Friday 30 September 2016

Books: A night she can't recall and internet won't forget

Partying teen Emma O'Donovan - the tragic protagonist in an electrifying new novel - can't remember what happened to her the night before. But the photos have gone viral and her life will never be the same again. Far from being mere fiction, this is a story of today's Ireland.

Published 23/08/2015 | 02:30

Common sense approach: Shaunie Reilly Foley (21), centre, with Megan Fenelon (20), left, and Becca Ivory (22) from Portmarnock. Photo: Arthur Carron
Common sense approach: Shaunie Reilly Foley (21), centre, with Megan Fenelon (20), left, and Becca Ivory (22) from Portmarnock. Photo: Arthur Carron

Beauty therapist Shaunie Reilly Foley won't be sending her boyfriend of a year-and-a-half a sexy snap any time soon.

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As a member of Generation Facebook, the 21-year-old from Portmarnock, Dublin, has heard the horror stories, and though she trusts him implicitly, says she and her friends are determined to put the 'smart' back into smartphone.

"Sexting just isn't my thing," says Shaunie.

"The thought of somebody having a photo of me that they can zoom in on and criticise every single thing about my body is terrifying.

"Lots of girls I know have had naked pictures sent around on WhatsApp," she says. "Where I live, if something like that happens, everybody knows about it the next day.

"If it happened to me, I think I would crawl into a cave and never come out."

For 18-year-old Ballinatoom native Emma O'Donovan, there isn't a cavern in Ireland deep enough to escape the shame.

After waking up on the front porch of her family home bloodied and blistered one morning last summer, the Leaving Cert student had no idea how she got there or what had happened to her.

But all her classmates did - in eye-watering detail - as images of the previous night's events spread like wildfire on Facebook.

Both Emma and Ballinatoom are, of course, the fictional creations of Irish author Louise O'Neill, whose brave new book, Asking For It, about that nature of consent hits shelves here next month.

In an age of #slutshaming, however, women's groups here say there's nothing far-fetched about its frightening premise.

"This is happening," Margaret Martin, director of Women's Aid, insists. "And it's way more common than you think.

"Over time, as new technologies have become more available, we've seen how they can be used to abuse women.

"We hear about women who sent photos to their boyfriend in a very innocent kind of way, or [that were] taken without their consent, never thinking at some point they could be put up onto Facebook, or worse, revenge porn websites.

"It tends to be younger women who have grown up in an era of social media," she says. "It's an issue that we're very concerned about."

Just a decade ago, when Facebook was only a year old and Twitter and WhatsApp had yet to be invented, 'Ballinatoom Girl' didn't exist.

Today, as 'Slane Girl' and 'O2 Girl' grapple to regain their privacy after snaps of the young Irish women engaging in sexual acts at two separate concerts went viral, online safety is top of the agenda for Spunout.ie, Ireland's youth information website for 16 to 25 year olds.

"Sharing sexual images doesn't always result in harm," says deputy director John Buckley. "But we're seeing more and more cases where it does.

"At the moment, a lot of our content revolves around online safety, but also security and privacy that can help avoid safety issues later on.

"In the last year or so, articles about revenge porn and sexting have consistently been among the most-read articles on our website," says Buckley.

"We try to reflect the reality of behaviour for young people. We don't tell them not to sext; we just empower them with the reality of what might happen once a sexual image is shared.

"It's really important to be aware that once an image is shared, say on Snapchat or Tinder, you lose complete control over that image.

"Even though you think it might be deleted on your end - the ability to screen grab can bring it further."

When Kim Kardashian made a sex tape with ex-boyfriend Ray J that was leaked without her consent in 2007, four years before Snapchat was even launched, not even the reality TV star could have predicted that a still from the video would end up on a flag as her husband Kanye West headlined Glastonbury earlier this year.

"Online abuse is certainly something we receive a lot of reports of," says Laura Bates of the Everyday Sexism Project, a website cataloguing casual sexism against women from catcalling to rape 'jokes'.

"We also see women who are dealing with online abuse that combines misogyny with racism, for example, or homophobia.

"This is certainly a problem where we see sexism intersect with multiple other forms of prejudice.

"For example, the reaction to leaked topless photographs of Kate Middleton [in French magazine Closer in 2012] is often much more sympathetic than when the victims are actresses or reality stars, who are often blamed for 'bringing it upon themselves'."

