This interview was shared with Equality Now through #myimagemychoice, a survivor-led coalition asking for trauma-informed global laws and policy on intimate image abuse.
I’m a 28-years-old teacher and I first became aware of explicit images being shared because my friend’s sister was a victim. She was alerted by a girl she knew saying, “I’m really sorry, my boyfriend’s seen this image board”. She was devastated and really confused about how they’d emerged on the Internet because the photos had never been sent anywhere.
She kept it quiet because my hometown is very small, people talk. So she just reported it to the police and didn’t want to draw much attention. Six months later I got a message from a friend saying, “I’m on this explicit image board website and your picture, unfortunately, is next to mine.”
They were of me aged 17, topless sunbathing on holiday. They’d been on Facebook ten years ago, only for a month before I’d taken them down. There were around 900 photos in the album and these were buried in the middle. Only friends could view them so it’s definitely someone familiar with my Facebook profile. I thought who do I know that would want to attack me in that way?
It felt like a race against time because online media can be shared and spread so quickly. I just wanted someone to take the images down so it didn’t snowball. I went to the police station and the desk officer took a report. By the end of that day, the police had received over 30 reports of women who’ve been affected. There was an influx because of girls alerting each other. In total, there are around 100, and many of the images were very explicit.
I think there is a network of perpetrators and definitely local because they knew so much detail – family connections, where people went to school, first names and sometimes surnames. The more threatening ones were when they knew where people worked. That was scary because it adds another level of threat.
The website was on a foreign server and seems set up to facilitate these kinds of crimes. The link we were sent was a thread for our local area, but there were so many on there, every country, every continent. We temporarily got the thread blocked. When I say we, I mean a group of victims that banded together, not the police. We reported it to the site owner and temporarily got a link suspended, but then it popped up elsewhere.
We set up a WhatsApp group to share communications on what’s happening and support each other. It was really useful because it showed a lot of inadequacies in the investigations. Just from us victims speaking, we could identify connections between the girls and people in the screenshots. We were never asked the names and the local perpetrator element didn’t seem to be pursued by the police.
This was a gendered crime and there was an element of victim-blaming. After I reported, I got a call from an officer saying things like, “There’s not a lot we can do. The website is hosted on a foreign domain. We can’t shut it down on the UK side because we have no jurisdiction.” I don’t think he took it seriously and inferred it’s kind of your fault for putting the photos up there. That’s not the response you should get, this is a crime regardless of where the photos were.
We complained and got the case transferred to a female officer. She was better but things went quiet and a month later we got an email saying the case had been closed and passed to the regional Organized Crime Unit and Cybercrime Unit. No reference or contact details.
We weren’t happy so we penned a letter to the Chief Constable outlining everything that had gone wrong. We wanted to change things so future victims don’t go through the same terrible experience. We met the Superintendent and it came to light that every report had been categorized differently. If it was recorded as hacking, it went to the Cyber Crime Unit. If the girls said they’d sent pictures to an ex-boyfriend, this was logged but not classified as a crime, even though they were intimate images shared without consent. None of the cases were linked together, despite the majority of reports being made on the same day about the same website.
We’ve been let down by the justice system and it’s left us feeling quite helpless and hopeless that there’s been no prosecution. Nothing has been done to stop that happening to someone else. That this crime is so difficult to prosecute is really frustrating and angers me. People can get away with it far too easily and perpetrators are well aware nothing is going to happen to them.
This story was shared as part of our 2021 report, Ending Online Sexual Exploitation and Abuse of Women and Girls: A Call for International Standards.