How non-consensual pornography in Iceland is affecting its youth, seen through the lens of one of the country's most seasoned lecturer on the subject.
(Trigger warning: Grapic descriptions)
July 5, 2016. The clock shows twenty minutes past four. Around this time in everyday life, most Icelanders' minds are on wrapping up their workday and getting home. That is however not the case for the 103 users who are currently visiting the website that appears on my computer screen. Their minds are on something else, more specifically how to acquire nude photos of girls without their consent. This phenomenon is called non-consensual pornography and revolves around sharing nude photos or videos without the photographed individual's consent.
Alongside the growing popularity of sexting, which is the consensual sending of nude photos (often nude selfies) that most often occurs in the context of flirting or romance, non-consensual pornography is also on the rise. Sometimes the recipients of the nude photos share them with a wider audience without permission, but that is by no means the only way for non-consensual pornography to end up online. People can have their nude photos stolen from their computers or phones; they can be photographed without their knowledge in locker rooms or in sexual situations, or be subject to fake nude photos, created in Photoshop. Non-consensual pornography can also be the result of coercion or violence, for example in cases where rapes are recorded and shared online, or in situations whereby the perpetrator can blackmail the victim to send nude photos. Today, non-consensual pornography is a business with a large revenue stream, and yet it cannot be accurately assessed as it flourishes on the dark side of the internet, where the police has limited authority and even less oversight.
VICTIM-BLAMING AND PREJUDICE
For the past year and a half, I've educated around 3000 Icelandic parents and 15,000 Icelandic children all over the country about sexting and non-consensual pornography. No research has been conducted on how common sexting is among Icelandic teens, nor how many people have been affected by non-consensual pornography. Therefore, I made it a point to ask in every group of children between the ages of 12 and 15 if they knew someone their age who had either sent a nude photo or received one. On average, 75% of hands flew up in the air. Subsequently, after explaining the concept of non-consensual pornography, I asked if they knew someone their age who had been subject to that. Around 10-15% of children raised their hands. Albeit non-scientific, my queries point to the fact that sexting is a part of reality for Icelandic teens, and that non-consensual pornography is affecting children as young as twelve years old. As a result, ensuring that digital sexual activity is included in sexual education should be a priority for policy makers.
However, as I learned in the hundreds of lectures that I gave to parents, older generations who didn't grow up with the possibility of finding love online and have even less of a clue what it's like to be a teenager on Snapchat, often react to sexting with a lack of understanding. They also tend to blame the victims of non-consensual pornography with the notion that they should've known better than to take that nude photo. This reasoning is essentially cut from the same cloth as the notion that a rape victim should've known better than to wear that short skirt. However, the fact of the matter is that women (as well as people of other genders) have a right to express their sexuality, whether it includes dressing in a certain way, flirting or taking explicit photos of themselves. That doesn't give anyone the right to rob them of control over their own bodies. The responsibility for a sex crime, whether it takes place online or offline, always lies with the person who decides to commit the crime, not the person who falls victim to it, for whom the consequences can be vast and devastating. Although nudity is nothing to be ashamed of, most people want to control when they're naked and who they share their nudity with. Uploading a nude photo of someone online, without their permission, can be compared with stripping a person in public without their consent. The internet magnifies the consequences due to how fast information can travel online. An example is the true story of a 14 year old Icelandic girl, who recorded a nude video and sent it to a person, who turned out to be unworthy of her trust. Not only did the video end up online, the girl was "tagged" in it, which means that wherever the video went, so did her full name. Three years later, when the girl was 17 and still a child in legal terms, a Google search for her name delivered 16,200 search results. An overwhelming majority of the results were porn sites – and not just any porn sites – but in many cases sites that host a range of illegal material including beastiality, child pornography, animal cruelty, extreme violence and torture. It is highly unlikely that anyone would choose to associate their good name with the kind of material that had, at this point, become inseparable from this girl's digital reputation. Around the world, victims of non-consensual pornography have been known to commit suicide after being subjected to this kind of digital, sexual violation.
In Iceland, the growing fear amongst children and teenagers of nude photos being taken without their permission and used against them, has already started to affect their participation in work and play. Teachers in different places of the country have confirmed that a growing number of children are afraid to take physical education classes and swimming lessons, because their classmates have camera phones in the locker rooms, where no adult is around to supervise them. In some places, the situation is so bad that entire classes refuse to shower after PE, with detrimental consequences for the school's atmosphere, literally and metaphorically. Their fear is not unfounded, as cases have been brought to Icelandic courts in which teenagers illegally filmed or photographed their peers in locker rooms, resulting in convictions.
