Culture

How it Feels to Find Your Face Photoshopped Onto Internet Porn

We spoke to Noelle Martin about the day everything changed, and how she rallied for new legislation so others wouldn't face the same ordeal.

by Ruby Harris
18 April 2019, 9:14am

All images via Noelle Martin

This article originally appeared on VICE AU.

Twenty-four-year-old Noelle Martin recently won the WA Young Australian of the Year award, which represents a fairly happy end to an otherwise traumatising journey. It began when she was 18. Noelle had started university when she decided to google herself, just for kicks, as everyone does. But what she discovered was terrifying – and to make matters worse, she discovered there was nothing she could do about it under Australian law at the time.

Here we speak to the young Perth woman about how she succeeded at enacting legislative change.

VICE: Hey Noelle, can you tell me a little bit about how you found these photos of yourself online?
Noelle Martin: So I was 18 years old and at uni. And I did a Google Image reverse search – I just uploaded a photo to see where else the photo was on the internet.

So it was just out of curiosity?
Yeah, it was literally just curiosity. And I instantly found page after page of search results with dozens of pornographic sites. I felt physically sick; I actually felt like I was going to vomit. For a while, I went down the rabbit hole of looking at the sites and it wasn’t just images, it was horrific commentary about me along with identifiable information: my name, my address, and what I was studying. It had all been made public. They were even trying to find out the name of my childhood best friend, so they could hack my Facebook. By the time I found out, they'd already been preying on me for a year and they’d been targeting me since I was 17.

Did you have any idea who could have been responsible for these images? Did you think it was someone you knew?
My understanding of the motivation is that it isn’t someone I knew, but rather some strangers somewhere who had seen images of me at an event and fetishised me. In the beginning, a lot of the pornographic sites were about not only amateur women but also women with bigger breasts. So I think originally that was the motivation.

That’s awful. So after you found that, what was the next step?
Well, I went to the police. I cried on the phone to Government agencies. I tried getting a private investigator. At that time, there were no laws about this issue in the state I was in, which was New South Wales. This kind of issue wasn’t ever discussed in the media. In fact, when I first spoke out, I actually had to coin a term to describe what was happening to me. One of the websites that had these doctored images was called MORPHS. I called the practice "Morph-porn" because I wanted to try and validate the issue. There was literally no term at the time.

These days we call this kind of thing "deepfakes." Do you know anything about the people responsible?
The sites were hosted overseas, and the perpetrators were most likely overseas too. I had no idea who was doing this to me, so I just had literally no control or power over the situation and there was nothing anyone could do. I was told that I had to contact the sites to get everything deleted; I was told to make sure my privacy settings were tight. And so I started the journey of spending years contacting these sites, trying to get things taken down.

What was the response when you were contacting these sites? Did they take the material down?
It was mixed. Some took them down, others didn’t even answer – but even when they did take them down, a few weeks later it would be back up again. There was one site in particular that I had probably sent 10 or 12 requests to delete it, and it would still show up every couple of months that I would check back in. One webmaster told me he would only delete the site if I sent him nude photos of myself within 24 hours. It just was a never-ending battle as well because the more I'd try and get the sites deleted the more sites were popping up, and the more people had been seeing the photos, and the more it was just getting out of my control. It was proliferating to the point where I would never, ever, even to this day, be able to fully get the pictures deleted.

Is it impossible to track down the perpetrators down because they're international, or would it be just as hard to track them down if these websites were hosted in Australia?
I think the big difficulty is the resources it requires to actually go and try and find the perpetrators. Depending on how savvy they are, they often use encrypted emails, fake emails, and fake names. They’ll use VPNS, so they’ll mask where they're actually living. They could be anywhere around the world and they’ll be able to cover their tracks. Plus, even if the authorities do find someone, whether or not they’re in Australia and Australia has any jurisdiction to actually hold them accountable is a whole other issue. To this day, I have no idea who's responsible for the doctored images of me, and I don’t think I ever will.

You’ve said online that you’ve received hate for speaking out on this. Where does that hate come from?
When I first spoke out, which was a couple of years ago, my story went worldwide. I got a lot of hate in the form of victim blaming and slut shaming. People would say things like 'She looks like she’s a whore,' 'She was asking for it,' 'Look at the way she dresses,' 'It’s probably her in the images and she’s just trying to play it off like it’s fake.' You know: horrific personal attacks and fundamental victim blaming attitudes directed towards me. I think that was probably one of the hardest things, just as hard as the abuse was.

I don’t think people fully grasp what this does to a person. There’s a lot of misunderstanding about this, and I think that people are reluctant to come forward and say that they’ve been a victim. And that's completely understandable: when you come forward you risk bringing more attention to these photos of you. So the consequence of that is that there aren’t many people who are actually victim advocates, or victims who have shared their stories. This is kind of a thing where I was one of the only, to this day, victim advocates in Australia who have put their face to the issue. So it’s given people license to direct their misunderstandings to me, and that’s kind of what I’ve copped throughout the years.

What made you decide to put your face to this issue and speak out? Was that an obvious choice from the beginning?
No, no. I want to make clear that I understand why people wouldn’t speak out. I don’t want to come across as the only person who was willing to speak out, because I totally understand why people wouldn’t want to. It took me years and years and years before I found the courage to talk about it, even to talk to my parents about it. This was so emotionally distressing for me for so long and I was fighting a never-ending battle that was always going to be out of my control. There were so many people that this was happening to, that just didn’t know that it was something that people did to others on the internet.

