Warning: This article contains strong language and a reference to sexual assault.
When former glamour model Jess Davies started modelling at 18 she had no idea her images would be used to con money out of men all over the world.
Over the years Jess, now 27, has received hundreds, if not thousands, of messages from people telling her they’ve been speaking to someone using her pictures and until now she’s never understood why.
In a new BBC Three documentary When Nudes Are Stolen Jess traces where and how her pictures are being used – and explains the effect it’s had on her life.
I can barely remember the first time it happened.
I got a message on social media, telling me someone was using photos of me and pretending to be me online.
At first I thought it would be a one-off, but it’s nearly ten years since that first message and I’m still getting them on an almost weekly basis.
Either they rip off my whole identity or use photos of me under a false name, then they use those profiles to try to get money from unsuspecting men. They generally find out who I really am after doing a reverse image search and coming across my real-life social media profiles.
They can use any photos from my past: me sitting on my sofa at home, me as a baby, me at a baseball game. They’ve even used pictures of me and my dad on a bike ride.
But there’s a common theme: almost all of these fake profiles include pictures from when I was a teenager.
These days I work as a model and influencer but when I was 18 I decided to be a glamour model, modelling for magazines like Nuts, Zoo and FHM – which had a massive following among young men in the UK.
I’ve never posed fully nude, but I did appear topless in these magazines. None of the print versions of the magazines exist anymore, but the photos from that time never seem to go away.
It’s difficult to describe how it feels, knowing that someone, maybe even lots of people, are using photos of me from what feels like a lifetime ago to con men. It’s like being in an invisible battle and I have no idea who my opponent is.
I manage to get the fake profiles taken down, but more always pop back up. My identity is constantly and repeatedly robbed from me, and over time that does have an impact on how I feel about myself.
I’ve only recently found out why this keeps happening – and where my photos have ended up – with some help from private investigator Laura Lyons.
Laura and I met in a grey office in London where she showed me print outs of where my photos had been found online. It started with the kind of fake profiles I know about, like “Khira” on Tinder, “Andrea” on Instagram and “Jasmine” on Facebook.
But then Laura started to show me accounts I had no idea existed: a French escort website, sex chat and porn sites. There was a sea of photos looking back at me.
There was one profile on a sexting website with a picture of me at 19 years old under the heading: “Who’s down for a massive rape role-play now?”
If someone consents to do sex chat or porn then I don’t see anything wrong with that, but I’ve never done porn and I didn’t consent for my photographs to be used in this way.
Seeing them all in front of me was pretty devastating. The problem is so big, I don’t know if I’ll ever get a handle on it but I need to at least know why it keeps happening to me.
Laura suggested that part of the reason is because I have a mixture of relaxed, at-home pictures on my social media accounts that can be mixed in with the older glamour model pictures, which means it’s easier to build a fully-rounded persona with them.
“Your pictures are very, very realistic,” Laura told me. “A lot of people like yourself have their profiles open because of their work, but it makes it so much easier for these scammers because they can just go in and take content.”
It feels like those old topless photos literally haunt me. Every situation I go into where I meet new people leaves me wondering whether they’ve seen them. What will they think if they Google me?
When I first made the decision to have topless photos taken when I was a teenager, I had no appreciation of how the internet worked. When a photo of you gets put online then it’s out there forever, and people seem to be able to use it however they want with impunity.
‘My photos are everywhere and it’s happening repeatedly’
In the UK there are laws around how photographs can be shared or used online, but they don’t all fit into one neat set of rules.
There are copyright laws meaning if you took the photo and own the copyright then you can request that it is taken down.
The challenge I have is that a lot of the photos were taken of me but not by me, so I don’t own the copyright.
If someone is using your photos to catfish people then it could be covered by laws around fraud, however this depends on the circumstances.
There are also much newer laws relating to so-called “revenge porn” – also known as image-based sexual abuse.
“Revenge porn” – the sharing of private or sexual images or videos of a person without their consent – became an offence in England and Wales in April 2015. Similar laws were later introduced in Northern Ireland and Scotland.
But for this to be applicable you need to prove that there was intent to cause harm to the person whose photos are being shared and proving someone’s intention can be very difficult.
On top of that, the internet is global and laws only cover one country at a time. My photos are everywhere and it’s happening repeatedly.
‘It felt devastating. How often had my images been used?’
