So, won’t you let me see, /I said, won’t you let me see, /I said, won’t you let me see/ your naked body?
The Victorian Parliament has introduced draft legislation that makes distribution or the threat of distribution of intimate images online without consent a criminal offence. There is, it appears, a burgeoning of “Revenge Porn” sites where aggrieved and bitter ex lovers can post photos taken in happier times of their partner’s private bits, often selfies taken by that partner. Anecdotal evidence has it that perpetrators of revenge porn are mostly male, however, it is not unknown for wives or girlfriends to post sexually explicit photos of their former partner’s new lover online, if they’ve managed to get hold of them.
Common advice as to how to avoid having your lady bits made available to the public gaze without your consent includes never taking or allowing photos of them to be taken in the first place. This is tantamount to advising us to avoid rape by staying inside unless we’re accompanied by bodyguards – the fault lies not with those of us who’ve given lovers intimate images, but with the lovers or their associates who distribute them without our consent. This ought to be self-evident, after all, who is ever advised never to leave home if their house is burgled, but because it involves sex and female bodies, responsibility defaults to women to protect ourselves by crippling our lives.
As a woman who has (for the first time in her life and at an age where one would not expect to do such things) taken intimate photos of herself and given them to a lover, I feel a certain interest in this topic. When my lover first asked for photos I inwardly baulked. I was a long way from my twenties, I had never before even thought of engaging in such an act. The most I had seen of my own bits was when, like many other young feminists, I squatted over a mirror and had a good look, then later when my sister crouched between my legs with her camera and recorded in astonishing detail the birth of my second child. As a delaying tactic, I asked him what he actually wanted to see. You know, he replied. Not your toes.
I wrestled with this. Deeply in love, I didn’t want to refuse. I feared my reluctance was to do with sexual inhibition that I would do well to overcome, and much of our relationship was about both of us testing sexual boundaries, creating a list of what he called our “firsts.” I love him, I reasoned, so I can do this for him. I began with my breasts. I was pleased with the result, and so was he. We added this to our list of firsts. We moved on to even more intimate bits and I began to enjoy myself, it was exciting, it was fun, it brought us very close to each other, and so I wouldn’t feel alone in the venture and in good faith, he sent me pictures of his bits as well. I loved them because I loved him, but truthfully, a bloke’s bits don’t come near a woman’s for beauty and complexity.
Never in my wildest imaginings did I consider I might one day regret all this.
But I do. The relationship came to an emotionally devastating end. For the last few months I’ve fretted and churned about those pictures that I no longer want him to be able to look at. Several times I’ve contacted him by email, snail mail, and phone messages, asking that he let me know he has deleted the photos and that I don’t have to worry about them anymore. He has not responded to any of my requests. I’m not quite sure what to make of this. Is he exercising vengeful power over me, by refusing to tell me what has become of my intimate photos? Is he determined to keep them, and rather than lie to me has decided to say nothing at all? While I cannot bring myself to believe he would misuse the photos, I don’t know that others with access to his computer would be as discreet, and besides, I don’t want anyone else even looking at them, as they shouldn’t without my consent.
The reality is, once I sent those images to him I relinquished any control over their fate. Sent in deep love and absolute trust, a powerfully bonding “first,” I now no longer have any idea who will see them and in what circumstances, and my former lover seems to want me to live with that distress.
Although I regret engaging in this “first” with someone who was obviously entirely the wrong person to trust, I don’t regret overcoming my inhibition. I don’t regret the deeper acquaintance with my body, though I wish I’d shared that discovery with someone who was trustable. I’m beside myself with rage and hurt at his refusal to reassure me as to the fate of the photos, and at my powerlessness to do anything about this. It is indeed a foul betrayal, and I can only imagine how much worse it is for women whose ex partners actually do post intimate images online without consent. The problem lies not with those of us who share images of our bodies with lovers, but with lovers who lack the sensibility to honour the intimacy of that sharing, and instead choose to cause us fear and distress in their abuse of our trust.
As Leonard Cohen tells it, I don’t have to be forgiven / for loving you that much…