Women & social media

Learning from and helping victims

Sex and dating blogger Nicola Watson struggled with a lot of self-blame after an ex-boyfriend circulated her nude photo. PHOTO: COURTESY OF NICOLA WATSON

Ms Nicola Watson, 32, found herself a victim of revenge porn while living in London in 2016.

It had been a three-month whirlwind romance. He would occasionally ask her to send a nude photo when they were apart on holidays. Giddy with love and feeling safe in the relationship, she obliged, making sure to angle it "tastefully" from afar - her way of taking precautions.

Abruptly, the relationship took a turn for the worse. They fell out and Ms Watson accepted that it was time to move on with her life.

So she was confused when he added her to a group chat one day, with at least 17 of his male friends. It took her a minute to realise that the group icon was a zoomed-in picture of her private parts.

He waited a few minutes to make sure she fully grasped the situation before removing her from the chat. Mortified, she fled, crying, to her best friend's house.

She checked the Internet every day for two to three months after, fearful that her picture might surface. Based on who was in the chat group, she "worked out a ripple effect of where the photo could go".

During that time, she struggled with a lot of self-blame.

"I was more angry and disappointed with myself - I internalised a lot of it, thinking I was stupid and should have known better," says the British blogger and marketing manager, who is now based in Singapore.

"But when you really like someone, it's really hard to say no. I feel like we women usually do a lot of stuff with that mindset, where we don't really feel like we can say, 'No, thank you', and it'd be okay."

While she has largely recovered from the episode, it has left scars, making her distrustful of people.

"It's not just even about the nude itself, or the revenge porn. It made me realise I don't really know anyone as well as I think I do. Now, when I meet someone new, I'm very cautious, which is a real shame."

Sexting, or the sending of sexy texts, has been a tricky topic to navigate on her blog Sex and Singapore City - where she gives dating and sex advice - as she still strongly believes that "sex is an important connection between two people".

"I'm not against sending nudes, but be aware that in the digital age, there are repercussions."

Senior clinical psychologist Hanita Assudani from the Institute of Mental Health notes that the main thing to do when responding to survivors like Ms Watson is not to victim-blame.

Refrain from comments such as "It's your fault, did you not see the phone was on?" she says.

Remarks such as "It's just a picture", "Could be worse", "At least it's not real violence" and "Get over it" are also harmful and dismiss the real hurt felt by victims, Dr Assudani adds.

Part-time student Maryanne (who would give only her first name), a Singaporean whose photos was circulated on sex forums starting six years ago, says she decided to go to the police because she felt let down by friends who responded in ways that belittled her experience.

"My boyfriend's friends said, 'If she doesn't change her Instagram handle, that's on her,'" adds the 23-year-old, who finally caved in to changing it last year after another wave of harassment.

"Even if I did post pretty provocative photos of myself, that's for me to decide because I shouldn't feel restricted about wanting to express myself and men shouldn't be allowed to objectify me. I don't want to be told that I'm overreacting."

She suggests: "The best way to respond to people who have experienced this is to just show your support and offer help in any way you can. Instead of giving advice, let them take the lead.

"Say things like, 'Let me know what you need me to do. I'm here for you.' That's all I want."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 08, 2020, with the headline Learning from and helping victims. Subscribe