‘Somebody has gifted Divya* a cellphone,’ my host whispered at the dinner table. ‘Can you find out who it was?’ I was on a reporting trip in Madhya Pradesh, staying at the home of a wonderful couple — a retired army officer and an ex-teacher. Over several trips that spanned most of last year, we had grown close. Our dinner table conversations included wartime stories, uncle’s deep love for Malala Yousafzai, and aunty’s conviction that Fawad Khan would end hostilities between India and Pakistan.
Thanks to a shared love for yoga, cooking and the occasional nightcap, aunty and I soon developed a rich friendship. It wasn’t unusual for her to discuss her worries with me — ageing, neighbourhood politics, her sons’ weddings…but, a cellphone?
It turned out there was more. ‘Cellphones are just the beginning. Next, the man who gave it to her will convince her to send him a photo without clothes, and then he will show it to his friends. After that they will blackmail her, and she’ll be forced to do whatever they want.’
Divya is a domestic helper who works at uncle and aunty’s home. They are responsible, caring employers: they make sure she has pocket money beyond her salary, let her take breaks when she needs them, and ensure that she and her son Aditya have regular health check ups. They even pulled strings to get Aditya admitted to a good school, and aunty helps him with his homework every day. Yet, the leap from Divya having a mobile phone to her getting raped sounded a lot like, ‘If you wear this (or go there or meet him or drink this or become like her), you’re asking for it.’
The trouble with this kind of fear is that years of conditioning have made it seem reasonable. I’ve encountered variations of it from worried parents, relatives, teachers and friends: it usually begins with a well meaning concern for my safety, but leaves me feeling a bit uncertain of my place in the world. It’s also an argument I have little patience for.
‘But you and I both have cell phones,’ I said, ‘and we’re okay.’
Aunty looked at me with exasperation. ‘She’s 22. You know what young girls are like.’
* * *
For a lot of women my age, our first encounter with what ‘young girls were like’ came in 2004, when a now-infamous MMS (multi-media messaging) clip of a 17-year-old Delhi schoolgirl giving her classmate a blowjob went viral. Back then, very few of us owned camera phones, and the internet was a place we visited for only a few hours a day. We had little to no awareness of child pornography, or that ideas like consent applied not just to our bodies, but also to the photographic and video documentation of them.
Despite this, something about the story felt very wrong. A boy had filmed a girl in a private moment, but screen grabs of the clip, with the girl’s face clearly visible, were splashed all over the news. The video was also made available for sale on baazee.com (India’s version of eBay), and everyone across the country seemed to have seen it (disclosure: I haven’t, and I suggest you don’t either).
This was clearly an outright violation of privacy, but the outrage in our homes, schools and newspapers was focussed on the fact that children from ‘good families’ (read: upper class homes) were having oral sex — and worse, they were filming themselves while doing it. Though the act itself was consensual and there were no legal consequences, there were other, unspoken punishments that taught us who was really at fault. The boy, who held the camera but whose face we’d never seen, missed his next cricket match. The girl left school, and eventually, the country.
Several years later, a Hindi film used the MMS ‘scandal’ as a backstory to explain why its female lead grew up to become a sex worker, adding a scene in which her father kills himself after learning his daughter was caught having sex on tape.
This, then, is the lesson we learned: as young girls, our sexual pleasure was always illicit. If caught, we would be shamed and punished for our desires — in ways that boys were not.
* * *
Divya walked out of an abusive marriage at 21. At 22 she manages a tough job, a five year old, and a hectic social life with more grace than I could ever dream of. Since we aren’t that far apart in age, Divya and I share a mutual fascination for each other’s lives, and on days when aunty and uncle had other social engagements, we would go for walks together or watch films on my computer after Aditya fell asleep.
One day, when she was explaining the complex web of her romantic and sexual entanglements, I asked if any of her boyfriends had actually ever requested her to send them a photograph without clothes on. She giggled uncontrollably at first, and then admitted one had. ‘I didn’t send it though,’ she said. ‘I think I need to lose at least five kilos before I do. What about you?’
It’s been over a decade since the MMS ‘scandal’, and we’re living in a world where camera phones are ubiquitous and most devices can share images nearly as fast as they can capture them. Our notion of privacy has changed too. We document everything about our lives: achievements, breakfasts, weather conditions, traffic violations, quotes that move us, orgasms that don’t. In the minutiae of the mundane, surely a pair of breasts isn’t such a big deal? The memory of the schoolgirl from the grainy clip seemed far enough in the distant past for Divya and I to laugh over what the best angle for taking a naked selfie was. Yet a part of me couldn’t help but wonder, why hadn’t we learnt our ‘lesson’?
