Doxxing victim: "This isn’t about porn, this is about humiliation"

A woman talks to Salon about the painful reality of being targeted online by men who get off on demeaning women

Published March 2, 2014 1:00AM (EST)

  (<a href=''>Kiefer pix</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>)
(Kiefer pix via Shutterstock)

Twenty-two-year-old “Elizabeth” often finds herself wondering, “How many men are abusing me right now?” It might seem an odd question -- after all, wouldn’t she know it if she was currently being abused? Not as she sees it.

A few years ago, naked photos that she emailed to an ex-boyfriend ended up online. So did her full name, email address and hometown. Someone hacked into her email account -- it was either a stranger determined to find compromising photos, or the ex attempting to make it appear like the work of a hacker rather than another case of “revenge porn.” Whichever it was soon became irrelevant, because it took on a life of its own. Strangers spread the images and identifying information far and wide, and began harassing Elizabeth, and her family, friends and employer.

This week, Elizabeth contacted me in response to my story about women being doxxed, the practice of revealing someone’s personal information on the Internet. She feels that it's abuse any time someone uses her photos for their own pleasure -- and it’s happened hundreds if not thousands of times. Many of the sites that host her stolen images are specifically devoted to non-consensual porn -- material that is disseminated without the subject's permission. It isn’t just the knowledge that men are looking at these images that tortures her -- it’s the way they attempt to personally engage with her, to take measure of her humiliation, all for their own pleasure. At one point, things got so bad she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of the unrelenting harassment.

I decided to interview Elizabeth, a European currently studying in America, as a means of going deeper on the topic. At her suggestion, we spoke via Skype for greater intimacy, because she tends to get emotional when talking about her experience being doxxed -- and indeed she did. At a few points in our conversation -- notably when talking about the ways her future has been limited by her harassers -- she had to pause to collect herself or wipe tears from under her eyes. The intelligent, articulate and, yes, attractive young woman -- a seeming embodiment of a college student with the world at her fingertips -- sat in her undecorated dorm room and told me that her life would be forever defined by her doxxing. “The ability to escape,” she told me, “ it just doesn’t exist for me.”

Let’s start at the beginning. How were the naked photos taken from your email account?

I had sent some pictures to my boyfriend, because we were living apart for a while. We did it because we thought it was fun and I never could have imagined that anyone else would be interested in it. I woke up one morning and I was not able to enter either my email or my Facebook account. I’m a very scatterbrained person, so I thought I forgot my passwords. But then, when I got back into my email, it was filled with 300 or 400 emails, which were just your market variety dick pics to “you’re a fucking slut” to “I hate you” to, lastly, a few, “I’m sorry, can I help you?”

It could have been my ex-boyfriend who did it and tried to smooth over his tracks by messing with my email. It could have been someone who had followed me online [hacking into my email]. There are a lot of porn sites where you can upload normal Facebook profile pictures and names of a person and say, “I think this girl is hot. Can anyone work on her email for me?” They make tasks that then hacker guys use as exercises.

Did you have enemies online?

I don’t contribute to that many message boards. I’ve never posted to a site like GoneWild. I’ve never been interested in stirring shit on the Internet. The only thing that I can say is that I’m a very active Facebook user and I also blog, or I used to, so it could have been someone who found me attractive and wanted to see me naked and then had a fruitful venture into my email, but I really have no idea. Women who have a tendency to exhibit feminist notions on the Internet are especially victims of this. Anti-feminism and the doxxing movement are interrelated. There’s a notion of wanting to harm women who speak out or take up too much space, women who don’t know their place on the Internet. As Adam Savage says, “The Internet hates women.”

How did you discover your images?

A lot of the emails I received had links in them. I guess I’m fairly attractive -- like, I’m skinny and have long blond hair, so the first thing that happened was if someone takes a liking to a photo on the Internet they repost it somewhere else. As far as I know I’m posted on about 500 sites, including Tumblr and Reddit. I don’t really bother to try to take the photos down anymore because it would be a full-time job. It’s uncontrollable.

To me, it hasn’t mattered that much that I didn’t know who did it in the first place, what has really taken over for me was I was very surprised by the reactions I got from other people, especially from guys on the Internet. I thought that, OK, this will be humiliating and extremely uncomfortable, but for the most part it will just be a guy being like, “OK, tits, awesome” and then moving on with their life. But that’s just not what happened.

Then what did happen?

