Picture this: a couple in a long-distance relationship (could be inter-state, or just a few kilometers for a few hours, you never know!) One of them feels naughty and sends the other person a racy picture. The partner returns the favour. This goes back and forth a few times and it’s playful and sexy. No harm done.
Now picture this scenario: This couple has a bitter parting of ways. One partner, angry and upset at the other, posts the latter’s intimate photos, shared once in confidence, on the internet to get back. The pictures are seen by their friends, family and obviously cause a lot of embarrassment to the individual, all in the name of retribution.
The story is not an uncommon one. In fact, you may be reading about this every other day in the news. And yet, what’s the first question you ask? Probably, why the victim exchanged or allowed their partner to click explicit photos in the first place.
The victim, in most cases if not all, tends to be a woman, thus multiplying the shame and ostracism she is subjected to manifold.
But asking why a person would let someone take their pictures or why they would do it themselves is equivalent to telling someone that they dressed to get molested. In short, it amounts to victim blaming.
In context of the recent Suchi Leaks scandal where allegedly intimate pictures and videos of many Kollywood celebrities were posted from singer Suchitra Karthik’s handle, we were all voyeurs and perhaps contributors to the gossip it created.
Though the actors have either denied that these visuals were theirs or have maintained silence over the issue, most social media users were in no mood to question the authenticity of what was being posted or if it was fair to attack someone for private, consensual moments that had been leaked without their knowledge.
In this case, too, questions were asked about why these pictures and videos were recorded in the first place. And one of the virtual moral police - The Indian National League Party (INLP) - took victim blaming to the next level and said that all those people whose pictures were leaked should be arrested.
“How can they allow people to take pictures of them like this in their bedroom? This is a social evil. Arresting the actors will make sure the others are more careful," INLP President J Abdul Raheem told TNM.
Many don't see it as victim blaming. There is a sense of condescension too: you know that if you cross this person, they can misuse these pictures, right? Why are you, a technologically educated person, setting yourself up to be shamed and insulted?
There are many cases where women have been forced into sending or posing for explicit photos so that they can be used to blackmail them later. You ask, why would she “give in” or “let” the partner do it?
Let’s be clear: there’s no “letting” here. A “yes” which is a result of coercion is not consent. And in a world where we’re still fighting to make the concept of consent a clear one, where women are not taught to say “no” and men not taught to take “no”, there’s less wiggle room than you think.
In other cases, people are blackmailed into submitting, because the other person possesses sensitive media about them. The sort of backlash revenge porn victims face creates an environment where complying, no matter how abusive the demands the perpetrator makes, seems like a better option to the victim that his/her photos being circulated online.
There are victims who speak up about being blackmailed or manipulated instead of giving in, but it is extremely difficult. Take for example the case of Taruna Aswani, whose cloud storage was hacked by a man. He accessed the intimate photos and videos she had sent to a boyfriend. He threatened to send the videos to her family and friends unless she sent him explicit videos of herself.
Instead of complying, Taruna put up a Facebook post, with screenshots of this hacker’s indecent demands. As expected, Taruna received many comments asking why the photos and videos existed in the first place. But there was a lot of support and solidarity for her situation, and fortunately, she had the backing of her family. But for most women, that is a luxury.
By interrogating the victim’s intent, we’re once again taking the attention away from the retributive mentality of the perpetrator. It feeds into the idea that a woman’s body should be maintained as some sort of secret treasure, the key to which should only be in one man’s possession.
Now, as for those adults who exchange explicit pictures, or click intimate pictures together consensually – let’s face it, sexting has become much more normalised whether you want to admit it or not.
Communication has always changed with technology and it has always had pros and cons. Sexting is not new, but it has just become a lot more convenient and easier.
And while we cannot deny that children are also affected by these influences and it is dangerous for them to get into it without a proper understanding of the risks involved, consenting adults indulging in such an exchange is hardly something to be judgmental about.
That women frequently participate in, and even initiate such communication, shouldn’t come as a surprise - but it does, for many people, who believe that women should not have or show sexual desire. And no, it doesn’t make her a slut, or easy, it merely means that she is in touch with her desires and confident about her body.
Between two consenting adults, it could be an expression of intimacy. But most of all, it is an expression of trust.
Revenge porn is disgusting, there are no two ways about it. It is not only violation of someone’s privacy but also a criminal breach of trust. But unfortunately it also has an audience – a larger passive audience than an active one.
With celebrity scandals, it is easier for us to be spectators, especially because the distance we feel from the rich and the powerful, and how their lives are showcased for public consumption.
But let’s turn the mirror on ourselves for a moment and ask why someone’s explicit pictures going public is such a big deal. Instead of providing support, we contribute to isolating the victim and creating gossip. Apart from someone’s agency being violated, it is also our own voyeurism which makes this a big, defamatory blot on someone’s reputation.
Creating intimate portraits is not new, especially in relationships. Remember Rose telling Jack, in Titanic, to paint her like one of his French girls? They just didn’t have a phone and a selfie-stick, but we do. And that’s nothing to be judgmental about.
(Views expressed here are personal opinions of the author.)