What I’d never understood is who the people using my photos might be and that’s when I came across the term “e-whoring,” which is a more extreme version of catfishing using nude images.
Pictures of people – mostly women – are traded and sold in packs between scammers. Then they impersonate those women to get money out of unsuspecting victims.
Looking at the sites where these images are sold is pretty grim. Peoples’ pictures are being traded and sold like Pokémon cards. There’s also a community built around it in forums and chat rooms where stolen pictures are traded.
Sometimes people in these groups ask for help identifying women so they can find more pictures of her. I decided to post my own picture there to find out if my photos had been used in this way.
Within two minutes, someone said they had a pack of my photos and were willing to sell it to me for a $15 (£11) Amazon Gift Card.
It felt devastating. Just how often have my photos been used for them to recognise me so quickly?
The community of people who trade pictures like this is an incredibly secretive one, and I only managed to find one person who was willing to talk to me openly.
Aku, whose name we have changed, is now in his 20s and lives in New York. He said he was recruited into it when he was 13 by older teenagers and explained how people involved in it would stalk peoples’ Instagram profiles then take their pictures.
Disturbingly, he told me that photos and pictures of “revenge porn” would be used, although he said he never used them himself.
“[With] e-whoring… you’re scamming people and you’re actually looking to exploit people for your own financial gain,” Aku told me. “And as I got older I saw that these people are actually going through something and I felt bad every single time I was doing it, so I just said ‘you know what, I’m just not doing this anymore’ and I just gave up on it.”
It was clear Aku felt remorse for the people he had exploited but I wondered whether he’d ever thought about the women in the images he used.
“These pictures were [from] cam girls,” he said. “I mean, you put yourself out there.
“Considering we know the risks of the Internet, it’s like, were you not expecting this to happen?”
Although I know there will be many people who agree with Aku, I don’t think I or anyone else should expect photos of themselves to be misused. I don’t think I should accept that my identity is being sold and traded online without my consent.
I hope that something can change in how consent is seen when it comes to photos that are shared online. To me, it’s simple: if you consent to a photo being taken in one context, it doesn’t mean it can be used however and wherever anyone chooses.
“I commanded her to get on her knees face down, ass up.
Dirty sex stories and sex confessions fascinate us endlessly; there’s no two ways about it. Whether it’s tales of people sharing their hot sex stories, honeymoon sex, sex with a stranger or pool sex—we’re into it. But, the dirtier the better, right? Dirty sex can mean different things to different people—whether that’s BDSM or just sex involving loads of bodily fluids and dirty talk. Here, 16 people share what they consider to be their dirtiest and filthiest sex stories and confessions.
1.”It turned me on so much”
“Second session of the night with my then FWB a few years ago. We were doing it in the shower and he pushed me onto my knees to suck his dick midway, and then I was sitting on my butt in the tub with my legs spread. He was still standing, and then stuck his foot between my legs, penetrating my pussy with his big toe while looking down on me. It was only for a couple minutes or so, but turned me on so much I was basically screaming for him to fuck me! I still think about this scene sometimes and it turns me on.”
2.”She deepthroated my fingers”
“My ex and I weren’t planning on having sex, just some kinky snuggles. She grabbed my hand, shoved three of my fingers into her mouth, and deep throated them. After a few minutes of that, she used my (now dripping) hands to lube her thighs up. I slid into her from behind and fucked her senseless. Hot!”
3.”Squirting was involved”
“She squirted in my mouth as we were 69’ing. I swallowed and made out with her.”
4.”We shifted into a ‘don’t get me pregnant’ role play”
“Me and my bf were having sweet, kissy, missionary sex and I could feel him getting close. I kindly reminded him to pull out (I was on the Pill but didn’t want to risk it) and his response was, ‘What, afraid I’m going to knock you up?’ I was caught off guard, and responded with, ‘Sir please don’t!’ and the vibe did a sexy-as-hell 180. We seamlessly shifted into a, ‘Don’t get me pregnant/no, I’m getting you pregnant whether you like it or not’ role play. He pulled out anyway, but the story made me cum almost immediately. I still masturbate thinking about it.”
5.”He fingered me during my period”
“Sucking on his fingers after he fingered me, while I was on my period. When I told my closest friends, they gave me the most disgusted looks.”