They hate you. They detest you. I’ve had these pictures sent to my boss. I’ve had them sent to my cousin, to my sister, to my mother and father, to my colleagues, to my friends, to guys on my Facebook friend list just for the sake of messing with my life. This isn’t about porn, this is about humiliation. There’s plenty naked women on the Internet who are there by their free will and would love to be looked at. I’m not one of them. That’s the appeal of this. It’s humiliation. It’s about creating a narrative about me being a normal person who is also a slut.

And they’re trying to reveal you as such to people in your life.

I think so, yeah. They think they know something about me that can potentially have ruining effects for me, and they want to utilize that power over me, actively, as a weapon. I thought it was very odd that my own body could be used as a weapon against me, that something I had done that was completely harmless, that really had no impact on the outside world -- I willfully contributed in a private sexual act -- that that can be used against me. I didn’t expect that at all when it first happened, that it would seed so much hatred, especially in American men. American guys, they’re always [sending me emails] asking questions like, “Do your parents know?” “Have you been fired for this?” “What’s it like knowing you’re a slut?” They want to get in your head and understand the amount of humiliation you’ve suffered.

Were the emails limited to when the photos first came out or has this been drawn out over time?

It’s always the same. There was no upward slope or downward slope. It’s always news to someone. I think that’s what’s so awful about this. It’s kind of like having a chronic disease. It never gets better. If they’re posted in a new place, it will ruin my day. It’s happening all over again. People are shaming me and humiliating me like it was the first time. It’s been, god, almost three-and-a-half years ago now? It never ends. It never ends.

I read a text on the concept of being an abject in the sense of having an abnormal body or being a woman or a person of color and the theory around that related to me in the sense that you’re denied the right to recast yourself in the image that you want to be cast. It’s something that you always carry with you and you either learn to live with it or you stop existing. I just have to live with this.

In a way it has gotten better, because I relate better to it, but the amount of harassment that I get, and times a day I have to be extremely vigilant, is the same. I’m not too keen to tell people my last name. I’m not too keen to apply for jobs. I’m not too keen to get involved with new guys because it will mean I will have to tell them that this has happened and it’s just really shameful. A lot of people look at you as though you are tainted in some way. It’s a situation that doesn’t get better. I live, I’m obviously surviving, but it’s not a full life [chokes up]. I don’t feel like I’ve been granted the right to start from the beginning and be a young person. I can’t really decide what my life’s gonna be about. That’s how I feel.

That you don’t have control.

There are a lot of things I want to do. I want to write, I want to be politically active. I want to teach. I can never teach now. That’s insane -- I can’t do that! There are a lot of things that I feel have been denied me even though I have done no harm to anyone.

Have you considered changing your name or taking extreme routes to escape this?

Yeah, the thing is, it doesn’t help. It might help with Google results for a short while, but it wouldn’t really make a huge impact and so many people already know, especially in the city where I come from. If I change my name, it will still be my face. So if a person recognizes me, that’s it, and it will all have been for nothing. The photos will still be out there. It will still be a constant nagging in the back of my mind: Will this come forward at some point? I’m very identifiable in these pictures. I’m a commodity to these [porn sites] now. I’m a product in their business model and their business model requires that I’m traceable in real life. The ability to escape, it just doesn’t exist for me. I’ve dealt with these people for far too long. It doesn’t work like that. They’re way too obsessed.

So much on the Internet is ephemeral. An article is posted and then it’s almost instantly buried by the news cycle. It’s as if it never existed. It’s crazy that these photos have so much staying power online.

A lot of pages with pornography and especially amateur pornography is based on user uploading. That means that if a user likes content, they can upload it again, even if it’s been removed before. I’m sure that fewer people probably see my photos now than did in the beginning, but new people are still seeing it because it’s constantly being put up new places.

A lot of people are unaware of the extent to which even nonsexual pictures are being shared in a sexualized context, especially of young women. What they do is make torrent files that have nude pictures and also personal pictures that were taken from Facebook or email. It’s this scopophilic wish of coming close to a person that you don’t know and find sexually attractive and using them as an object of sexual desire. You don’t have to be naked in the picture to be a victim of that. I think it’s a problem and it’s going to continue to be a problem.

Have you tried to scrub the photos from the Internet?

I tried in the beginning. Then they started up a homepage, with my name in the domain, which said, “This slut is trying to have the pictures removed. Let’s not have that happen.” It’s not about seeing the pictures, it’s about humiliating me. Maybe 70 percent of the people who see this are just like, “A naked chick, that’s great, moving on,” but there is a percentile who use this as a power tool and those are the guys who keep writing me.