* * *
When my friend Noorie had just turned 18, she moved to a big city and fell in love with photography. At the end of her college course, each student was asked to submit five photographs of their choosing for the rest of the class to critique.
‘I was from a small town and I really missed the open spaces I’d grown up in,’ Noorie recalls. ‘I wanted to juxtapose that natural state with my life in Bombay, where I was sharing a tiny home full of stuff with five other people. I shot five nudes of myself — in foetal position, on the floor, on the headboard of my bed, and reflecting against various mirrors. They had a fuzzy, soft focus, and my face wasn’t visible in any of them. I wanted to depict confinement.’
For the first ten minutes after the photos came up on the screen, Noorie couldn’t speak over the wolf whistles and hooting that filled the classroom. But once she finally managed to talk about the concept, her fellow students (the majority of them, boys her age) gave her constructive feedback on the framing and light composition of the images.
When she describes this scene to me, I am at a loss for words. What is left of the world that hasn’t been photographed? And if this is true, why shouldn’t women photograph their own naked bodies? I know this, and yet it is difficult for me to imagine sharing naked photos in front of any of the classrooms I’ve ever been in.
‘Weren’t you afraid?’ I finally ask.
‘Of what?’ she questions. ‘I only learnt about the term “slut-shaming” recently. Anyway, I didn’t care about the people that would judge me, or my body, or get off on the images. I was interested in what people thought of the photographs, that’s all.’
* * *
On 7 September 2012, 15-year-old Amanda Todd told YouTube she was committing suicide. In a heartbreakingly simple video, the teenager from British Columbia shuffles a bunch of handwritten index cards that tell her ‘never-ending’ story. Todd loved to surf the web and strangers online would compliment her ‘perfect’ looks. One of them persistently asked for a glimpse of her breasts, and a year after he’d first made the request, Todd agreed to flash him.
As the cards in the video reveal her fate, Todd’s story makes you want to switch off your computer and run far, far away from all devices connected to the internet. The ‘friendly’ stranger went looking for Todd’s personal details, contacted her on Facebook, and began blackmailing her to strip on camera — threatening that if she didn’t, he’d share the photo of her breasts with everyone at school.
One day during Christmas break, the Feds showed up at Todd’s door and informed her parents that nude images of their teenage daughter were plastered across pornographic websites. They were doing everything they could to find her cyberstalker, but Todd didn’t care — she had begun a steep descent into depression, drug abuse, and isolation. Moving homes didn’t help either. The stranger found Todd’s latest address and emailed photos of her to every single student at her new school. Unable to deal with volumes of slut-shaming and bullying, Todd ended her life on 10 October 2012. Shortly after her death, the hacker group Anonymous outed Todd’s abuser.
The women I speak to have heard cautionary tales of abuse like Todd’s, yet they tell me they’ve all shot themselves naked at least once. Their reasons vary: some are monitoring fitness goals, others have reached advance sexting levels with Tinder dates, a few are just curious. Some leave their faces in, while others only share glimpses of body parts. But without exception, every one of these women has also considered the repercussions of her photos being accessed by people other than who they are meant for.
Zafiya, a 22-year-old student from Delhi, tells me that finding photographs she had sent to her lover in the wider world of the web would not just be humiliating, but terrifying. ‘It isn’t just breaking carefully built trust, but [it is] a direct threat to ruin your image and people’s respect for you. As a woman, you are in any case under constant threat of being seen as “loose” or “slutty”, and it really matters to me that people take me seriously for my mind and personality and not for my body or what I do with it.’
* * *
Sartre tells us that the body we are trapped in is lived and not known. In her book On Photography, author Susan Sontag describes how photographs give us an ethics of seeing, or knowing. ‘In teaching us a new visual code,’ she writes, ‘photographs alter and enlarge our notions of what is worth looking at and what we have the right to observe.’ By simultaneously becoming the photographer and the subject, some of the women I speak to are learning to see themselves anew.
Shyamolie, a Mumbai-based journalist, first photographed herself in the nude when she turned 30. ‘It was great,’ she tells me. ‘I realised for the first time that I looked really hot!’ While she didn’t send the pictures to anyone else, they allowed her to become less inhibited about sharing clothed photographs that showed off her body. ‘The whole point of a selfie is that you want people to look at you and like you. Our self-esteem is tied to that now, whether we admit it or not.’
Nafisa, a 24-year-old Parisian woman, confesses that she couldn’t stop laughing when confronted with the first few images of what she thought was her ‘sexy’ face. ‘It was really, really weird. There’s no such thing as trying to look “sexy” in the nude. The first results are usually absolutely disastrous! But you do it again and again because you just have to send something acceptable, [and] in the end you manage to produce something somewhat correct. I know the person I sent them to really enjoyed it, so I consider my efforts were well rewarded.’
