In September 2013 I read a newspaper article about a teenage girl who was photographed performing fellatio on a young man by the portaloos at an outdoor gig. The picture went viral and the girl in question became the subject of a hashtag which lead to widespread debate and ruthless judgement on her character. Inevitably of course, the young man in the picture was generally hailed as a hero and not much was said about the disgraceful behaviour of capturing a clearly inebriated young woman engaged in a sexual act and then distributing the image without her consent. That was, until it came to light that the girl was below the age of consent. Then the incident became a police matter and the incriminating images were either taken down or the identities of the two subjects of the photograph blurred out to “protect their identity”. Perpetrators were prosecuted for sharing explicit images of a minor, the hashtag gradually faded away and eventually the girl’s story was no longer the subject of newspaper coverage. I have no doubt, however, that it took a lot longer for the girl in question to recover from this vicious public shaming.
On reading this story I had a bodily reaction. I felt like I had been winded by a punch to the stomach. I did not know this girl but I had a visceral need to give her a hug and tell her everything would be alright. At this time, only two years ago, the term “revenge porn” had barely been coined – I had never heard the phrase before and when I mentioned the grim story to friends, they had a similar reaction to mine: an empathetic churn of the stomach. However in the time that has passed since I read that article, the phenomenon has become so commonplace that term has made it into mainstream dialogue. England and Wales have passed a law to make revenge porn illegal and Nicola Sturgeon recently launched a consultation into the possibility of a similar law in Scotland. This new legislation, along with high profile cases of trolls being taken to court, charged under the Malicious Communications Act or the Stalking and Harassment Act, has perhaps reduced the ease with which this kind of sexual abuse can be perpetrated however with this increase in public awareness has come a desensitisation to the horrific psychological abuse that the practice facilitates, enabling malicious parties to inflict further emotional damage through victim blaming. Now that we know that this practice is widespread, young women should know better than to exhibit their sexuality in front of a camera. In order for prohibitive legislation against revenge porn to be effective, victims have the enormous task of conquering their shame in order to speak out about the crime committed against them.
As the idea for the piece developed, my research led me to some utterly tragic stories: teenagers who had been so brutally abused that they saw no way forward and had taken their own lives, grown women afraid to leave the house in case someone recognised them, choosing instead to spend weeks online trawling websites looking for their own image. Stories of shattered trust, rape, blackmail and extortion. Though not specifically limited to women, there seem to be far more female victims than males, and a deeply misogynistic language used by strangers commenting on the victims behavior. I was truly sickened by some of the things I read whilst researching “slut-shaming”.
The hypocrisy is quite blatant: girls are ceaselessly presented with content which perpetuates the myth that for women to make money and be powerful they have to be attractive to men and that the most effective way to be attractive to men is to flaunt your body and sexuality, even to the extent that it is demeaning. Feminist role models are publicly ridiculed and openly threatened on line for the audacity to have an intelligent opinion to express about female achievement whilst young women are encouraged in clubs to demonstrate how outrageous and shameless they can be and are then mocked and judged for their debauchery. The ever advancing world of technology and our daily dependence on it means that anyone can be caught doing anything anywhere and within seconds their image is out of their control. The speed at which social media keeps us connected also helps to cultivate a 21st century mob mentality where instead of throwing tomatoes at an unfortunate in a dock in the public square, people in their millions can comment, judge, goad and threaten with a tap of the finger.
With Shame I wanted to explore the idea of how a victim of revenge porn could achieve redemption after this sort of public humiliation, whether that same narcissistic quality that social media flourishes upon and which boosted the popularity of “self-less support” trends such as the no-make-up-selfie and the ice bucket challenge could be used to help restore a victim’s self esteem.
Having consulted with groups of teenagers on the subject of new media and how young people consume it I realised that at 29 I am completely out of touch. Some of the things I discovered included: No one really uses Facebook anymore other than to keep in touch with older family members and for facebook messenger – it’s Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat that are the priorities; most young people use youtube more than they watch TV; askfm still exists despite being the platform on which several young people were bullied to death.
Since being granted funding from Creative Scotland to develop Shame we have met with our steering group made up of youth workers, mothers, teenagers and health workers to further discuss the issues that the piece covers. This has led to fascinating conversations about the quality of sex education in schools, the proclivity for violent sexual assault under the guise of “banter” amongst young men, the hatred aimed at women who stand up for their rights and the complex relationships between parent and teenager in this hyperconnected world.