CURIOSITY IS NOT THE REASON
Curiosity about sex is natural and instinctual to human beings, not least to young people who are taking their first steps into that realm of life. A person who is curious about nudity or sex can easily quench their thirst for knowledge online, where there is more nudity and information about sex than could be consumed in a lifetime. As a result, inherent curiosity does not explain the popularity of non-consensual pornography, where the victim's lack of consent is not only known but a central part of the experience. This fact is symbolically reflected in an advertising banner at the top of the website on my computer screen, where the number of current users has grown to 124 in half an hour. It shows three animated pictures of young women who are enduring rough sex acts, their faces contorted in fear and hurt, their hands covering their mouths as if to muffle a scream. The viewer is left with the feeling that the women are in pain and that the sexual activity is not on their accord. The selection of this particular advertisement is most likely no coincidence, as the victims of the non-consensual pornography hosted on this website are also unwilling participants. The advertisement simply sets the mood for what's to come.
I scan through the first page out of the 45 available on the site, knowing from former visits that the other pages include similar content. Dozens of Icelandic girls appear on each page, so their total number amounts to thousands. Picture after picture shows a teenage girl who is identified by her full name, sometimes with information about the town she lives in or the school she goes to, which often turns out to be an elementary school. In some cases, the pictures were obviously taken by the girls themselves, intended for someone they knew and trusted, evidenced by a text banner across the picture with a personal message to the recipient. One girl sends hearts, another admits that she is shy to be sending this kind of picture, while another girl covers her nipples with her arm and writes in capital letters "don't know". Most of them are children, taking their first steps into the world of love and sex. Not in the eyes of the anonymous users of the website, though, who refer to them as "whores", "skanks" and "sluts".
Typically, users (or in this case, perpetrators) write the names of girls they're interested in acquiring nude photos of, and to prove that they have something in return, they share nude photos of girls who are identified by their full names. I look a few of them up in Iceland's national registry. Today, all of the girls I look up turn out to be underage, which in turn means that the photos are child pornography. The youngest one turns out to be 13. One user calls a girl, identified by her full name, "such a filthy skank" that he wouldn't even rape her. Not even if he were a virgin, he adds.
Icelandic police authorities have publicly admitted their inability to dismantle websites of this kind, although non-consensual pornography is illegal in the country, with Icelandic courts having ruled in favor of victims. I am one of many who have reported this particular website to the police, who responded that not only is the site hosted on foreign territory (and therefore out of their jurisdiction), it is also run by people who use web browsers that make them untraceable. This makes it very hard to hold them accountable, the police claims. Even if it were possible to figure out the administrators' identities, the country where the site is hosted would also need to have laws in place that make this kind of activity illegal. It may come as a surprise, but in 2008, child pornography was illegal in only 94 of Interpol's 187 member countries. Thereof, the production of child pornography was only illegal in 58 countries; the rest of them only outlawed the distribution of such material. Even fewer countries have made non-consensual pornography illegal. The internationality of the internet only complicates the battle against these offenses.
A FORM OF PEER VIOLENCE?
Despite the undisputed importance of putting out fires and assisting those who have their nude photos put online without their consent, it would be even more effective to prevent the fires from igniting in the first place. This presents another complication, because analyzing the anonymous perpetrators who generate the demand is difficult. However, it can be argued that non-consensual pornography is af form of gender-based violence. It can target people of all genders, but 97% of the victims on the aforementioned website are girls, according to preliminary research results conducted by Hildur Friðriksdóttir at the University of Akureyri. Moreover, the atmosphere is decidedly androcentric and youthful. The users write about themselves as being male, call each other „dude“ and „buddy“ and use abbreviations and web slang that are typical for the younger generations of netizens. The girls they're sharing nude photos of are in most cases under the age of 18 and many users seem familiar enough with them to be able to list personal information and gossip about them. As a result, it's not unlikely that those who frequent the website are largely young Icelandic males; peers and school mates of the girls they target.
Meanwhile, public awareness about violence has exploded in Iceland in recent years. The Emergency Clinic for victims of sexual violence, Stigamot counseling centre for survivors of sexual abuse, along with Reykjavik's women's shelter have gathered and published annual statistics that suggest the scope of the problem. Grass roots efforts highlighting sexual consent have appeared, feminist groups have been founded in colleges around the country, politicians are increasingly conscious of the issue and the public debate has increased dramatically. Children have received education in school about the importance of consent and respecting boundaries and one NGO, Blátt áfram, has educated tens of thousands of people who work within the youth sector about how to detect and prevent sexual abuse from taking place. Young people have in turn soaked up these messages, inspiring them to host an annual Slut Walk to protest sexual violence and slut-shaming, which attracted a crowd of 20,000 in 2015 and is echoed in the edgy performance group Reykjavíkurdætur's rap about rape. This momentum, coupled with the fact that our legal system is still ill equipped to deal with sexual violence in various ways, created the right atmosphere for the #OutLoud revolution of 2015, where countless women and girls broke their silence and took to social media to share stories about sexual activity that had taken place without their consent. The campaign's success can in part be attributed to widespread internet access, as Iceland is amongst the best connected countries in the world. On the flipside, porn has never been more accessible to Icelanders in history. Those who consume the most porn are boys ages 16-19, according to research published in 2010, which also showed that young Icelandic males consume more porn than their peers in other Nordic countries. More than half of them watched porn at least once a week and over 20% were daily users. Misogynistic messages can be found in a majority of today's mainstream porn, where female participants are seldomly referred to as "women", but rather as "sluts" and "whores". This influences the vocabulary of non-consensual pornography perpetrators, who use the same words to describe their victims. Finally, the merge of mainstream pornograhpy and non-consensual pornography is evidenced by advertisements, such as the one on the website on my computer screen, which promote hardcore porn, often with a violent undertone.