6. “My first time with a woman was when she was on her period”
“Finally had the chance to have sex with another woman and she was on her period. I asked her to go take her tampon out so I could eat her out. It wasn’t bad at all. No smell or taste. Obviously I stuck to clit play and didn’t penetrate her, but thinking back to it, it was pretty dirty.”
7. “Her greatest fantasy came true”
“Licking my then-girlfriend’s asshole. Eventually I had one finger in her butt and two more in her cooch and was giving her clit stimulation, and she said, ‘Is this happening?’, like her greatest fantasy had come true.”
8. “I was riding him wild”
“My husband and I had a night out, we both got drunk but I think he was a bit more than myself. So although he was hard, he was too drunk to perform. I was sooooo horny, I don’t know how but I jumped on top of him and had him penetrate me from behind. I was riding him wild, we’ve experimented with anal sexual before but nothing like this. I had multiple orgasms while riding him and playing with my clit.”
9. “He called me ‘daddy'”
“Cross-dressing and sex was one of the sexiest thing I’ve ever experienced with my bf. It’s surreal, sex was about an hour long. During the sex we were role-playing, too. From me being in my normal ‘dirty baby girl’ to all of sudden dominating my bf and call him baby girl and him calling me daddy. It was just so fucking hot.”
10. “He didn’t last long”
“In the midst of sex, I moved his other hand to my mouth so I could suck on his fingers. And the simple sensation of getting wrecked along with the thought of sucking on his dick spiked my arousal. Needless to say he didn’t last long after a sensory overload.”
11. “69ing and rimming”
“Giving a rim job while 69ing, just went for it and damn!!! I never thought I’d be into giving that but was always curious, am now even more curious to play with his butt more!”
12. “He was so into it”
“Giving head after anal. I honestly didn’t even realize what I was doing (I have never had a problem going down on anyone after vaginal penetration) until he said something like, ‘Oh my God you are so dirty, I love it.’ He was so into it. I’d like to repeat the act but only if it’s a CNC [consensual non-consent] type scenario. Then I can pretend I don’t like it even though I obviously am turned on by how turned on he gets.”
13. “I told her, ‘Don’t move, you do what I tell you to'”
“It started one random night when we were in bed after a shower. I commanded her to get on her knees face down, ass up ,and I started going down on her from behind. Then I don’t know what came over me but I just went for it—I ate her ahole. I told her, ‘Don’t move, you do what I tell you to,’ and I spanked her. I’ve never done that before. Then I ‘made’ her go down on me. The sex was really hot. Now when we have sex it’s usually some type of CNC. It’s fun. Remember to be safe and use a safe word.”
14. “Basically I had come like a dozen times”
“The other day me and my hubbs woke up and went to town… no idea what sparked it, but it was great, but basically I had come like a dozen times and he was having an issue getting off, so I sucked him off after we had just been fucking. Not usual for me, but I was pretty into it after I decided why the hell not?.”
15. “He eats my ass like it’s groceries”
“I almost passed out once when my bf was eating me out. The most intense was definitely when he ate my butthole, it wasn’t the first time but he was just very skilled and I just had to make him stop, I was completely losing it! Getting my asshole simply licked wouldn’t do much, but when he eats it like it’s groceries…. 🙂 it’s amazing!”
16. “That feeling is just so fucking wild”
“We do a lot of CNC and dirty talking and loads of roleplay, too. And when he licks my butthole it’s just a whole new feeling every time and my entire body starts going wild it feels so good. He’d stick his fingers in my mouth and I’d bite them (mostly because we have wild sex at his parents’ home and I’m being too loud, but also to prepare himself for penetrating the ass) and that feeling from going from dirty ass eating and wetness to the tip slowly penetrating is just so fucking wild.”
But it defended the clips it has allowed to remain online.
“Consenting adults are entitled to their own sexual preferences, as long as they are legal and consensual, and all kinks that meet these criteria are welcome on Pornhub,” said a spokesman.
The other sites did not respond to the BBC’s request for comment.
Last week, Pornhub released its first-ever transparency report, which said it had removed 653,465 videos for violating its rules.
“Remember, a kink that looks degrading or humiliating is not the same thing as an illegal, abusive, or non-consensual act,” the report added.
“What goes on between consenting adults is exactly that: consensual. Non-consent must be distinguished from consent to relinquish control.”
But Clare McGlynn QC, a professor of law at Durham who co-authored the study, said: “It’s shocking that this is the material that the porn companies themselves are choosing to showcase to first-time users.”
