My life after revenge pornography

We need stricter sanctions and for the system to recognize revenge pornography as a separate criminal offense / Illustration: Freepik

After the report against the administrator of the Telegram group where intimate videos of girls were shared was dismissed, the question of why revenge pornography is not a criminal offense has been raised again. One of the victims talks about life after the published video.

Written by Nikolina Ilić

There is an imaginary scale of mistakes. Or forgivability of errors. It was created by society. A society of moral boulders. On that scale, the least forgivable sin is sex.

An innocuous video or photo in a moment of passion, and after that, an indelible mark on the Internet. And in life. They believed they were safe, in love, and loved. And they loved it. They didn't think that one moment would change their lives forever. “Forever” sounds just too long. But, without exaggeration, it truly is. Once leaked to the public, an explicit recording leaves an eternal label. And, again, without exaggeration, the woman is always the one who is undeniably marked. The man was not revolted by her action and forwarded the video to his friends, posted it on the Internet or posted it in a Telegram group. He was furious. She allowed him to record or photograph her. If, after all, it happened without her consent, why wasn't she more careful?

Revenge pornography is a problem more and more girls and women are facing. When one of them opened the topic of groups on Telegram in which men exchanged photos and videos of women, and often young girls, on social networks, this problem became better known. Even today, despite the public outcry, there is an archive of explicit videos or nude photos of girls in the groups. Home addresses and other personal information of some of them are also available.

More than two years after the arrest of the Telegram group administrator, the Special Public Prosecutor's Office for High-Tech Crime has decided not to initiate criminal proceedings. He was arrested in March 2021 for alleged collecting and possession of abusing children in pornography.

I remember when a girl in my surroundings encountered this problem. No one reacted. That is, no one responded as they should in such a situation. But we didn't even know how. At the time (some ten years ago), revenge pornography was, at least for us, uncharted territory. Maybe because we were from a small town or didn't care much about it. We laughed, and she cried. And the fact that we did not know is not an excuse. From this perspective, there is no excuse.

“My mistake was that I believed him. But we all make mistakes; only my mistake was less forgivable than others. It was more expensive. It cost me a lot,” said a girl who survived revenge pornography.

When the video of her was released to the public, she became a moving target. An avalanche of moral judgments fell on her in a second, changing her life forever. She was 16 years old. She lived in a small, rural environment where there were no secrets. She became known as “easy,” a "prostitute," and there were many even more terrible labels. And that young man became a hotshot among his friends, especially because she was one of those “popular” girls.

Even today, despite the public outcry, there is an archive of explicit videos or nude photos of girls in the groups. Home addresses and other personal information of some of them are also available.

She remembers everything she went through. She remained “that girl” forever. After so many years, it hasn't stopped. They never stopped looking at her as the girl from the video. And she says that she is aware that they never will.

“It started with me trusting and ended with me taking everything with reservations... Well, it didn't quite end. I feel like it never ends. I carry a 'mark' on my body from that day. They marked me. I am marked for life because I trusted. I could never have imagined it would end like that. Today, when I look back at everything that happened, I feel a stabbing in the stomach, and my body twitches,” the girl who was marked without being guilty of anything begins the conversation.

She remembers every moment, all the feelings, and questions that went through her mind in a millisecond when she saw the video, “What will I tell my parents?” "How will I look my dad in the eye?” “How will I show up at school?”. They shared the video with the school group she was in.

She agreed to talk about it because, as she emphasized, she needs to know that people, especially girls, see the victim as not to blame. She does not deserve the label, but by him, who gambled away her trust to take revenge on her. And to share how she feels now. How she lives after the video. During our conversation, she seemed to have flashbacks occasionally, and her fingers were clenched.

“At first, I thought that the only way out of that situation was death. Because, inevitably, everyone will find out it is a small community. Of course, everyone found out. And their reaction killed me mentally."

She says she was most afraid of her father's reaction. Because her mother, as a mother, will always understand everything. But it is a different story with the father because it's his daughter.

When it comes to this case, the investigators only focused on abusing children in pornography because the law in Serbia does not recognize revenge pornography as a criminal offense.

