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'COPENHAGEN – One morning in October 2011, Emma Holten found that she was unable to open her Gmail and Facebook accounts. The young Danish woman – she was 20 years old at the time – suspected nothing: She was constantly forgetting passwords. But when she regained access to her accounts, she immediately realized that her life had been transformed radically while she was sleeping.
Describing what happened to me is very straightforward, but it of course becomes complicated, because I cant ever know exactly what happened, Holten told me in an interview last month in Copenhagen.
Someone gained entry to my Facebook and email accounts, and changed the passwords so I couldnt get in, she continued. On that email there were old pictures – at that point they were already three years old – that I had sent to a boyfriend. They took those pictures, but also took a lot of other identifying information about me, put it in a big folder and then posted it on one of those websites where you can post in complete anonymity – you dont have to register as a user, so its very difficult to track who shares on it. From there it kind of spread out to all these different sites. By the time she got online, Holten recalls, there were these hundreds of messages from strangers telling me that this has happened.
Although the term revenge porn implies that the person who steals and posts the offensive material is known to the victim, and is often a former partner, it has come to define all such incidents. And in fact, to this day, Holten says she doesnt know who the hacker was. Those old pictures were quite innocent nude shots of her – a harmless attempt at sexiness, in her words. But the emails she received in their wake were far from innocent. Do your parents know that ur a slut? Or, Send me more nudes or Ill [sic] send the ones I have to your boss. And there were more in the same vein. You shouldnt have been such a whore in the first place, was the reaction of one website to Holtens request to remove the photos.
Holten is sharp and clear, her speech rapid-fire and articulate. With the businesslike, emotionless manner of someone who has shared her story with others countless times, she describes a horror scenario that might have been the basis of an episode of Black Mirror. A call to the police made it clear to her that the law enforcement authorities had no intention of taking her case seriously. The police, she said, asked me to send them the pictures or the links to where they had been put up. I did that, and they said, Oh, these pictures arent so bad, why are you worried about this? And I said, I think its bad, I dont want this to be online. They told me, You know, of course, you can file a report, I can write it down, but I gotta be honest with you, it would be a waste of your time, were not gonna pursue this case.
Says Holten now, I know that this is something that victims experience all over the world. I know that Israel is one of the few countries in the world where [revenge porn] is a sexual offense and not a privacy offense, but in Denmark its my very clear experience, and also in America. Its as if the internet has not yet been fully integrated into real life. Had a person come into my house and stolen something from a briefcase or a drawer, the police would have shown up – but if it happens online, its still as if we have a barrier to understanding that this is a real crime with real human consequences.
Holten adds that it was less the nature of the photos that disturbed her than this loss of control over my own identity that felt very central and important to me, because we live in a world where we all consider and think a lot about what we share, how we project our image to the public, what selfie do I share, what do I put up on Facebook.
There can also be practical consequences, she continues: People find out about it in real life, in your actual social circle. I thought: How can I apply for a job now? How can I find a partner? All these things that are so basic and everyday just seemed incredibly difficult, and I felt very hopeless.
I was to blame
The meeting with Holten is somewhat confusing. On the one hand, she has passion and charm and youth, and in her emails she often ends sentences with exclamation marks, but its also obvious that her experience has matured her far beyond her 26 years.
The daughter of artist parents, Holten was born in Copenhagen, one of four sisters. I grew up in a kind of chaotic house, she smiles. We always traveled a lot, there wasnt that much money, a very creative home. She received a non-dogmatic education and was surrounded by free-floating ideals at home.
Unlike the parents of many revenge-porn victims, Holtens mother and father did not spurn her after the photos were posted. Some friends, however, were more judgmental.
I have a lot of supportive friends who stood up for me, she notes, but she discovered that a lot of people had this very old-fashioned, conservative reaction that it was very shameful for me, that I should be ashamed, that I was stupid, that I was to blame for what had happened. It seemed to me that this was a type of assault that people havent really reflected about all that critically.
Holten, however, reflected long and hard about her experience and about what kind of response she wanted to send the world. In 2014, she posted a manifesto titled Consent, which contained a clear message: Consumers of revenge porn are full accomplices to the crime, no less than the disseminator of the images. She accompanied the manifesto with new nude and semi-nude photographs of herself, which she commissioned.
I talked to the photographer Cecilie Bødker. She told me that photographing unclothed women without catering to the male gaze and sexualizing them was almost impossible. Would it be possible for her to take pictures of me without my clothes on, where it was obvious that I was, in fact, a human being deserving of respect? We gave it a try. She went on to write that the new photographs were an attempt to transform herself into a sexual subject, as opposed to an object. I am not ashamed of my body, but it is mine, she declared in Consent. Consent is key. Just as rape and sex have nothing to do with each other, pictures shared with and without consent are completely different things.