Fiona Vera-Gray, a legal research fellow and co-author of the study, said sexually violent material “eroticised non-consent” and distorted “the boundary between sexual pleasure and sexual violence”.
The wording used in titles and descriptions are optimised for searches “to entice an audience,” said Charlotte Rose, a former sex worker of more than 20 years.
She said the majority of porn produced in the UK was “ethical and consensual” but that videos on leading platforms were not always transparent.
“For your average viewer it can be hard to tell what is real and what is fantasy,” she explained.
“Porn performers can make things look convincing, they can depict harm but actually, the actors are enjoying it because that’s their kink.”
Ms Rose said some extreme and unregulated porn “can create a bridge that leads to other violent acts” and argued that viewers should be “made aware” of porn videos that are “ethical, consensual and fantasy, not real life”.
As a new book is released exploring the modern, smartphone-facilitated phenomenon of ‘sending nudes’, Holly Williams reflects on the lineage of naked self-representation it continues.
“Love, lust, pleasure, desire, beauty, anatomical study, self-expression, egotism… The impulses behind sending nudes are many. Creating nudes and sharing them seems to be part of human nature.” So begins Karla Linn Merrifield, in the first contribution to a new anthology entitled Sending Nudes. A collection of poems, stories and memoir on the subject, it takes a long hard look at the contemporary – and seemingly timeless – habit of sharing images of the naked human form.
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The idea came to editor Julianne Ingles after a short story entitled Send Nudes was submitted for a previous anthology she was working on. “I thought [the topic] could be explored, that other people would have stories and poems,” says Ingles.
“Sending nudes” is more of a live topic than ever, chiefly because the ease of taking, replicating and sharing naked images has led to anxieties about everything from revenge porn to celebrity sex tapes, hacked private images to sexting teenagers. But since the advent of smartphones, sending nudes has also become normalised incredibly quickly: any woman who’s been on a dating app in the last decade will likely have been asked to share nude pictures with eyebrow-lifting speed.
But Ingles reminds me that sending nudes isn’t really new: “When I was in my early twenties, I sent nudes to someone – this was before the internet, so it was Polaroids”. It’s just that it used to be a private, little-spoken-of activity, rather than part and parcel of digital dating and contemporary life.
Its increasing prevalence as a phenomenon is neither a simply “good” or “bad” thing, Ingles – and the writers of Sending Nudes – suggest. While the potential for coercion, abuse and shaming are high, sexting can be a fun, consensual way to develop intimacy. During a pandemic, it’s also become almost a practical necessity for many – a way of keeping sexual fire alive, over enforced distance.
The artworks of our era?
Arguably, there are also positives to having a greater openness and diminished prudishness about real-life, normal human bodies. But then, few people sending nudes traffic in realism. Seductive nude selfies are usually staged and carefully framed, albeit often within the confines of a bedroom or bathroom; dressed up for as well as undressed for. Posed and carefully lit, cropped and filtered to flatter, they are crafted for the imagined appreciation of the viewer. In that way, are nude selfies part of a lineage of naked representation that runs back through art history?
Certainly, you could argue the selfie – including the naked one – is the artwork of our time. It’s estimated that over a million selfies are taken every day: self-portraiture meets self-promotion. We’re more aware than ever not only of our own image, but our presentation of it – how we make ourselves appear to the eyes of the external spectator. And nowhere is that more carefully manipulated, surely, than in the nude snap.
The art world is increasingly taking note of the selfie form. In 2017, Saatchi Gallery in London opened a show, From Selfie to Self-Expression, drawing the line between traditional self-portraits through to the humble camera phone shot, from Rembrandt and Van Gogh through to Kim Kardashian and Barack Obama. “Everything can be art if it’s followed through by the maker with enough conviction and coherence,” commented Nigel Hurst, CEO of Saatchi Gallery. “We’re not saying that the slideshow of a teenager trying out various poses is as significant as a work by Rembrandt, but the art world cannot ignore this phenomenon.”
That same year, the Sexting Art Festival was held at the Littlefield Gallery in Brooklyn. The organisers wanted to redress the lack of conversation, analysis or display of the “wide spectrum of work” that constitutes sexting, by showcasing it in all its forms, visual and otherwise.
