Caragh Medlicott reviews a timely new documentary from BBC Three, When Nudes Are Stolen, examining the proliferation of image-based sexual abuse, and those fighting to stop its escalation in the internet age.
Content warning: Image-based sexual abuse.
When Jessica Davies was just fifteen, her private photos – taken at the request of a crush – were spread around her school in Aberystwyth. What started in the classroom, soon reverberated throughout the community, with the images continuing to circulate amongst not just teenagers, but grown men. Disturbing as it may be, such instances of image-based sexual abuse are frighteningly common; a phenomenon Davies explores through the lens of her own experience as a glamour-model-turned-influencer in the BBC Three documentary, When Nudes Are Stolen.
It’s a timely film. While women must continuously navigate the scaffolding of a patriarchal society, certain cultural moments draw the attention of the general public back to what is, ultimately, an ongoing issue. A collection of such moments have flickered across the headlines in recent months. There was the tragic murder of Sarah Everard, and the subsequent over-policing of what should have been a peaceful vigil. In pop culture, documentaries like Framing Britney Spears have prompted a reconsidering of decades passed and the chronic mistreatment of young female stars. Interestingly, it was this waning era of ‘lad mags’ which first saw Davies rise to prominence as a glamour model.
Today, the abundance of her past shoots coupled with photos scraped from her social media accounts have made Davies a prime target for image theft. Every day, Davies encounters new fake social media profiles using her stolen images to scam men out of their money. Some of these accounts use her real name, and some don’t – still, many of the men who fall victim end up redirecting their anger towards Davies herself.
As Davies explains, “I know not all men are bad… but all the bad situations I’ve had, are with men”. In tracing image-based sexual abuse through Davies’ own story, When Nudes Are Stolen attempts to make an insurmountable topic, if not digestible, then at least impactful. Part of the problem with tackling revenge porn, and other kinds of image theft, is just how ubiquitous the phenomenon is. Once an image or video has been posted online, permanently removing it is incredibly hard. The statistics are worrying; the first cross-national survey into image-based sexual abuse found that one in six of the respondents had taken, shared or threatened to share sexual images of a person without their consent. Behind those numbers are countless real women trying to navigate the shame and harassment that so often accompanies violations of this kind.
In attempting to take the subject on, When Nudes Are Stolen covers a lot of ground. Interview locations jump from Cardiff to Arizona, Ireland to Australia. It’s not a cohesive permutation – but then neither is the issue at hand. Image-based sexual abuse is a jagged, multi-faceted problem that pertains to a wider culture of misogyny and objectification. Over the course of the film, Davies speaks to a whole host of people; not just researchers and activists, but a man who was catfished by an account using her images and another young man who had previously made money ‘eWhoring’ (more on that later).
The most resonant moments of When Nudes Are Stolen often come from Davies’ own journey of discovery, with numerous chilling examples of just how deep the tendrils of the internet run. With help from a private investigator, Davies discovers that her photos are being used to promote a variety of online scams, from escort services to porn sites and cam chats. Speaking to her friend and former glamour model, Joey Fisher (now an OnlyFans creator), we see how women who sell sexual images online are made vulnerable – not just by harassment – but financially, with men stealing paid-for content and posting it in free online forums. A collage of screenshots from subreddits of this kind lay bare the way these men discuss women; frequently slut-shaming those they steal from, and posting aggressive, misogynistic comments to boot. As Dr Jessica Taylor tells Davies, this kind of behaviour existed before the internet, but the anonymity and seclusion of such communities have disinhibited men even further.
And that seems to be the rub. The proliferation of image-based sexual abuse is a symptom of a wider social problem, one which still sees women’s bodies as commodities. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the case of eWhoring. Unfortunately named, eWhoring refers to the act of collating explicit photographs of women – either leaked or stolen – and then selling and trading them in specific online forums “like they’re Pokemon cards”. Generally, the images go on to be used for catfishing purposes or in other online scams. When Davies posts her own image in a forum to see if people are selling ‘packs’ of her photographs, the response comes within two minutes – she can purchase a whole folder of images with a $15 Amazon voucher.
She later gets the chance to discuss the issue with Aku, a young man who has moved on from years of eWhoring after first getting involved aged just thirteen. Despite dropping the practice, she finds that Aku is ultimately unremorseful, insisting that women have to live with their decisions to share explicit photos and videos. It’s clear that while men like Aku are allowed to move on from their past choices – good and bad – women are not afforded the same privilege.
Legislation is often slow to catch up with the murky world of internet crime and transgression. Still, some progress has been made in recent times. The main legislation that protects against Image-based sexual abuse in England and Wales is The Criminal Justice and Courts Act of 2015, with The Draft Domestic Abuse Bill 2020 – (due to be made law later this year) – set to make it illegal to threaten to share explicit images, too. Laws of this kind are important, yet in the wild west of the internet, it’s clear cultural shifts are also necessary for true progress. There are no easy answers, a fact When Nudes Are Stolen reckons with. In the end, Davies’ final message echoes one we’ve heard repeated ad infintum in recent months; in order for toxic male behaviour to change, men need to start calling out unacceptable behaviour when they see it.
Correction: This review incorrectly described Dr Jessica Taylor as a forensic psychologist. Amended on 11.03.22.
Image credit: BBC
You can watch When Nudes Are Stolen on BBC Three now.