For almost a decade, I have received messages from men online telling me that someone is pretending to be me; using my photos to trick them out of money.
It started as a trickle but became a flood – one week I had messages every single day and as soon as I’d reported one fake social media profile, another had popped up. Seeing these false versions of me, with online personas so at odds with my own, has been one of the strangest and most disconcerting experiences of my life. But I’ve never understood why it happened to me until now.
When I was 18, I made the decision to do topless photoshoots for magazines like Nuts and Zoo. It’s the candid photos from this time that are being used to this day - mixed in with regular photos of me that are posted on Instagram or Twitter.
It’s only recently that I’ve become aware of how those pictures are also being used for something known as “e-whoring”. It’s a disgusting term for a disgusting practice. Photos of people – mostly women – are gathered together and then used to create fake sexual experiences online in order to extract money from unsuspecting victims.
To fuel this, there’s an underground trade in packaged up photographs. I’ve seen websites that look like pages from an Argos catalogue, where you can buy hundreds of images of different women. They’re sold at different price points depending on how rare or “unsaturated” they are - and it’s not just former glamour models whose pictures can be taken and used like this. Some look like they’re from ordinary social media accounts and others have been taken from incidents of revenge porn, where women have explicit photos of themselves shared online by an ex, without their permission.
You might not even know that this is happening to you, until it’s too late. And even if you do know that “e-whoring” exists, sometimes the photos are manipulated or changed slightly so they can’t be reverse image searched or located online.
My photos have ended up being used by these scammers and I only managed to find out by posting a picture of myself in one of the underground online forums where women's images are traded and sold. I was recognised instantly, and someone offered to sell me my “pack” for a $15 (£11) Amazon gift card. It was awful to finally know how and why my photos are being misused.
Some people reading this might think: well you had those topless photographs taken in the first place, so you deserve whatever comes next. My response to that is, yes I did pose for them - but I only consented for them to be published and used in their original context. I didn’t give permission to be misrepresented for the rest of my life, and for my images to be used however anyone pleases and for whatever purpose.
I am not the only person being targeted. The evidence I uncovered while making a new documentary on the subject for the BBC, suggests there are thousands of women whose photos are being misused or shared without their consent. Yet the shame attached to your intimate photos being leaked stops a lot of people from speaking up about it.
The personal consequences of this happening to you can be very serious. Revenge porn campaigner Megan Sims, 24, one of the people I spoke to for the film, had her photos and videos shared thousands of times for a former partner in 2016, and sent to friends and family. The experience culminated in a suicide attempt.
“I felt like my life was over, I was like: OK, I’m never going be able to get a job, my reputation is tainted now, everyone thinks of me differently, my images are out there forever now, so everyone can kind of see me in this way,” she told me.
“That’s the thing with the internet, there is a feeling of hopelessness”
Megan has since campaigned to help change the law in the Republic of Ireland, with new legislation recently coming into force there, making it a criminal offence to share images of another person without their consent. Image based sexual abuse is illegal in the UK, with the onus on the victim to prove there was intent to cause harm. As part of the domestic abuse bill, threatening to publish sexual or intimate images will become an offence carrying a sentence of up to two years in jail.
“[It] boils down to consent. We need consent education and we need to start calling people out… saying no, it’s not ok because it’s so dehumanising I think for the people impacted,” Megan says.
The UK law around this issue isn’t neatly set out, but there are some things you can do if you find your image being misused online.
Firstly, you can flag it to the platform where it appears – most social media sites have a “report” function that will take down profiles or photos that break their guidelines. If you find it on another website and you took the photo yourself, you could send a DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) takedown request to remove content that infringes your copyright.
You can also report it to the police if you suspect revenge porn laws have been broken, or if there is evidence that someone has been defrauded. But I’m sad to say that if your photos of you are misused and shared repeatedly then it is a sustained and constant battle to get them removed – I can tell you that from personal experience.
No one who ever takes a topless or nude photo, whether it was initially shared consensually or stolen from them, should be effectively punished online forever. The blame and shame needs to be redirected to the people misusing those images, but at the moment it feels like, as a society, we’re not doing that and instead effectively saying “oh well, that’s the internet for you”.
That’s not good enough anymore and it definitely won’t be good enough for the next generation of young women for whom image-sharing is part of everyday life. Something needs to change.
Additional Reporting by Hannah Livingston
Watch When Nudes Are Stolen on BBC One, tonight, 22.45. Or stream on BBC iPlayer.