This article originally appeared on VICE Germany.
When I was 15, the biggest problems my classmates faced were all the usual teenage woes. How best to get vomit out of their parents' carpet after a house party? How best to finally have sex, with absolutely no experience in that field? For me, though, there was a more pressing issue. All I could think about was how long it would take for everyone I knew to forget about the photos they'd seen of my naked ass.
The story of my stolen nudes begins in 2007, in the childhood bedroom of my then boyfriend. Between posters of Christina Aguilera and Cristiano Ronaldo, I posed in my first lingerie set—a corset with suspenders, a matching thong, and stockings. Looking back, the fact I decided to opt for a set in a horrid pink and white color scheme might have been a sign that I wasn't quite mature enough to be taking sexy selfies for my boyfriend.
I took the selfies on his bed before he came home from school—legs open, hands on breasts, butt exposed—using the timer on my phone. When he arrived, I sent them to him via Bluetooth, but he deleted them from his phone. "If you keep them, they’ll eventually end up everywhere," he said.
He was right. In fact, it only took two weeks for a classmate to run up to me in school and show me a photo of my semi-naked body on her phone before she carefully explained that "the whole school has seen your ass."
The leak hadn't come from my boyfriend. Two other boys at school stole my phone out of my bag and sent themselves the photos. After that, they sent them to all of their friends, who in turn sent them to all of theirs. This snowballed until the entire school had caught a glimpse of me in that exposed state.
My teenage body was now communal property. The pictures originally marked a special moment in my life—the first time I looked at myself and thought I was sexy and grown-up. When I posed for the pictures, I had felt confident and empowered, and I had wanted to share that moment with my boyfriend. But that wasn't how it turned out, and I was left feeling disgustingly naïve.
"Women are often made to feel guilty for taking these sorts of photos and videos," Anna Hartmann, a digital violence officer at the German Federation of Women’s Counseling and Women’s Emergency Services, tells me. The organization launched a campaign in 2017 against digital violence, to help women who have suffered experiences like mine fight back.
According to Hartmann, more and more women are seeking counseling due to digital violence—though neither the counseling service nor the police know the exact figures. A spokesperson for the German Federal Criminal Department confirms that there were almost 6,000 reported incidents in 2016 in which photos and videos of intimate situations were deliberately leaked against the wishes of the people in the images. An Austrian survey in 2014 found that 16 percent of Austrian 14- to 18-year-olds said they had taken nude photos, while 50 percent reported knowing someone whose pictures had either been spread around, been used to blackmail, or to bully them.
When the iCloud accounts of female celebrities like Rihanna and Jennifer Lawrence were hacked and their nude photos were posted across the internet in 2014, the EU digital commissioner at the time, Günther Oettinger, said: "If someone, especially a celebrity, is stupid enough to take nude pictures of themselves and put them online, they shouldn't expect us to protect them." But if a person takes private naked photos that are subsequently stolen, they should be able to expect some protection. As Hartmann says, sexting itself isn't the problem; the blame should be on people who steal intimate images or publish them for clicks. "But far too often, we place the blame on the victims."
Two days after my photos first started spreading around school, a friend called me. He was calling to tell me that my best friend had just posted my pictures on her blog. When I checked the site, I saw that the caption below the photos read: "Whore."
This was my best friend, posting hurtful, derogatory messages about me online at a time when I needed her most. I felt ashamed, afraid, and completely alone, and I knew that I couldn't go back to school.
According to Hartmann, that was a perfectly normal reaction. "Watching your pictures or video spread quickly without knowing how many people will see it is an immense loss of control," she says.
I was pretty young when I learned the first rule of the internet: If something is online once, it’s online forever. But that might not always have to be the case in the future.
In December 2017, the EU passed new measures to better protect people affected by revenge porn and related acts, like what happened to me. In 2015, the British government introduced a law that made revenge porn a crime punishable by a two-year prison sentence. But in Germany, we don’t have any specific laws yet to tackle the issue.
As soon as I saw my pictures on the internet, it became clear that I wasn't going to be able to get out of the situation without a bit of help. So I went to my dad, who immediately called one of the boys who had stolen the photos, and threatened to contact his parents if they were not deleted immediately from my friend's blog.
The pictures were taken down quickly after that, but the problem didn't go away—I had no way of knowing just how many people had downloaded them in the hours after they went up, if other students had posted them somewhere too, or if any of my teachers had seen them.
The next day at school, the friend who had blogged my nude photos confronted me in the hallway about an angry text I had sent her the night before. Before I could say anything, she slapped me in the face. I walked back into the classroom, packed my stuff, and ran out of the building. I spent the rest of the morning crying behind the gym.
Eventually, I drew some strength from the idea that the next big school scandal was just around the corner, and that, soon, everyone would stop caring about my photos. In the weeks after, I went on something of a rebranding campaign. I wanted to prove to the people who insulted me that I wasn't who they said I was. So I dressed as basic as I could at the time—sneakers, jeans, and hoodies. I wore less makeup and didn’t go out. I devoted myself to my boyfriend, who I stayed with for a few more years because, I reasoned, if I had a boyfriend, nobody could call me a whore.
For the next two years, I had to share a class with the two boys who stole my photos. After my father spoke to one of them on the phone, they both apologized, which I accepted because I actually think they never expected it to get so out of hand.
But I didn’t speak to my former best friend for almost ten years. Until recently, when she added me as a friend on Facebook. I got in touch with her for this article to see if she remembered why she did it. "I just wanted to hurt you," she explained. "I can't even remember why. I just did. I guess the fact that I've forgotten shows how little I cared about your feelings."
Although I forgave my classmates, I have never been able to completely overcome the invasion of my privacy or the way that I was blamed for what happened. For years, people in my hometown who didn't even go to my school told me they'd seen those pictures of me. In many ways, it's still a big part of who I am. Even though I know now that I can wear whatever I want, I still can't help feeling like I've done something wrong whenever someone makes a throwaway comment about the way I look.
Ultimately, we need to come up with effective ways of ensuring that victims of nude leaks and revenge porn are taken more seriously and that social media and video platforms respond quickly and delete sexually violent conduct like this. Because, as Hartmann says, "Revenge porn is, above all, a form of gender-specific sexual assault."
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