I’ve spent some time following the conversations online about image based sexual abuse. Some of you may know it better as Revenge Porn, however, I won’t call it that. Revenge is harming someone in return for you having harmed them. Sharing someone’s photographs and/or personal information online without their consent doesn’t deserve to be called revenge.
Following the hashtags and reading the comments is difficult. It brings up a wide range of emotions for me. Sometimes I want to speak out, but I don’t know if I should. When I read an opinion that is hurtful, or ignorant of the reality for many people – sometimes I feel angry. Sometimes I want to react angrily because it’s hurtful. Reacting by trying to shout down strangers on the internet won’t help anyone, though. It’ll just reaffirm to both sides that they are right, and the other is wrong. It will create more division and more anger.
So, instead, after much thought and debate in my own head, I’ve asked if I could just blog and share my story here. Maybe it will offer a different insight to someone who doesn’t understand, maybe it will feel relatable to someone who understands all too well.
I was barely a teenager the first time I received an unwanted photo of a man’s penis on the internet. This man was more than three times my age, and this took place before camera phones were an extension to our hands. This was back when you talked to people online using forums, and unsolicited dick pics were sent as email attachments.
It’s important to note that my barely-a-teenager self was already struggling with mental health problems. I had already been subject to abuse, and to significant loss. I had already begun self-harming, and I was struggling with my eating. I didn’t know how to talk about any of it. I was “smart” and “mature” and “so grown up for my age”. In my head, I felt responsible for looking after everyone else, and I believed I would be burdening my family further if they knew I wasn’t perfect. This inability to talk was worsened by the fact that I grew up in a strict Catholic family, and sex was absolutely not something that was spoken about in our home.
A child who is struggling mentally, who is unable to talk to anyone, is vulnerable to predatory people. I was one of those children.
That three-times-my-age man was the first, but he was by no means the only. He, and so many others, didn’t start out with the photo. They started by being my “friend”. They often echoed the sentiments about how “smart” and “mature” and “grown up for my age” I was. Eventually, conversations would turn sexual. If I was shy or uncomfortable or awkward, at first they’d be nice about it, but this would always turn to guilt-tripping.
It was classic grooming.
After time, I began sending photos back. This was what every male I seemed to come into contact with expected of me. I started to believe this was what I was supposed to do. So I did. If I tried to say no, my photos were used as a means to blackmail me. Over the years I even started to seek it out myself. I went further and further down the path of self-destruction. And the men used that. They used my willingness to hurt myself as a means to punish me. When I was told to perform on camera for strangers, I did. When I was told to pierce my own nipples, I did. I stopped questioning and just did what I was told to do.
Sometimes my photos were shared online. Sometimes my phone number was shared too. I am still terrified to this day that they will come back to haunt me.
I was an adult by the time I finally got out of that cycle of abuse and destruction. And I’m lucky I got out. I am lucky that a decent guy saw what I was doing, recognised what a mess I was, and helped me find my way back out. Not many are that lucky.
When I see comments that blame those who send photos, it makes me angry, it makes me feel sad, and it makes me feel crushing guilt. More than a decade later, I still struggle with guilt. I still feel like it’s my fault – I blame my child self because I was so “mature” and “grown up”. And then I remind myself of the people I love who have been through the same thing, the strangers I have never met who have been through the same thing. And I think about how it is in absolutely no way their fault.
If you were groomed – it’s not your fault. If you sent a photo to your partner in confidence, and they sent it to their friends without consent – it’s not your fault. If you post photos on Only Fans and someone hunts down your personal information and shares it online – it’s not your fault.
Some people will disagree – and sure, you are less likely to have your photos shared online if you never take them in the first place. You’re less likely to be mugged if you don’t walk down a dark alley alone at night. You’re less likely to be hit by a drunk driver if you never cross the road. You’re less likely to fall down if you never stand up. Where do we stop?
Yes – there are things we can do to protect ourselves. But not doing those things does not make someone any less of a victim, and it does not make the perpetrator of a crime any less guilty.
I understand that it can be hard for some people to understand why others share naked photographs, particularly those who didn’t grow up with the internet. It can be hard to understand things we wouldn’t do ourselves – but we never understand through judgement. I have never told my parents what happened – I fear being judged, and being a disappointment.
My request is that you try to understand, and be open to listening. Talk to your children about it. I know it’s scary, but not talking to them is far scarier. I had all of the internet restrictions, desktop in the family room, and far less access to technology than children do today, and my story still happened. Listen before speaking. Understand before sharing your opinion. Don’t alienate people from being able to open up to you – it only serves to help create the very environment that allows image based sexual abuse to happen.
If you’ve been through this, or if you’re going through it, know that you are not alone. It is not your fault. You don’t deserve it.