These words were being cried down the phone to my colleague. The woman she was speaking to was hysterical. She had just found out that her boyfriend was threatening to put her nude pictures online. What if her family found the photos? Or her colleagues stumbled across them? The threat had left her feeling suicidal.
I founded the Revenge Porn helpline in 2015. It’s a government-funded service that helps people who might be the victims of what we call “image-based sexual abuse”. It’s not so catchy for a helpline, but that’s what it is when someone distributes intimate photos or videos of you without your consent. In 2015 it became a crime in England and Wales, with a maximum sentence of two years imprisonment.
Revenge porn is nothing new; the first calls we received were mainly historic cases. One woman had an ex-partner who kept uploading nude photos and videos of her to blogs, social media, and websites. She had been trying to get them taken down for seven years to no avail. She’d even been to the police, but they hadn’t known how to respond. She was in utter despair.
Today, a lot of the cases we deal with involve an ex-partner. There are two main types: one is where it’s an abusive relationship, perhaps a horrible break-up, and the partner really wants to get at their ex. In those cases, they are often threatening to send intimate photos or videos to their family or their work. The other type is when the partner wants to shame them as publicly as possible by putting compromising photos on porn sites.
When people come to us about content posted online, the first thing we do is try to take it down. We can’t guarantee anything, as there are some websites that are difficult to work with and some that just ignore us completely.
In our first year, the helpline took 3,000 calls. Here we are three years later at over 12,000 total calls and emails. I wouldn’t like to say that there has been a rise in revenge porn, it’s more that there has been a rise in people becoming aware of how to get help.
People have the idea that revenge porn only affects the “Selfie Generation”. You’ve probably heard the story: girl takes a naked picture, sends it to boyfriend, they fall out, and he shares it online. That does happen, but it’s often much more complicated than that.
We support a lot of young people, but there are also people in their forties and fifties who come to us. The other day somebody contacted us who was 70, worried they were a victim of sextortion; that’s when someone is secretly filmed performing a sexual act and then blackmailed for financial gain.
And while the majority of our callers are women, about a quarter are men. We had a case recently where a man was contacted on a dating app by someone with a fake account. They lured him onto the webcam, filmed him masturbating, and then demanded money.
Voyeurism is another common problem. We get calls from people who have been filmed in the shower or in their bedroom by known or unknown people. There are also cases, like those you sometimes read about happening to celebrities like Jennifer Lawrence, where people have had their online accounts hacked and their naked pictures stolen.
I remember one famous female client who was young and still lived at home. She shared an intimate moment with somebody through social media and the footage got out and went viral. We tried to get it taken down, but it was everywhere. She found the bad news hard to deal with.
People need to be careful about keeping intimate pictures on their phones. We were once contacted by the parents of a young woman who was backpacking in Australia. Her phone had been stolen and the thief had found some topless pictures of her on the beach. They contacted her family and tried to extort money from them, threatening to expose the images if they didn’t pay. We advised her family to go to the police and told them not to give in to their demands.
Sometimes, perpetrators contact us too. One that sticks in my mind was a guy who was overcome with panic and remorse after posting a naked picture of his ex-girlfriend online. He picked a specific revenge porn website, set up for the purpose of allowing people to name and shame their exes. We did report it and it was eventually taken down, but it took a while.
Those calls are particularly hard, but we still have to appear to be non-judgmental, even if we’re wondering how they could do that. We warned him that he had broken the law, but it’s up to his partner whether they choose to go to the police.
Any profession can be affected really. We once had a woman contact us whose ex-partner sent a naked picture of her to the enquiries email of the law firm she worked at. Not only did it go to her email, it went to every other employee of the company. The company was great and supported her, but can you imagine? It was absolutely humiliating for her.
The victim, who was a senior partner at the firm, was furious. She just went into, ‘I’m-not-going-to-let-him-get-away-with-it’ mode, which was great. She contacted us and called the police who took it very seriously. We gave her some HR advice and her company asked people to delete these emails. We also talked her through how to keep evidence for the police. Unfortunately, we don’t know the outcome; with most of our cases, we don’t know what happens in the end as we don’t see it through to the court process.
My team is really passionate about what we do, we wouldn’t do it if we weren’t. It’s not like there’s a huge call centre with lots and lots of people – there are three of us so it’s a lot of work to get through.
When you hear harrowing stories on a daily basis it can really affect you emotionally and it can get frustrating sometimes, not being able to help everyone we want to. Then there’s the other side of the job, which is spending a lot of time on porn websites looking for content that can be graphic and sometimes distressing. Obviously, that can really take its toll.
This job has made me very resilient; I can’t sit around crying because I’ve got to be able to help others. Burnout is a very real possibility, so you have to make sure you look after yourself.
I try to keep a professional distance from my callers, but it’s hard to stop yourself from feeling emotional. Their stories really touch me. I just keep focused on why I do the job, and when it becomes too much for my team, I just say, “Enough – you need to take a break, get off those sites, and do something else for a while”.
I think it’s disgusting that some people feel that they have the right to share such private pictures. I’ll do everything I can to fight them.
Some details in this article have been changed to protect the anonymity of callers.
As told to Natalie Ktena