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Activists Are Pleading With VK to Shut Down Groups Dedicated to Sexual Assault

Russian activists say VK isn't doing enough to shut down the violent groups.
The VK homepage. Image: Gil C/Shutterstock

When you think of a site that hosts rape videos and instructions on how to go about it, you do not think of the largest social media site in Russia, VK.com. 300 million accounts are registered on VK, and 80 million people log into it daily. Yet on this website, one can find dozens of groups dedicated entirely to violence against women.

Within these pages, you find images and videos from dimly lit rooms, where naked women lie asleep, inebriated, or unconscious. They are then subjected to a variety of sexual acts, devoid of consent.

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This is a sexual fetish called "sleeping sex," or the raping of unconscious women.

Last month, an online activist group called Facts_Antisexism discovered a page entirely dedicated to this fetish. The group was called "Sleeping sex" and had over 2,000 followers, who posted pictures and videos of unconscious women and discussed best ways to drug them.

The activists reported the group to the VK technical support team since it clearly violated VK's own terms of use: it hosted porn and instructions on how to commit a crime. The support agent, however, gave a baffling answer. Despite being presented with clear evidence of criminal activity, he said that that he did not have enough reasons to close the group. All he did was make this group inaccessible through VK's own search engine (as of writing, it was still easy to find through Google). The group remained open for days, even after several news outlets published stories about the activists' fight against it.

"Sex with an unconscious woman is rape [according to Russian law], and the people who instruct the rapist on how to go about it can be charged as their accomplices," said Mary Davtyan, a lawyer from Moscow, specializing in gender-based violence.

She went on to say that distribution of pornography is illegal, too—and in case of a trial, it would be the group administrator who would be charged. Other legal experts confirmed the criminal nature of these groups.

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"Posting pictures of an individual without his or her consent can result in a fine for the person who posted them", said Christina Lapshina, a Moscow-based criminal lawyer.

Both lawyers believe that such groups cannot exist on the social media platform since they incite violence against women. Sexual violence is already a massive problem in Russia. It is vastly underreported and badly prosecuted (only 2,965 men were convicted for rape in 2015), and women's rights organizations estimate that at least 30,00 ‒ 50,000 women fall victim to rape and sexual assault each year.

Searching for the relevant keywords on VK returns dozens of groups dedicated to the topic of sex with unconscious women. Users of such groups, which mostly appear to be men, post pictures of sleeping women, whom they call their wives, girlfriends, or sisters. More disturbingly, they sometimes even "invite" other men in the group to rape them in their presence, as a further extension of the fetish. Many more invite each other to private chats to swap pictures of unconscious women.

While a few photos and videos show what appears to be genuine rape, the administrator of the largest "sleeping sex" group, who calls himself Ivan, claimed in a VK chat with Motherboard that all the videos came from porn sites, and that he did not know which of them were staged, and which were not. On his group's page, he solicited members to write him messages if they "want to do the same" or "want to know how"—but when asked, he said that he was only interested in their fantasies, and never gave them any advice. He also denied ever raping an unconscious woman.

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Surprisingly, he did not seem to be worried about the attention his group received from the media and said that this attention only encouraged more people to join. This confidence, however, appears to have been short-lived: In recent days, the group's name was changed and access was restricted to everyone except existing members.

Of course, many other similar groups continue to exist, and which are still openly accessible.

Activists who try to fight against such groups, such as Victoria Safrontseva, an independent activist who wrote the first complaint to the VK administration, say that it takes combined effort by several people to get groups blocked. Usually, they have to complain to Roskomnadzor (RKN), the internet watchdog set by the Russian state. It was only after a warning from RKN that VK blocked a group called "Real rape" that was dedicated to violent rape videos. Other activists, like the admin from Facts_Antisexism, Olga Natalyina, who discovered the "sleeping sex" group, say that it's barely possible to get VK to close such groups, and that those who complain to the VK administration about them receive condescending advice like "don't read those groups if you don't like them."

The activists believe that the proliferation of such groups is the result of the deeply ingrained misogyny of the social media platform. They alleged that VK simply does not take violence against women seriously. The company line appears to be not acting on the issue because the crimes are not committed online. They see blocking groups as an act of censure that will not help eradicate the crime.

Activists don't agree: they want to make VK free from violence.

VK did not answer any of comment requests sent by Motherboard.