The guys who write me the first time they see them and say, “You’re such a slut,” what is the point of that? What’s been most difficult for me is that I don’t understand it, I don’t understand the motivation to do it. I understand wanting to watch a naked woman, I get that. Like, who doesn’t like that? But what is the point of humiliating her too? Where does that come from? It’s very destructive and it says a lot about how a lot of young men feel about women, that you should hate sexualized women and that they should be humiliated for you wanting them.

People who fire women for having this happen to them, I want to slap them. They’re contributing to a system that shames women for being abused. Women who've had sex can’t type -- everyone knows that!

These harassers seem incredibly devoted.

Yeah, trust me, no one is more surprised by the interest in my naked body than I am. Like, the amount people put into this -- making all these home pages, finding these girls, hacking the emails. The amount of work put into the industry of humiliating regular women is staggering.

Do you ever respond to the emails?

Sometimes. I’m tormented by curiosity. Who are these men? Why are they doing this to me? They don’t even know me. I’ve done nothing to provoke them. Also these pictures of me, compared to what’s on the Internet, are so boring. It’s a teen girl standing in her boyfriend’s bedroom in her underwear. It’s so tame, you know? How can it elicit so much anger? So sometimes when they contact me I’m like, “I’m sorry, I don’t know why you’re contacting me to call me a slut. What have I done?” A lot of them tend to say they’re sorry. A lot of them are like, “It was just a joke. I didn’t mean it like that.” So it doesn’t take more than for me to act vaguely human for them to realize that I’m a regular person and how messed up it is. It just shows you, when a man who has these notions of femininity sees a naked woman on the Internet, she’s a thing. There is no difference to him between looking at a photo of a woman and looking at a photo of a car.

How did your family react to all of this?

I’m very lucky because I have very liberal parents. There was no problem. My mother was like, “I’m so sorry this happened to you." The thing about talking to your parents about this is that they don’t interact with the Internet in the same way we do. My mom thought this would be a mess for me for two weeks. When it continued, it was a shock to her that it happened on this scale, that it could be that life-altering, that the humiliation of being subjected to this is going to be a defining factor in my life. My dad just said, “Teenage boys are disgusting.”

How old were you when the photos were taken?

These were photos taken over a very long period of time. I was probably between 16 and 19.

It’s illegal material. It’s child pornography, technically.


Have you talked to law enforcement?

The thing is, [where I'm from], if you’re above 16 they don’t make a big deal about it. It’s not as cut-and-dried as it is in America. I’ve had luck contacting sites in America and saying, “Do you realize that I’m not 18 in these pictures?” Then suddenly they remove them very quickly. The law still gets respect, but not mutual respect for another human being. I wrote to these sites saying, "OK, I know you’re interested in naked women but can you please not have these on your site because it’s causing harassment?" The answer you get is, “If you didn’t want the pictures to be there, you shouldn’t have taken them and been such a slut.” On the Internet, a sense of human obligation to one another does not exist. The attitude is that I deserve my humiliation, that I deserve living a life which, at that point, was a living hell. At that point, I really saw no reason to keep going. The feeling of having everything stripped away and knowing that thousands upon thousands of men are abusing you every day, it doesn’t encourage putting trust in men ever again. When I meet a man now, I don’t know if he’s already abused me. How can you use that as a building ground for a relationship? You can’t.

Yeah, I would imagine seeing that some men are capable of this, it could create a general mistrust.

Also, this is completely regular men. I get contacted on Facebook by guys who I can see have a daughter -- a baby daughter. This isn’t your standard 17-year-old who lives in his mother’s basement. These are grown men who do this. This isn’t some sort of weird creepy subset of society. It’s regular men that you meet every day, that are your co-workers, that knowingly look at pictures and go to sites that feature only women against their will for sexual arousal -- and do not see a problem with it at all. I think that is very worrying. If I looked at a photo of a naked man and masturbated to it and afterward found out that he didn’t want me to see it, I would feel awful. How can you live with that, knowing that that person did not want to be sexualized? You’re violating people and getting aroused specifically because of that. “Online rape” is a hard way to say it, but it’s the only way that I can make sense of the violation part. You’re sexualizing a person and getting off on the fact that she doesn’t want to be there.

Have you had any romantic relationships since the images were posted?

I have. I had a boyfriend, we started dating casually about a month after it happened. I waited almost a year to tell him. I’m seeing a guy right now and I haven’t told him. The thing about it is I’m not ashamed about him seeing the pictures, he’s already seen me naked. It has been so much a part of my life and I want to do something where it’s not. I’ll probably tell him at some point, but I just want to try for a time what it’s like to be a normal person that this hasn’t happened to. [Starts crying] To me, that is such a great privilege, to be able to almost exist as though it never happened and just be whoever I want to be and have him look at me as though I was this young person starting out instead of a person who’s basically already been destroyed and is just trying to rebuild. I’m always carrying the fear that he’ll know or that someone else will find out.

