The last thing going through my mind as I rushed out to meet Tom*, a guy I'd met through Hinge, was: 'Is my photo going to end up online if I sleep with him?' But from 2016 until last month, there was a distinct possibility that it could have. And that it could have been judged and commented on by an audience of over 7,000 men around the world.
Attractive and quick-witted, 29-year-old Tom seemed like a perfectly normal guy. Half an hour into awkward first date chit-chat, he mentioned a Facebook group he's a member of, in which men give each other tips on how to make successful online dating profiles. He then compared it to The Game, a 2005 book that documents the author's journey into the pickup artist "community" – a community full of men with little goatees who treat "talking to women" like it's a sport to be mastered.
After the date I found the Facebook group, which was set up by 28-year-old Alex Vilenchik, who's described on the website for Sopot Summit 2018 – an "epic pickup event" in Poland – as an "Online Game Coach". The premise is simple: to teach men how to achieve online dating success, i.e. how to sleep with as many women as possible using all the dating apps available.
The group is part of a $169 (£130) "comprehensive guide to getting laid on Tinder and other apps", ensuring "immediate results". Members advise each other on profile pictures, opening lines and how to hold a conversation. The proudest share photos. Photos of women who are naked or in their underwear with their faces blurred out, posing for photos that clearly weren't intended for the eyes of 7,000 strangers. Or, even more disturbingly, photos taken from the side or from behind while the women are turned away from the camera, strongly suggesting that they did not know they were being photographed.
When I asked Vilenchik if he knew whether the members of his group – who have been posting photos for almost two years – had gained consent to both take and post these photos, he told me that his group was "a big and active group and we started cracking down on certain posts recently when we have time. Nudes get auto flagged by Facebook immediately so there are no nudes." He assured me that "almost all women have had no issues" with the sexually explicit photos that he himself has posted of the women he has slept with.
Nearly all of the comments left underneath the posts validate or deprecate the women's bodies. "Damn this girl came to get fucked," writes a user under a photo posted in August of a girl in a tank-top and skirt opening a door. "She got fuckt yeah," replies the photographer, a Polish Justin Bieber lookalike with an Instagram following of 35,000. I'm relieved to find nothing about myself; Tom's last post dates back to February of this year and doesn't include any photographic content.
After finding the page, I called my date, Tom, to talk about it. He recognises that the group has crossed a very obvious line, but is nonchalant when I ask him why this didn't push him to leave or report it. He understands why so many people would look at this group in horror, but doesn't make the connection between the abhorrent violation of privacy and the pain these photos could cause.
"I think [the reason] that wouldn't cross so many guys' minds would be because you see an action but you don't see a consequence," he said. "To our knowledge, there hasn't been a consequence. I don't know any girl that has been affected by this. If I'm the moderator of the group I'm hot on that, but it's the same as if you're on Instagram or Twitter: you can see stuff you don't agree with, but you won't feel like you have to step up and report this.
"What I found interesting was the environment where people can talk about their experiences and try to improve themselves. It's no surprise that guys, when going through that journey, are going online and saying, 'Am I doing it wrong?' I think it's fine that guys can have some kind of a group where they talk about this kind of stuff and where they can analyse what they're doing wrong and right."
The idea of a space where men could voice their insecurities to other men without being judged kept Tom coming back. And that's understandable. But surely you can solicit and give decent advice without sharing a photo of a young woman splayed out naked on your bed.
Scanning through the list of the group's administrators and moderators, it's clear that many are successful and well-liked. One of them is a Grammy-winning pianist with over 4,000 Twitter followers. Another is an Italian DJ with photos of Shakira and David Guetta on his Facebook profile.
These are not men who have been rejected by society. In fact, the most worrying thing about the most prominent users is their camouflage: how well versed they are in the social norms that have allowed them to sleep with the women they post photos of, and how little empathy they seem to display in posting those photos.
These men are a different breed to incels, who regard sex as a natural right and view women exclusively as servants to their sexual desires.
In a thread where a user claims that "sex is for males' benefit not females'", he is rejected by Vilenchik, who says his ideas "come from a place of pain and are extremely unhealthy", and another fellow administrator, who claims the user is "bitter and insecure". Another user comments: "This is an absolutely ridiculous ideology. This is how serial rapists are born."
"I've had some of these women do webinars with me for the group," Vilenchik told me in an email. "I can forward you to 100k feminist groups where they do post male nudes, private conversations and the faces of men. On a large scale that seems to be permitted by Facebook, journalists and media like VICE."
I asked Vilenchik to send me the names of these groups so I could investigate. He is yet to get back to my request, sent in late September.
The group was disabled 48 hours after Facebook was alerted to its existence. Both of Vilenchik's accounts have been deleted, as have those of the other four admins – but the group's other six moderators and most prominent users are still online.
That the group managed to fly under the radar for so long raises questions about what Facebook is doing to protect its users and regulate groups sharing harmful content. The site has come under fire for failing to detect and deal with reports of groups sharing child pornography, and most recently groups selling protected species of exotic wildlife in Thailand. This time, the subject matter is much more banal: any woman unlucky enough to hook up with a guy who posted photos to this page.
In response to the investigation, a Facebook spokesperson said: "We know that intimate images are sometimes shared without the consent of the person depicted, which goes against our values and rules, and we have removed this group, and permanently removed its admin, from Facebook with immediate effect. We have invested heavily in tools including photo-matching technology to prevent attempts to share non-consensual intimate images on Facebook, Messenger and Instagram before the images even reach the platform. We will also continue to work with experts and charities to provide support to people who may be impacted by this damaging behaviour."
I don't know whether Tom will continue to use Vilenchik's material after reading this, and I don't know if this article will dissuade other aspiring pick-up artists from doing the same. What I do know is that Tom and 7,319 others allowed members of this group to continue posting intimate photos of women without their consent, without saying a thing.
*Name has been changed.