As our bodies change, so do our relationships to them, and the most intimate photographs are often not the ones taken for others, but the ones that women take for themselves.
’I think I was about 14 or 15 the first time I took a naked picture of myself,’ writes Heena, a stunning 21-year-old designer from Bengaluru. ‘No one asked me to do it; I just did it out of curiosity with my digital camera. After I clicked the picture I saw a thumbnail of the photograph and my immediate reaction was to delete it. I was ashamed and embarrassed and not comfortable enough with my body. Forget showing it to others, I didn’t even want to see it myself.’
As she grew older, validation from friends and lovers helped her become more confident. Heena says she now keeps photographs of her and her lover on a hard drive. ‘I do feel they’re safer with me, but it’s also that I want to be able to look back at them one day when I’m older and see what I used to look like naked. That’s a beautiful thing.’
For these women, the fear of being exposed or shamed is present, but it’s distant. Shame is almost always balanced out by the immediate gratification of those fortunate enough to receive self-documented nudes, or sometimes, by their own pleasure at being in a really great photograph. The women I speak to hide naked photographs on hard drives, nudes inside memory cards kept in safe deposit boxes, or single copies of artistic black and white pictures locked away inside tin trunks. But none of them show any signs of stopping.
* * *
The first time I hear about ‘Reddit Gone Wild’ is through Noorie. She’s moved back home from Mumbai, and the small town she lives in allows limited opportunities for sexual or social interaction. But she’s finding a way to circumvent her boredom — by posting naked photos online.
This time, my blood really does run cold. Four hundred women in Adelaide have just been hacked, their personal photographs posted online for everyone to see — from future employers to ex-kindergarten teachers. Worse, much like the celebrity Fappening of 2014, they’ve been blamed for having taken the photos in the first place.
‘Reddit is totally safe,’ Noorie says. ‘Go check out the rules for yourself.’
This much is true: the moderators of the ‘Reddit Gone Wild’ subreddit (a user-created subsection of Reddit) actually sound like decent people with zero tolerance for bullshit. After you verify that you are an actual person posting photographs of your own body, their advice to you is simple. Don’t respond to trolls, report them. Respect people brave enough to submit their photos or videos. Be mindful of anonymity. Link to another user’s personal info or content outside Reddit — so much as try to guess a name — and you will be shown the door.
The images posted on ‘Reddit Gone Wild’ span everything from full frontal to couples in flagrante, with thousands upon thousands of women sharing photos of themselves naked, masturbating, or even posing with balloons. But these images are far less interesting to me than the comments, which offer an endless stream of validation. This is like the sex-positive therapy room of the internet, where bodies of every shape and size, every colour and gender orientation, are fawned over, complimented, and (respectfully) ogled. ‘Your boyfriend is lucky as hell,’ says one commenter. ‘We have a drought here, but you’re getting me wet,’ says another. ‘You look thin,’ says one, and then offers, ‘Would you let me take you out for dinner?’
But ‘Reddit Gone Wild’ is only a tiny speck on the vast horizon of the internet, not to mention of Reddit itself. The nude celebrity hack was memed and christened ‘The Fappening’ on a subreddit that ruthlessly shared the stolen files with over 130,000 subscribers in a single day. Reddit has also been host to a range of abusive spaces including the subreddits JailBait, Chokeabitch and Rapebait, which were discovered to all be linked to some of the moderators themselves.
Like the rest of the internet, Reddit has its share of awful people who want to humiliate and hurt women. As one user encouraged his fellow Redditors during The Fappening, ‘The internet never forgets. Let’s make sure everyone remembers that.’
* * *
Now, more than ever before, our experience of cyberspace is subsumed by images and videos. ‘Twitpic or it didn’t happen’ isn’t just a catchy slogan; it’s become a way for us to mediate the world.
Finally, the rules about sharing images of your body on the internet, I discover, aren’t too different from those in the offline world. Share, but only with someone you trust completely. Trust is fragile. Exercise caution, often to the point of paranoia.
Online, the existence of a few hard-won, niche spaces that respect consent and sexual agency allow women to express themselves with an exhilarating freedom. The fact that these spaces occasionally shrink, or that these freedoms can be abused, is true of both worlds — real and virtual. The thing is: fear hasn’t stopped us from occupying space in either.
I can’t help grinning as I think back to my friend Jenna’s last comment to me. I’d asked her what she’d do if someone found and then shared a naked picture of her online, and she replied, ‘I’d be much more devastated if a hideous nude photograph of me was circulating out there, rather than a more flattering one.’
You know what young girls are like.
Nishita Jha is a Delhi-based journalist. You can tweet to her @nishswish.