Meanwhile in 2016, the National Portrait Gallery had a show called Exposed: The Naked Portrait, which revealed just how acceptable – fashionable, even – it’s become for celebrities to strip off for their own professional “selfies” – “revealing” and “honest” photographic portraits by the likes of Annie Leibovitz, David Bailey, Norman Parkinson, Mario Testino, and Polly Borland.
From buxom fertility goddesses through to heroic Greek gods, the unclothed human body has been recreated from the moment we could carve rock
The pervasiveness of the “nude selfie” is just the latest step in our ever-evolving relationship with the naked image. From buxom fertility goddesses through to heroic Greek gods, the unclothed human body has been recreated from the moment we could carve rock.
While it was the muscular, well-proportioned male form that was celebrated in Ancient Greece, once we came to the Renaissance, the focus began to shift to women. Hunky, idealised nude male figures from myth or the Bible still occupied artists’ imaginations (think of Michelangelo’s David, or depictions of Adam) – but a new fondness emerged for the reclining female nude.
Artists rendered the nude “respectable” in various ways: they painted goddesses or biblical figures as anonymous, generalised images of “beauty”, rather than portraits of specific or identifiable women. Painted in supposedly modest poses with hands delicately placed to notionally conceal their genitals, they also trafficked in idealism, not reality: no pubic hair here.
But rarefied and legitimised as they might be, such nudes also – inevitably – carry an erotic charge. These supine naked women invite the eyes of the – imagined male – viewer to travel all over their curves. Many entrenched ideas of what feminine sexuality looks like – a certain languorous passivity, simultaneously coy and come-hither – are codified here.
The first “nude selfie” by a female artist is thought to be Paula Modersohn-Becker’s Self-Portrait Nude with Amber necklace (1906) (Credit: Alamy)
Of course, the erotic intent of nudes before the 20th Century was almost always that conjured by male painters catering to wealthy male buyers. In the art critic John Berger’s hugely influential 1972 essay Ways of Seeing, he argued that, historically, “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at… The surveyor of woman is herself male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object – and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.” He proves this via examination of the frontal female nude in European art: the female subject, painted by a male artist, offering themselves up and out as an object, to be looked at by heterosexual men. For hundreds of years, women were only able to see external representations of their gender filtered through a male gaze, and therefore internalised that way of looking at themselves too.
Nudes with agency
I asked Frances Borzello, art historian and author of The Naked Nude, if there are any examples of pre-20th Century nudes expressing women’s agency – for example, portraits commissioned by a wife or mistress of themselves in order to please or tantalise a partner or lover? “I don’t know,” she says. “They would hardly advertise this though one assumes it must have happened – occasionally!”
She brings up Goya’s La Maja desnuda: a famously frank nude, who unabashedly eyeballs the viewer. Not that the model commissioned or owned her own image – it’s thought the painting was made for a man’s private collection of nudes – but art historians have speculated that it is at least an explicit, realistic portrait of one specific and willing female subject, who might have been Goya’s lover. “The striking features are the opposite of the bland and often hazy features of the ideal nude,” Borzello says.
Artists turned their gaze on their own bodies, though they rarely recreated them in flattering or well-mannered images
In terms of self-promotion, commissioned portraits of the wealthy and powerful were usually, for reasons of respectability, fully clothed – both men and women – but there are rare exceptions. These include a wonderfully eccentric 1530 portrait of the admiral Andrea Doria, painted by Agnolo Bronzino as Neptune, complete with trident and naked torso; and a 1670 painting of Nell Gwyn, an actress and also King Charles II’s mistress, in which she is posing topless.
But it is at the start of the 20th Century when the naked self-portrait exploded in popularity. In this period of great artistic and intellectual change, artists turned their gaze on their own bodies, though they rarely recreated them in flattering or well-mannered images. Anguished mental states seem to thrum off the canvases, as in the harsh, blue-toned naked self-portraits of Richard Gerstl, the scowling, disturbing contortions of Egon Schiele, or when Edvard Munch painted himself “in Hell”, his haunted face surrounded by flames.
Tschabalala Self’s erotic mixed-media collages bear a selfie-like aesthetic (Credit: Tschabalala Self, courtesy of the artist and Pilar Corrias, London
All these naked self-portraits were painted within the first decade of the 20th Century – and rather set the tone for the rest of it. Such paintings were possible, writes Borzello in The Naked Nude, because these artists had “no-one to answer to but themselves… These naked portraits follow no tradition. They are new. They make the private public. And they left a legacy.”