Curiously, naked photos of Kanye himself, reportedly sexts sent to a number of women which emerged online in 2010, were nowhere to be seen flapping in the wind at the British music festival.

"As a society, we have a very splintered view of what's sexually appropriate for females and males," agrees Margaret Martin of Women's Aid. "That can lead to women, especially young women who are exploring their sexuality, being very vulnerable.

"We have all these words like 'whore' and 'slut' for which there seems to be no male equivalent.

"I'm not saying there aren't cases where men are the victim, but it certainly seems to be a lot less shaming for men's bodies to be photographed and sent around the place."

Earlier this year, hundreds of Irish schoolgirls had their Facebook pictures stolen and uploaded to an extreme-porn site based in the States.

As exploitation fast turns to sexploitation though, it's not just women who are being targeted.

In June, Northern Irish schoolboy Ronan Hughes took his own life after being duped into posting pictures of himself online by a Nigerian gang, who then blackmailed him for £3,300 (€4,600). "Anecdotally, it seems to be affecting both genders," insists Spunout.ie's Buckley. "There is real pressure for both young women and men to share sexual images.

"When you look at pornography hashtags like 'slutshaming' though, it's true that it does seem to be women's bodies that are constantly objectified.

"Some people argue that they chose to share that image in the first place; but they didn't choose to share it with a wider audience, they chose to share it with someone they love and trust.

"It's a complete violation of the right to privacy. And the whole issue of consent doesn't seem to be registering."

On Monday, Channel 4 documentary Revenge Porn underscored the necessity in the UK for a law making it a criminal offence to disclose a "private sexual photograph or film" without the consent of the person depicted in it.

Here at home, where cybercrime laws are currently under review, barrister Fergal Crehan says that he gets around two calls a month from women who have fallen victim of revenge porn.

"It's frustrating to see politicians calling for new legislation when most of these activities are already illegal," says Crehan, the founder of The Hit Team, a privacy consultancy which invokes data-protection law to help clients get embarrassing photos removed from the internet.

"There's an unfortunate attitude that if we just pass a law, the problem will go away.

"I think we have almost all the laws we need to deal with these issues," he continues. "The problem is enforcing them.

"Most people would rather just get the material taken off the internet, rather than suffer the additional stress and publicity of a criminal trial. But criminal prosecutions ought to be a possibility in the most serious cases."

Just like the provocative title of O'Neill's book, then, why do we still blame celebrities like Jennifer Lawrence, infamously targeted by hackers last year, for taking X-rated snaps in the first place?

"Victim blaming is the quickest thing everybody goes for," says Women's Aid director Margaret Martin.

"A classic theme of domestic violence is 'she must have done something to deserve it', and it's no different with something like this.

"It's such a cop-out for society to say, 'If she didn't take the photo, it wouldn't have happened', rather than questioning what's really going on," she says. "Blaming the woman is a way for us all to protect ourselves [by thinking], 'It couldn't happen to me'.

"If you are thinking of sending this kind of photo though, my advice is not to include your face or any other identifying features, at least.

"Think of it as putting your photo on the back of a bus that's going to go up and down the city forever."

The digital revolution may have spawned 'doxxing', the practice of disseminating someone's personal information online, and 'upskirting', photographing or videoing up a woman's dress or skirt, but according to Bates, it's also helping women to fight back, with her own Everyday Sexism Project leading the charge alongside other online initiatives such as sexual assault survivor Ione Wells' #NotGuilty campaign.

"I think social media and the internet are allowing women around the world to stand up and fight back against sexism in innovative and incredibly inspiring ways," says Bates, who's due to appear with Wells at the inaugural Lughnasa International Friel Festival in Belfast next Saturday.

"Often we see one woman who stands up, inspiring a host of others simply by letting them realise that they aren't alone and by challenging the traditional narrative that blames women when crimes are committed against them."

For Shaunie Reilly Foley, who uses Facebook and Snapchat to connect with friends every day, the advantages of digital life negates the dangers.

"I'm not too worried about my safety online," tells the tech-savvy twenty-something. "Sometimes I Google my name and image to see if anything pops up - but then I probably just watch too much Catfish.

"Overall, I don't think I have anything to hide on Facebook," she adds. "Although I'm sure my mum would disagree when it comes to some of my outfits!"

Women's Aid National Freephone Helpline: 1800 341 900; open 10am to 10pm, 7 days a week. See www.womensaid.ie

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