One photo shows Holten sitting on her bed clad only in panties, smiling and looking directly at the camera. Cheeks flushed, hair askew, she shows off her two tattoos. On her arm is the word Hvilan, the name of the summer house where she spent time in her childhood; on her ribs the Latin phrase term Artes Liberales (liberal arts) is inscribed. In another shot, she is sitting on the windowsill reading a book, the sun caressing her bare skin. A third photo shows her brushing her teeth, her image reflected in a mirror. From her perspective, every pixel in the photos recaptures a millimeter of the dignity and humanity that were plundered from her.
The puritanism fallacy
The inspiration for the project, Holten says, derived from early feminist activism. It came to a point where I thought Okay, this attack is so visual in how it works, it cant only be text, there needs to be a visual answer as well. I went back and forth thinking about it, and I also spent a lot of time studying old feminist activism, like what did women used to do when they wanted to be heard? They took their clothes off, and it works! Look at me! [Laughs] And I also wanted to ask this kind of pointed question: Here is a naked body, what does that mean? Who decides what this should mean? My body had been used as a weapon against me, as something that could be used to humiliate and denigrate me. I felt that there was great violence in them having taken my body from me and deciding what it should mean and what context it will be shown in.
Also, she continues, at that point, there were so few revenge-porn victims speaking publicly. The only victims I had seen speak were on American reality television shows – women saying, Oh, no, Im never gonna take naked pictures again, Im so ashamed, Im such a better person now, distancing themselves from that, and distancing themselves from sexuality and from the body. But I really didnt want to do that, because I think that the argument against revenge porn doesnt have to be a puritan argument, it can be a sexual liberation argument. Part of sexual liberation is the right to say no to sex as well as the right to say yes, and the Consent project was a way to say the problem here isnt really nudity: Its when nudity is used as violence.
Holtens response to the dissemination of nude photographs of her – by disseminating additional nude shots of her – might seem puzzling. But its aim, she says, is also to prove that the interest people take in those images of her that were posted against her will, did not stem from the nakedness they displayed, but from the humiliation their dissemination entailed.
Compared to whats on the internet, those pictures of me are so boring, she says. Its a 17-year-old girl in her boyfriends bedroom – sexually its not interesting. But Holten adds that, at the time, I didnt hear anyone asking why people get off on women being violated, why people are so interested in public humiliation. Consent was a way to start that discussion. It worked a little bit better than I thought it would.
The manifesto went viral, and Holten drew considerable media attention. Four months after she posted the video, she found herself in London, cooperating with the Guardian newspaper, and a year later giving a TED talk. Because consent is a broad term that abuts the realms of sexual offense and privacy and also touches on issues of gender, Holten has become an in-demand interviewee and speaker. Still, along with complimentary responses, which salute her courage and the empowering message shes delivering, other voices, less flattering, have also been heard. Some alleged that she had made Consent in order to publicize herself, some accused her of being an extreme extrovert, and others maintained that there was no difference between her old photos and her new ones, and that she was only perpetuating her sex-object status.
Holten: Thats just such a terrifying thing for me to hear, because it means that people dont understand what consent is. They think that it doesnt matter whether I want to be there or not, you think that what matters is whats in the pictures. But its not the nudity thats painful, its the systemic disrespect.
Last year, she encountered another jolting response. The German channel RTL produced a profile of Holten that included the old photographs – which are still prohibited from her standpoint – even though German law is one of the strictest in the world in regard to privacy. It stipulates, for example, that it is illegal for anyone to retain images once they have been asked to delete them.
The crazy thing, she explains, was that it was a program that was meant to celebrate me. It was so clear that you obviously dont understand what this crime is if you thought Id be okay with this.
A few weeks later, a human rights lawyer agreed to represent her pro bono in a suit against the channel. The case was closed in a settlement that included a public apology and a payment, which she says she contributed to charity. The episode recurred a few months ago, again involving a German television network. This time, Holten says she didnt have the energy to take legal action.
Holten says that she chose the English word consent after grasping that another word, privacy, would interfere with the dialogue she wanted to generate. The word privacy has in a way obscured the conversation and made it more abstract, she points out, adding, We all have different definitions of whats private. Some women dont want to show their hair, some women dont want to show their breasts, some women dont want to show their ankles – you get to decide where that line is drawn. Im fine with people seeing my breasts, but I want to decide when that happens.
The point Holten wants to get across is that the conclusion to be drawn from her case and from other revenge-porn incidents isnt that its wrong to be photographed in the nude. The message is how vulnerable we all are, how little it takes, it takes one person who wants to harm you and suddenly youre me, youre in that situation. That is worrying for democracy, its worrying for freedom of speech, it makes every one of us extremely vulnerable to blackmail.
What expectations do you have from Facebook and Google?
