks, who sometimes partners with Sadleir to help victims of online abuse. “We criminalise other forms of sexual violence; there is no reason why this shouldn’t be a crime,” he said.

He doesn’t bill the victims for his legal services. “There is something about an imbalance in power relations being abused that gets to me,” Winks said.

He was the “nerdy kid” who struggled socially. For that, he was bullied and mocked by his classmates. Winks could do little about this when he was in school, but as an advocate, he now seeks justice for the little guy.

Keeping up with the times

Mobile phones, social networking sites, email, instant messages and the internet have democratised and socialised information, but these innovations have also enabled the proliferation of image-based sexual abuse. Noticing an uptick in cyber bullying, legislators passed the Protection from Harassment Act, allowing victims to get restraining orders without breaking the bank. It came into force in 2013. Had the legislation been around when Potgieter needed protection against her ex-fiancé, there would have been no need to pay R250 000 in legal fees.

With the intention of regulating online content and curbing cybercrime, the government has drafted two new Bills, the Films and Publications Amendment Bill and the Cybercrimes and Cybersecurity Bill, with provisions criminalising the nonconsensual dissemination of intimate images. A perpetrator, if found guilty, could serve up to three years behind bars or face a hefty fine, or both.

In August last year, Sadleir and Winks addressed parliamentarians who were holding public hearings on one of the Bills. In her presentation, Sadleir included excerpts from the desperate requests for help she received from victims across the country. “I’ve been blackmailed by someone on Facebook,” one read. “Last night my 13-year-old daughter broke down and told us she had fallen prey to a sexual predator via Instagram and Snapchat,” said another.

Several months after Sadleir briefed the MPs, she told the M&G what she feared might happen. “We’re going to get this law, we’re going to go to the police, try and lay a complaint and the policemen are going to look at us like we’re idiots and not do anything.”

Several countries have already changed their laws. But drafting legislation to regulate the internet can be a slippery slope, which is why feminists are worried that if there are no laws in place to uphold rights to privacy and sexual freedom, governments may become preoccupied with trying to control women’s bodies and their sexual expression. Members of Parliament have to strike a balance between protecting human rights and keeping the internet accessible. Proposals to regulate it have ignited opposition from transparency and free speech groups.

Criminalising behaviour gives “a very clear moral indication” that something is wrong, said Vetten. But in the same breath she said the law could be a “blunt instrument”, so legislating something is never the total solution. Some people might find it difficult to accept that a person should go to jail for sharing a photo.

“Maybe we need a broader discussion around the ethics of what we do with images, [because] in the end it’s a bit like guns,” said Vetten. “You can train people to use guns, you can put in place gun control and you can criminalise things done with guns, but it does not stop people from murdering each other,” Vetten said.

Education becomes a vital factor — it involves teaching people from an early age about the importance of consent, the value of privacy and what constitutes a criminal offence. It is an essential tool that could influence behaviour later on in life.

Would it have made the person who posted nude photographs of Potgieter think twice? Maybe.

Client Media Releases

Rosebank College to open Pietermaritzburg Connected Campus
Intellectual property: an investment tool
ContinuitySA senior manager wins at BCI Africa Awards
NWU students attend African Traditional Medicine Day