You just can never relax, you always get reminded of it. I feel like everything I do will always be associated with this. I know, the most interesting thing about a woman is always her naked body. When I die, this is going to be what most people who have seen my name know about me. That’s the thing you don’t let go of. There are a lot of people that struggle with things that are a lot more difficult than this, but I think everyone should have a right to decide what kind of person they want to be -- and I feel like I don’t have that. I can say goodbye to getting a job in America.

You feel that’s just not a possibility for you?

Applying for a job in the standard way seems to me almost impossible.

Because you assume they’ll do a Google search and that the photos will show up.

I know that they will show up. What I’m assuming is that they’ll do a Google search and that they will hold it against me. People don’t want to be associated with tainted women. That’s what I feel like. I feel like this is completely akin to what happened to women historically, where suddenly it came out that they’d had sex before marriage and then they never got married. The dynamic of it is the same. I’m a ravished woman. I’m not pure.

Guys often say that you shouldn’t identify yourself as a woman on the Internet or that you shouldn’t have taken the pictures, but a lot of guys on Reddit freely talk about masturbating as if it was nothing -- and no one [exposes them]. Women are told to limit what they do, limit what they wear, limit what pictures they take, limit what they write. We never seem to limit the rights of the guys who abuse us. Like, you should have the right to post things anonymously, you should have the right to privacy? If someone posted me on the Internet and at least attached their name to it I would somehow respect it. Like, OK, you’re an abuser, you’re an asshole, but at least you’re coming out publicly. People are abusing their anonymity to abuse the privacy of others. It’s such a hypocritical move.

Have you been harassed at all in person as a result of your photos being disseminated?

Yes. I had a guy who worked in the same building as me come up to me at lunch and he was like, “So you’re very active on the Internet, huh?” I couldn’t possibly think that that would be what he was referring to, because that would be so staggeringly inappropriate. I just said, “I don’t know what you mean.” And he said, “Don’t try to lie to me. I’ve seen you.” I just broke down, started crying and ran out. I’ve had guys come up to me in bars asking me if I was my name.

The Internet is real life to me, because it’s my name in real life, it’s my body in real life.

Were the in-person encounters worse that what you experienced online?

Yeah, I couldn’t distance myself from them. Online, I can close my computer. I’ll think, “This guy lives in Ohio, I will never interact with him.” It’s vaguely better.

Although, in person, at least I can put a face on it. At least I could say “fuck you” to them. Once they realize I’m a person who has in some ways reconciled myself with this, it stops being fun. So what I’ve realized is by far the strongest way to combat this is by being blasé. You completely disarm the situation by being cool. Then you can cry by yourself. If you come off as cool, they come off as extremely petty.

You were diagnosed with PTSD as a result of all this.

Yes, a mild case. I went to a psychiatrist for a solid while.

What was it like when the PTSD was at its worst?

Opening my computer would give me anxiety attacks. I would have extreme difficulty looking people in the eyes in public, because I felt like every time a person looked at me they recognized me. Talking with men in public was impossible for me. I had to have a friend with me when I checked my email in order to delete the emails coming in. It was too much for me. I had extreme difficulty focusing when I was working, because my mind wandered to, “How many men are abusing me right now?” I could only sleep about five hours a night. I had severe anxiety attacks where I would cry for hours and hours. I never had suicidal thoughts, per se, but I had really intense wishes to disappear. I saw no way of making this part of my person in a way that made sense.

Would you like to see legislation around this?

Definitely. [Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects websites from responsibility for what third-parties publish on their site,] was a very groundbreaking legislation that completely alters how we think of publishing things in public. This third-party business kind of makes it possible for you to do whatever you want on whatever platform you want without suffering any consequence, and no higher authority has to OK what you’re saying. I realize that when people oppose this they say it’s a limit on free speech, which is absurd. There’s been free speech in America up until now without the Internet. It’s being used by people to secure their right to watch weird porn online without people knowing and trying to say it’s about free speech and it’s not. It’s a free-for-all for abuse.

It seems like you’ve gotten to a better place, your PTSD has improved, your outlook is better?

I feel like I’ve allowed myself to be happy knowing that this happened without lying to myself about it and thinking it will get better. The only problem is getting a job. It’s continuing to be hard. I’m looking for an internship in America -- anywhere, somewhere that will take me.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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