The key to avoiding sexual shame online: reveal it all first

Eva Wiseman
Photograph: MediaPunch/Rex/Shutterstock

A little while ago I got an email saying my computer camera had been hacked, they’d taped me watching “interesting” porn, and unless I transferred cash immediately, they’d send the video to all my contacts. Which porn, I wondered idly. Was it the late-night scrolls of modernist houses splayed across Californian hills, the sensual greenery of Instagram plantfluencers, or the staccato clicks through embroidered folk art on eBay, quickly minimised when my boyfriend entered the room? The email dropped into hundreds of colleagues’ inboxes at the same time and it was possible to gauge their viewing habits and the membranous walls of their kinks by the speed at which they called the IT department.

Spam emails inviting us to take receipt of £1m have been replaced by sextortion scams

The exploitation of such fears are a side-effect of eternal connectivity, primal desire and our doughy cloak of shame. Spam emails inviting us to take receipt of £1m have been replaced by sextortion scams, which are much more effective in these days when news of real blackmail cases proliferate and celebrities are threatened with leaked nudes monthly. And when phones are also tit windows and porn studios. Yet our relationship with sex remains vaguely tortured, held at arm’s length as if gazed at through varifocals.

The latest celebrity is 21-year-old actor Bella Thorne, who tweeted that a hacker was blackmailing her with stolen pictures, but that she was taking her power back – and she posted the topless photos that had been stolen. By sharing the pictures, she removed the shame, and defused the bomb. Two days later, to much online fury, Whoopi Goldberg chastised her on TV. “If you’re famous, I don’t care how old you are. You don’t take nude pictures of yourself… Once you take that picture, it goes into the cloud and it’s available to any hacker who wants it, and if you don’t know that in 2019 this is an issue, I’m sorry.”

And… Whoopi had a point. She had a point about security, about the ease with which hackers can access data, data that we pay to store, and which we should be able to trust with bank details, bad poetry and even the most pinkly intimate pictures. But it was a small point and one that pointed in a different direction to Thorne’s, and one that she framed in a way that laid blame on the victim. The victim here being, by extension, every person whose body has appeared on the internet without their consent, every girl whose boyfriend has forwarded their picture to his WhatsApp group.

And besides, as deepfakes multiply, Thorne’s strategy is no longer viable. This is a problem that’s only going to get worse. Though it’s reported that fewer young people are having sex than in previous generations, far more are having sext. According to the University of Texas Medical Branch, at least 25% of teenagers in the US “have received sexually explicit videos, images or messages on their mobile phone”. Not only is the genie out of the bottle but the bottle has smashed and the glass been trampled with so many boots it’s turned to sand.

Last week the Law Commission was asked to examine legislation around the creation and sharing of non-consensual, intimate images. “No one should have to suffer the immense distress of having intimate images taken or shared without consent,” said the justice minister Paul Maynard. “We are acting to make sure our laws keep pace with emerging technology and trends in these disturbing and humiliating crimes.”

This is one way to remove the bitter threat of revenge porn. But alongside these essential legal updates, Thorne has revealed a way to castrate it, to remove its power. It’s a sport we can all take part in. In a grand act of vanity publishing, everybody should post their nudes. Everybody should upload a variety of photos of a variety of their bottoms, with a view to owning their own bodies and sexualities, and undermining the exploitation of sexual shame, this Furby with teeth.

Not me, of course, I don’t have a body, just a small brain and two sharp typing fingers. But everyone else. As the wise sex columnist Dan Savage pointed out: “Nearly everyone has a few nude photographs out there somewhere (saved on a stranger’s phone; archived on a dating app you forgot you signed up for; lingering on some tech company’s servers). And yet a single solicited dirty pic has the power to end someone’s career.”

Undoubtedly, this will not be the case for long – the person campaigning to become prime minister in 2050, surveying the vinegar-scented rubble of their remaining hamlets, will be no more worried about the impact of their naked pics than the glowing rat nibbling at their shoe. But in order for them to enjoy this freedom, we need to take revenge porn and victim-blaming seriously, and sex itself far less seriously. We need to inoculate ourselves against sexual shame, using honesty, hard words, and yes, our camera phones. You first.

Email Eva at e.wiseman@observer.co.uk or follow her on Twitter @EvaWiseman