Learning from schoolgirls and boys about blackmail, ‘nudes’ and cyber exploitation in Sri Lanka.
This article is based on discussions around cyber exploitation with students, parents and teachers in rural and urban Sri Lanka, grappling with the motivations for sharing naked pictures and videos.
What makes a young girl stand naked in front of her mirror, point her smartphone at it, and take a picture? What makes a young man, who receives this picture, share it with his friends on WhatsApp, perhaps even sell it to a website that specializes in girlfriend pornography? Since May 2015, when a group of 70 girls from different schools in Colombo approached us at the Grassrooted Trust about being blackmailed because of naked pictures and videos they had shared with their boyfriends, our engagement with cyber exploitation and violence has been characterized by three surprises.
Our first surprise was that all the young people we spoke to, regardless of where they lived or their background, knew about the naked pictures and videos. Wherever there is a smartphone with a camera and an internet connection, it happens.
“We call them nudes.” This was said to us at our first prevention and awareness session at a girls’ school in Colombo. We were also schooled on the popular social media and messaging applications that were most suited for sharing these pictures and videos. We were taught how to bypass notifications on Snapchat, put in place to let the sender know a screenshot was taken of her ten-second snap that was supposed to disappear forever.
“Just turn off data, or put it on airplane mode before you open the Snapchat. Open it. Take your screenshots. Close it. Turn on data. Open it and let it last for ten seconds and disappear.” That was the learning from a boys’ school. We listened. Our prevention programmes were characterized by discussion and debate, allowing us to learn and update our prevention messages over this last 18 months, as we delved deeper into Sri Lanka’s “nude culture.”
Very early on, words like “normal” “natural” “common” and “reasonable” were used to describe the practice of sharing photographs and videos with intimate partners. Young people explained that the sharing of nudes had become a symbol of trust and fidelity. It had replaced the gold plated locket, Hallmark card, and fading red rose. Patriarchy 101 dictates that the girl/woman must first exhibit this trust by sending her naked picture. There was little evidence of reciprocation. One girl commented that it was uncommon for boys to share naked pictures, and/or close ups of their genitals.
“They’re not comfortable with their bodies.”
A Grade 9 female student (14 years old) opined that the main reason for girls sharing naked pictures was because that’s the way girls and boys are built.
“Boys give love to get sex. Girls give sex to get love.”
This phlegmatic assessment equates the nude with sex. It was a sentiment shared by another young woman who suggested that the sharing of nudes was a result of “sexual frustration”. Both parties wish to be sexually active and in the absence of opportunities for “real sex” they engage in “cyber sex”. When the young women spoke of nudes there was a sense of mutuality. Pictures and videos were initially shared consensually. Peer pressure did have its requisite role to play – others had done it. Yet, it was love and trust that appeared to make them press send. A social contract. They believed their boyfriends would never betray them. Being shamed for sharing the nude was unthinkable.
Our next surprise was how methodical and violent the exploitation had become. The group of 70, for example, were being blackmailed via a false account on Instagram Direct with the simple calculated threat – I have your naked picture. Send me the naked picture of another girl. Or see what I do with yours. The unthinkable had come to pass. Shame in high definition.
This individual and/or group have also built a database of naked pictures and videos of young Sri Lankan women and girls categorized under names, schools, description of the picture and/or video i.e. top, bottom, front, back. Except, those weren’t the names of the categories. They were far more sexually explicit, purposely used to capture the imagination of the young men, and perhaps women, that peruse the database.
Sample lists of this database are sent out to young men in relationships with requests for naked pictures of their girlfriends, with the promise of FREE access to the entire database as a valued contributor. And of course, young men who had just ended a relationship, or had one ended, were also approached; the angry, hurt, resentful and indifferent who maybe more primed to share their girlfriends’ nudes and videos.
Other groups have set up Dropbox links with bulk folders of up to 500 pictures. These were circulated primarily via WhatsApp groups - chess, rowing, choir, rugby, class, tuition, friends, inner circle etc. Photographs intended exclusively for their boyfriends, were now public masturbation material. One perpetrator hacked into Facebook Messenger, assumed the role of a best friend and tried to convince the other girl to take part in a fictitious UN Women Campaign by completing 15 tasks that began with “a picture of the colour of your shirt” and ended with the instructions below.
With a burgeoning home-based porn industry, with girlfriend porn and hidden camera porn being popular categories, perpetrators soon transitioned to selling/uploading nudes and videos to porn sites. Google Sri Lanka naked girls or Sri Lanka porn for evidence. Popular porn site xhamster.com now has a Sri Lankan category. Complete with a little flag icon. All these are filmed on a smartphone or webcam. In a struggling economy, a few dollars help. Not all parents can afford to give their kids pocket money. Young people need to be industrious.
This sense of entitlement, some of our young men have, also forces girls to remain in relationships – “I’ll send this to your father, if you don’t have sex with me.” “I am still your boyfriend.” “You don’t get to leave so easy.” “I already sent him [father] one of you in a towel.”
Our third surprise is that we have still not been able to respond effectively. The shame and fear of coming forward is exacerbated when there is no clear response mechanism in place to support victims of cyber exploitation. If the victim happens to be Under 18, then the National Child Protection Authority may offer support. This would necessarily involve her parents. Not an easy discussion. A fearful and shameful silence is often the choice. If I am a victim over the age of 18, I have to try and find my way to the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) Cyber Crimes division. The proper channels also include writing a letter to the director of the CID and requesting a meeting. Meanwhile the picture or video link is travelling from WhatsApp group to WhatsApp group. Sri Lanka CERT can block the site, but once uploaded onto one porn site, those pictures and videos are soon appropriated by other porn sites.
Why don’t we have a sensible response mechanism for victims? Where is our prevention in schools and universities? Why is this not a priority for a government that speaks so glibly about technology? What of updating our cyber laws? We know of at least three separate drafts in the works since 2015, perhaps all destined to go to wherever drafts go to die. Repeatedly citing the Budapest Convention is not going to help the young 15-year-old who is being threatened, or the 22-year-old who is being forced to have sex i.e. raped. We need a safe space for victims.
The current response to cyber violence of the kind discussed here is knee-jerk Victorian moralizing and calls to ban all things Facebook. Or taking back phones given to daughters. What is necessary is to have open lines of communication with young women and men. This is our greatest challenge. Baduwa (object/prostitute) and kalla (piece – tits, ass, legs etc) are part of common parlance in Sri Lanka when referring to women and girls. Popular baila (folk music) is replete with sexist, misogynist, and sexually violent references. How then do we counsel our young men against objectifying women and girls online? Perhaps, now, more than ever, we must reject patriarchal values that make us appear Neolithic.
Fathers have justified their sons sharing naked pictures. “What do the girls expect if they take a picture like that?”
Mothers have attacked mothers, while sharing these links and pictures on WhatsApp, with friends and family, feigning shock and horror. “This wouldn’t have happened if your daughter wasn’t such a whore.”
The thrill that it is someone else’s daughter is one we need to reflect on. These “sin for her” shares are as odious as the shares that first betrayed her trust. This is where we are as a people. Together, we need to identify solutions. We need to be sensible. The Minister of Education is about to give thousands of tablets to students and teachers across the country as part of the ‘free tabs’ proposal. We hope those tablets will contain information on maintaining healthy relationships both online and off.
Cyber exploitation must be understood within the framework of gender-based and intimate partner violence. Any culture that struggles with notions of shameful nakedness allows for this violence. Ultimately, gender equity must be our focus. Human dignity through education must be our collective goal, and human dignity has no place for shame.