I thought people needed to know; I needed to reclaim my name and my image, and I wanted to fight for justice because I believe that perpetrators should be held accountable. So that’s why I spoke out. I never in my wildest dreams wanted to do this. In fact, even to this day, as much as it’s been so rewarding in terms of being able to help people, I don’t know if I’d relive it again and I don’t know if I’d want to do it again. If I had some other option, I’d probably take that.

Deepfake of Noelle Martin
On left is Noelle's original photo. On right her face has been photoshopped onto someone else's body.

Now, you said you were happy for us to publish a pixelated version of the images you were finding. Can you explain your reasoning here?
Look, I have had ups and downs with that. In the beginning it would be very upsetting to me. When it first went worldwide, some of the news organisations I followed would have an article about me alongside a censored image of my naked body. It was very, very upsetting. But I also understand, because people have said to me that when they saw the images and when they saw the censored images, that’s when things got really real for them. People could actually understand how horrific it would’ve been. So I guess if people need to see it to understand, then that’s okay. I don’t think it affects me as much as it used to, and I think if it’s making a difference by getting people to really get the issue, then that’s a good thing.

In terms of the work you did with the law in Australia, and now with the global work you’re trying to achieve, how did you even know how to go about doing that?
I’ve had no help. I don’t have any guidance, because there literally is no blueprint. That’s the scary part about all of this. There is no blueprint for me; there’s been no other victim advocates who are fighting for something that I can kind of emulate in this area.

So I’ve been privileged in the fact that I’ve had a law degree, and that I was studying law, and that I was able to have that as a way to give me insight into how I could go about this. But it’s been a situation of just going everywhere and seeing what comes. I’ve contacted a lot of people in the beginning to speak, and they turned me down. I contacted a lot of politicians who have not wanted to meet with me, and I’ve contacted politicians who did meet with me. It’s just been that situation of anyone who would listen to me, I just had to make the most of it. Even when I petitioned, I contacted almost every women’s group that I could find on Google and I ended up only getting around 300 signatures. That was one of the most disheartening things, because I was just trying with all of my might to do what I can and it wasn’t being met with a lot of support. There were a lot of failures and successes, and it’s just been that route.

Can you talk to me a little bit about how the laws have changed since you discovered your images?
So across Australia, the law has now changed. It's now illegal to distribute intimate images without consent. That also means altered images depicting intimate material – so that would cover my situation. Since I’ve been public, the perpetrators have also created fake videos of me as a means to silence me. That’s also illegal now, the situation of altered intimate videos, and that’s the case in the states and territories as well, but the law does vary. Effectively, though, it’s criminal to distribute images without consent. In most places it’s also illegal to record, as well as to threaten to distribute or threaten to record.

That’s great to hear. Can you tell me a bit about the experience of receiving WA Young Australian of the Year?
It was the most incredible, incredible moment. It was so remarkable for me, because the actual winner is chosen from a subset of society. Everyday people decide who gets the award. To have society or a representation of society understand what I was fighting for and understand what I went through, and to recognise that, is proof that our culture can change and that we are changing. This is such a huge change from only a couple of years ago, where the dominant response was victim blaming and slut shaming, to now, where people are really changing their minds on this issue. It just shows me how much we can all change.

Why do you think people resorted to victim blaming, when the images weren’t even of you?
I think, more than anything, I refuse to change my social media presence. I intentionally refuse to change the way I dress, or change my privacy settings, because I don't believe, on principle, that we should have to. Even though that’s something that the tech safety and the cyber safety people will tell victims, I refuse to buy into that. I really, really get very upset that there’s that kind of responsibility placed on victims to have to protect themselves. I’ve been very open about that. That kind of undermines my credibility to a lot of people. So for people in Western Australia to understand what I was trying to do, what kind of statement I was trying to make, and still support me, is so amazing. I’m just amazed at how much progress we have made in such a short amount of time.

So what’s next for you? Are you still working in this area, and do you think it’s something you’re going to have to continue doing for a long time?
Right now my focus is on getting a global response to this issue. The internet is borderless, and if someone was experiencing this in Australia today – the same experience as I had experienced – what would their options be? Quite frankly, even though it’s criminalised across Australia, if it proliferated to such a point where it’s out of their control then I also feel like they could either do nothing or they'd have to speak out publicly to reclaim their name. If you go down the route of trying to get everything deleted then it could take years and years, and it might never be accomplished, and you might never get justice because it might be someone from overseas. So for me, that’s the test: if someone else was experiencing the exact same thing as I was, today, in Australia, what would be their avenue to stop it? We need a global response. That global collaboration does exist when it comes to child sexual exploitation material. I don’t know if it’s going to happen for a while, but I think being someone who at least puts it out there is where my focus is.

What advice would you give to someone who is going through a similar experience to you right now?
I would say that they are not alone. That they are not to blame. I would urge them to not feel ashamed, because what has happened to them is criminal and it is horrific and dehumanising and they deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. There is justice, and there are people fighting for you. Go to the police; contact the e-safety commission. There are avenues. I think, fundamentally, I would tell them that they are not alone and they are not to blame.

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