Revenge pornography, the practice of unauthorized publication of intimate images or videos without a person's consent, is still not criminalized in Serbia. Following the prosecutor's decision to dismiss the complaint, victims can file private lawsuits against those responsible for the unauthorized publication of their photographs. However, the chance of success is low due to the statute of limitations.

In addition, weak social support further worsens the victim's position. The most common and primarily accurate consequence is the victim's withdrawal from digital space. But that does not permanently solve anything. Because of society's inaction or poor reaction, these girls receive the message that the violence they suffered is justified.

“He forwarded the video to my parents and older brother. When my mother came into the room and told me we needed to talk, I knew what it was about. I wanted to jump out of my skin. To die. To vanish."

“He forwarded the video to my parents and older brother. When my mother came into the room and told me we needed to talk, I knew what it was about. I wanted to jump out of my skin. To die. To vanish. However, in the end, they understood. They didn't blame me and didn't let me fall. They were disappointed, but they tried not to let me see it. They reported him, to no avail, but they tried.”

Despite everything, the girl who agreed to speak for “Velike priče” managed to cope. It took her many years, and she still carries the consequences, but she learned that the released video does not define her or her life.

“I always wondered what to do after the video as well. That burden fell on a fragile, small sixteen-year-old girl who did not know what had hit her. She fought and fought... She learned to deal with the situation. I decided that I was better than all the nicknames and labels that were stuck on my forehead. And there were many of them; I can't remember them anymore. They would point a finger at me; I saw how people looked at me, and I read the judgment in their eyes. Somehow, everyone acted like it couldn't happen to them and like no one had ever had sex. Imagine you are having sex, and at the age of 16, no less. You are not even supposed to talk about it then, to think about sex, let alone have it. Well, it's not quite like that,” she said.

What was strange to her was that, after everything, it was the girls who judged her more. “I was the first in class to have sex; imagine that.”Judgment for that, judgment for allowing myself to be filmed, and judgment for being with such a guy. The slap of reality hits you, and you don't know what to do. You become lost in everything. I was empty; I didn’t want anything more from life. Imagine that, at 16, you don't want anything anymore. And I just started living.”

Once the compass is recovered, it is easier to get back on track. At one point, all the world's burden falls on the girl who is the victim, and she, of course, doesn't know what to do next. Some girls, unfortunately, never manage to find the compass, and the environment doesn't do anything about it besides pouring salt on the open wound with a storm of disgusting comments.

The big question is how to live after everything. It happened, and what next? Most decide to live in the shadows from then on. A label constantly accompanies her. They live their life under the veil of “mistake.”

“When I changed my mindset and allowed myself to live, I won. I don't think people have forgotten, but I don't care anymore. I'm just sorry that not everyone always wins. Some girls live their whole lives in the shadow of ‘one wrong moment,’ one, let's say, a thoughtless moment of passion. I'm also sorry that some people have so much hatred, jealousy, and desire for a moment of heroism hidden inside of them,” emphasized the girl who survived revenge pornography.

But at the end of the day, there are no heroes because they shared that video; the heroes are the girls who won. And those who have not but are struggling with it from the shadows.

“I was afraid of men for a long time. I had the feeling that everyone wanted only one thing from me. I was afraid that he would continue hurting me forever. I believed that I would never trust anyone. I went to therapies, worked on myself both physically and mentally, and had the full support of my parents, but fear was stronger than anything else. If a man approached me, I automatically refused any form of communication. I automated that reaction and didn't let anyone get close to me.”

No matter how hard she tried to look strong in front of the world, she says she felt sorry for herself. Because “even though she’s strong, she’s not made of stone”.

“It took me a long time to fall in love. And I let go when I realized I wasn't that video. The video is part of my past, but it is not part of me. I just realized that it can't go on like that forever. It didn't come overnight. I allowed myself to let go of the past and be happy. I am not defined by one mistake; I define myself. I decided to be defined as a strong, brave, and loving woman. And I am that now. It took me a long time to let someone touch me; I shied away from sex for years as I convinced myself that I shouldn't do it because of everything that happened.”

Society refuses to understand that “the girl from the video” can be any of us. And that, for the most part, she's not alone in that video. What about the man? He had sex, too. Why do we forgive him more easily? How come we have nothing to forgive? The motive of all this is not to say the man is wrong just because he is a man, but that what he did was terrible, and he should bear responsibility.