I think for a long while, Facebook and Google have been kind of able to frolic freely outside the law and outside normal convention for a companys responsibility toward its users. When this happened to me, websites were not at all in conversation with their users in the ways that they are now. When I was researching whether you can have stuff removed from Google, all I could find was, We dont post material, we have no responsibility for this material, its not our job. Facebook would say the same: contact the user who is violating you or contact the parent, or whatever. But I think slowly but surely they are starting to realize that the same rules have to apply on Facebook as in newspapers.
Its been three years since Consent went online, and the seeds of the activism sewn in it have borne diverse fruit. Holten, who terms herself a human rights activist on the web, was hired to serve as the editor of a Danish internet magazine, Friktion, which deals with gender and sexuality; she also speaks frequently at technology conferences throughout Europe and in Danish high schools.
The interview with Holten took place in a joint workspace that serves Friktion on a cool, early-December afternoon, a few days after Time magazine declared its Person of the Year to be The Silence Breakers: The Voices That Launched a Movement, which evolved into the #metoo campaign. The magazine included the actresses Alyssa Milano, Ashley Judd and Selma Blair, and the singer Taylor Swift among its people of the year for 2017. A year earlier, Times Person of the Year had been president-elect Donald Trump, who with his Grab em by the pussy advice, could teach most men a thing or two about misogyny.
Last years Merriam-Webster dictionary word of the year was feminism, in the wake of a 70-percent spike in online searches for the word in 2017 as compared to 2016. Holten, who didnt take part in the #metoo campaign on social media (I wanted to leave space to less-heard voices; they know that I stand in solidarity with them, I am sure), is following the developments with great excitement. As the author of a web campaign that went viral and succeeded beyond anyones expectations, she certainly knows something about the power of both the internet and the patriarchy.
You cant plan stuff like this, she says. It happens because a lot of stuff happens at the same time, and theres a need. I think were so many women who have been sitting on these stories and have been like, I want to tell someone but Im afraid that itll have consequences to my career, or my love life, or whatever. And that has been true, I can understand that fear. And now, suddenly, because so many people are saying it, you can say it without being held personally accountable. When you have something like #metoo, which is so big with so many people, you have to look at it as a pattern, and youre like, Okay, this obviously cant be reduced to one idiot at a Christmas party. I think thats the most important thing about #metoo for me – that it shows the structure of these issues.
Holtens impression is that her activity contributed to a positive change in the punishment for revenge porn in Denmark (The laws in Denmark have gone from six months to two years in prison) and to a relative internalization of the term consent. Nevertheless, Holten has decided to leave her activism and move with her journalist partner to New York, for a year to begin with, and then well see how it goes.
This is my last interview! she declared with a smile at the start of our meeting, while brewing a pot of tea, and said she planned to spend the coming months working on a book, a guide to feminism for teens, that will appear under an imprint of Denmarks biggest publisher, Gylendal. Ive just finished my studies [culture studies], I dont have any children, theres really nothing holding me down except patriarchy, she says. So Im in a very exciting time in my life, Im about to find out what will become of me.
She believes that just now, with Trump as president of the United States and with the refugee crisis, in this political climate we need feminism more than ever. Elaborating, she says, One of the beautiful things about feminism and one of the things that made it so attractive to me when I was, you know, feeling so terrible, was that its an ideology that dares to dream that the world can be different, that we can have a better place, where we trust each other more, where we actually have equal worth. I think we need ideologies like that right now. In a lot of countries, the only political ideologies are nostalgic or looking back, like Make America Great Again. I want a political movement that looks forward, into the future.
So why are you quitting?
I think I need to spend some time also thinking about myself and thinking about how Im feeling. And in Denmark especially, I have become a public person – people recognize me in the street. I dont really want that life, its very odd for me. I dont think Ill ever stop my work with Friktion and with feminism. Ill always been an activist in one way or another, but I think Im going to be a little bit more behind the scenes.
The news of her decision to leave Denmark has spread in her social and professional circles, and Holten finds herself flooded with emails again. I am so moved these days, she exults, Im getting so many incredibly moving messages from people who are saying You changed completely how I perceive myself after this happened to me. And I think probably the people Ive been most meaningful for are other victims, of course.
Still, she continues to receive hate messages in the wake of the photos – this year will mark the sixth anniversary of their appearance on the web.
Im going to be a revenge porn victim for the rest of my life, thats how that works, she asserts. The internet doesnt have linear time; things dont really age in the way they do in real life. If Id had my purse stolen three years ago it would be ancient history by now, but if these pictures are uploaded to a new website, say, tomorrow, for the people using that website it would be the first day, for them it has just happened, and for them Im still 17, for them I still look like that, it is my name and it is my face, I cant deny it and I dont want to. Thats what makes this type of crime so insanely insidious. It is lifelong.>
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