Statistics about rape in Iceland show that perpetrators are mostly 18-29 year old men, out of which 50% under the age of 25. Victims are mostly 16-25 year old women, out of which 40% are under the age of 18. This suggests that rape is in most cases peer violence, where the perpetrator and the victim are close in age. At the center of both rape and non-consensual pornography lies the disregard for the victim's sexual autonomy. Given how victims of both of these crimes belong to the same demographic group, with both rapes and non-consensual pornography overwhelmingly targeting young women, it's not unlikely that perpetrators of both crimes also belong to the same demographic group, with young men being predominant.
This points to the logical possibility of the perpetrators of non-consensual pornography sharing spaces with the girls they violate. Boys who, alongside the girls, received education about the importance of sexual consent in school, boys who know about the Slut Walk, who read about the OutLoud campaign and have heard Reykjavíkurdætur's rap songs about sexual freedom. Boys who ought to know better. Boys who have had access to an endless amount of porn and nudity online, and yet still seek out photos that violate the rights of girls around them.
During my lecture tour, I noticed an accumulated need amongst children and teenagers to talk about sexting and non-consensual pornography, which in some cases was so dire that I had to stick around for an additional hour after giving my talk, to answer questions and lend an ear. In an elementary school in Reykjavík that only enrolls 12-15 year old children, a girl came to me after the lecture and asked me how she should respond "when guys don't take no for an answer". When I asked her to elaborate, she told me how her male school mates collected nude photos of the school's female students and didn't stop until they were happy with their collection, i.e. after they had acquired nude photos of as many girls as possible. "You have every right to say no to them," I said. "Nobody can demand a nude photo, and besides, nude photos of people who are not yet 18 are technically child pornography. Last but not least, everyone has the right to make decisions about their own body, without being pressured or coerced into something they don't want to do."
The girl gave me that look of impatient pity that teenagers give grownups who clearly have no clue. "But what if you've told the same guy no, like thirty or forty times?" she asked. "You get depressed from saying no all the time and it doesn't matter, they don't listen. They just keep nagging you forever. Endless pressure. A lot of girls get so anxious about it that they send a nude pic just to make these guys stop," she added.
"And they do, once they've gotten the pic?" I asked, in disbelief.
"Yeah, because then they've gotten what they wanted," the girl replied but avoided meeting my eye. "But anyway, I was wondering what you should do when guys don't take no for an answer?"
Her story had me speechless. Judging by her words, there are girls growing up in Iceland who get a very clear message from boys that setting boundaries is useless, they're not going to be respected anyway. What kind of a start are they off to? And what went wrong in the education of boys who see a girl's resistance as a challenge, as a sign that she needs to be coerced further until her will has been broken?
An hour after I accessed it, the counter on the non-consensual pornography website shows that the number of current users has risen to 140, who are currently scrolling over the naked bodies that they weren't permitted nor entrusted to see. All education about sex and human interaction, whether online or offline, must have respect other people's rights and boundaries at its heart. The local demand for non-consensual pornography in Iceland shows that we still have a long way to go.
This article was originally published in the Danish anthology 'Sex, hævn og video' in September, 2016. Photo credit: Rafael for Nýtt Líf magazine.
Image caption (in Icelandic): "It is essentially like tearing someone's clothes off in public."
Child Pornography: Model Legislation & Global Review, 2008, 5th Edition, International Centre For Missing & Exploited Children. Accessed on July 5, 2016 at http://www.missingkids.com/en_US/archive/documents/CP_Legislation_Report.pdf
Einkenni og meðferð nauðgunarmála sem bárust lögreglu á árunum 2008 og 2009, Edda Center of Excellence, April 2013. Accessed July 9, 2016 at https://www.innanrikisraduneyti.is/media/frettir-2013/Samantekt--a-nidurstodum-rannsoknar-um-einkenni-og-medferd-naudgunarmala.pdf
The Icelandic Code of Law. Accessed on www.althingi.is on July 7, 2016.
The Nordic Youth Research 2010, A comparative research among 16-19 year old students, Icelandic Centre for Social Research and Analysis, October 2010.
First hand information from the Icelandic police authorities.
First hand information from elementary school children and teenagers around Iceland, along with their parents.