The question arises as to how this problem can be influenced if no law protects the victim of revenge pornography. Is the only solution really to stop sending photos and videos?

As stated in the first survey on gender-based violence in digital surroundings, “In front of the Screens,” conducted by NGO Atina, “More than half of the respondents (53.2 percent) stated that they survived violence in digital surroundings and that they know a peer who survived digital violence. The attitudes of girls support these findings that they are more exposed to violence compared to men. According to this survey, a quarter of respondents claim that girls need to be careful when posting online content and that they should have responsibility.”

“During the next research, 'Behind the Screens,' which looked into the experiences of girls identified as victims of human trafficking about digital violence, several of them said that, when they tried to report threats, harassment, reposting of their images and videos, and destruction of their privacy, stability, and life in general, they received a response, that is advice, from professionals to delete their profile, to change their name on social networks, not to post photos and the like,” said Andrijana Radoičić Nedeljković, one of the authors of the research “Behind the Screens,” on behalf of NGO Atina.

On the one hand, there is the problem of shifting the responsibility to the victim, not only in terms of her being guilty of the violence she experienced but also that she was responsible for stopping it. On the other hand, there is a message of a powerless system. ‘There's nothing we can do to stop someone from ruining another person's life in the digital space.’

Andrijana Radoičić Nedeljković says that placing the burden on the victim often happens because of outdated and patriarchal social norms and attitudes. “Instead of condemning the perpetrator, the victim is often blamed for their actions, even though it is a crime committed by another person. People resort to blaming the victim because it is easier to preserve the image of a world where bad things don't happen ‘just like that, out of the blue.' However, the second basis for blaming the victim lies in the social distribution of power, as men more often commit violence, and the victims of violence are more often women and children, i.e., those with less social power. The narratives marketed to the public have been created for decades by those who had power in society to shape social reality. That is why some phrases, when it comes to sexual violence against women, are retained in the public discourse for generations as a commonplace and universal 'justification' for violence when essentially it is blaming the victim and justifying the violence,” emphasized Andrijana Radoičić Nedeljković, adding that today, this is perhaps most clearly shown in the example of digital violence, where the question is not why someone could, and was allowed to, abuse a woman's trust, but why the woman was recording herself in the first place.

“The slap of reality hits you, and you don't know what to do. You become lost in everything. I was empty; I didn’t want anything more from life. Imagine that, at 16, you don't want anything anymore. I just started living.”

We genuinely lack awareness of the magnitude of the problem and then empathy. We should not feel sorry for the victims but understand them and label them. Because what comes after the video ruins the lives of these girls. And all because he was jealous or angry. And because we find something funny. And because we blame the victim.

In addition, we need stricter sanctions and for the system to recognize revenge pornography as a separate criminal offense. The fact that the system does not stand up for them makes them blame themselves. If a legal provision on the prosecution of revenge pornography were introduced, the situation would fundamentally change because women would be able to count on legal protection. At the same time, punishments for perpetrators would be more effective.

“Currently, although there are some laws related to the distribution of unauthorized material, many of them do not define revenge pornography as a separate form of crime. If a clear legal definition were introduced, it would be easier for law enforcement authorities to identify and punish perpetrators. In addition to legal recognition, all professionals must approach digital gender-based violence responsibly and adequately, with sensitivity and understanding of the consequences of violence. Only when practice and the normative framework are aligned can we talk about an improved system of protection for women who have survived digital gender-based violence,” said Andrijana Radoičić Nedeljković.

On April 2023, the Draft Law for the Criminal Prosecution of Revenge Pornography was submitted to the parliamentary authorities. However, although this small step seemed significant then, the draft has been tapping in place for six months now. While we wait for the impasse to break, the only thing that can be done is to spread social awareness and responsibility about revenge pornography.

The girl who experienced it says that there is no need for anyone to look at her through the prism of revenge pornography. “I don't want to point the finger and say: he is guilty because he talked behind my back because he played the video, she is guilty because she laughed at me. After ten years, I want people to understand I was not guilty. Above anyone else, I was not to be blamed. They played with my life and made up stories; they were cruel. I am no more sinful than those who stuck labels on me.”

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