Modernism continued to effectively kill off the idealised reclining nude, as messier, more complicated images of naked bodies proliferated. Both in artists’ naked self-portraits and in nude portraits of others, a concern with the body’s less-than-picturesque aspects remained ascendant – from Picasso’s shattered forms to Lucian Freud’s lumpy flesh.
How women reclaimed their image
But the story of the 20th Century nude is also the story of women, finally able to paint themselves. The first “nude selfie” by a female artist is thought to be Paula Modersohn-Becker’s Self-Portrait Nude with Amber necklace, in 1906, where she paints herself pregnant, despite not being so. It’s an imaginative take that’s about female identity – not the male gaze.
For many female artists, creating their own take on the nude becomes a way to reclaim the stereotyped image of woman from the masculine traditions of Western art history. Florine Stettheimer’s 1915 A Model (Nude Self-Portrait) cocks a snook at the traditional reclining nude: Stettheimer paints herself with a knowing smile, proffering her own colourful bunch of flowers like a magician’s trick – an active riposte to Edouard Manet’s infamous, unimpressed-looking 1863 nude, Olympia, which features a white sex worker being brought flowers from a suitor by a black servant.
Whether in advertising, pop culture, or pornography, the naked body has become defined by its attractiveness as a monetisable object.
For women, as much as for men – perhaps even more so, given they were actively trying to counter hundreds of years of artistic airbrushing of their bodies – naked self-portraits became concerned with conveying uncomfortable truths about what it is to have a body. From Frida Kahlo’s symbol-laden portrait of her own miscarriage to Jenny Saville’s close-up rolls of flesh and Tracey Emin’s scratchy masturbation paintings, the “nude selfie” became truly unfiltered.
But if the pendulum swung away from the notion of the idealised nude in Western culture, it eventually swung back, albeit in a new form. Whether in advertising, pop culture, or pornography, the naked body has become defined by its attractiveness as a monetisable object. And that’s a paradigm that has been picked apart by Pop Art, post modernism, and beyond. In general, contemporary art is more likely to use an idealised naked body to critique attitudes towards sex, pornography and consumption than it is to plainly ape them – although viewers of, say, Jeff Koons’ super-glossy soft-core staged photographs with his then wife, adult film star Ilona Staller (aka La Cicciolina), might be forgiven for feeling otherwise.
However some nude images channelled eroticism in a way that was truly radical. Consider Robert Mapplethorpe’s black and white photographs of naked gay men, including himself, engaged in BDSM and sex acts, which caused such a furore that Washington DC’s Corcoran Gallery cancelled a show of them in 1989. Then, bringing such kink into the light was shocking; today, the controversy has dimmed, and Mapplethorpe is subject to major, respectable retrospectives.
The language of the smartphone nude
When it comes to the advent of the smartphone-facilitated nude selfie, meanwhile, the question is: how have we absorbed this language and grammar of nakedness? It’s something that artists are certainly exploring, recreating the camera angles, the up-close poses and pouts, the partially-pulled-down underwear on gallery walls.
Ghada Amer embroiders works that, beneath their fine surfaces, recreate the codified poses – the hand on the stuck-out bum, the coyly pulled-down bra strap, the over the-shoulder inviting look – of the nude selfie. Tschabalala Self’s mixed-media collages stitch together exaggerated images of black female bodies that speak to the way they can be both sexually empowered, and crudely sexualised, in contemporary visual culture. “The fantasies and attitudes surrounding the black female body are both accepted and rejected within my practice,” she has said. Erin M Riley’s work explicitly recreates nude selfies – but immortalises them within tapestries. Based on real images she finds online, she includes details like a mobile phone reflected in a mirror or the familiar hand-held camera angle, looking down the body.
Some artists have gone further, literally using other people’s Instagram posts. David Trullo turned Instagram posts of men photographing themselves nearly-nude in bathroom mirrors into bathroom tiles. Meanwhile, for his New Portraits series, controversial painter/photographer Richard Prince left suggestive replies below people’s Instagram selfies, often those of young women and sexily posed (if not fully-naked), then blew up and printed out the posts. But if the series was intended as some kind of satirical comment on how we’re all obsessed with crafting our own attractive self-images – and giving them away for free to anyone who cares to look – then that was mostly obscured by his co-opting and profiteering from women’s images without their consent.
One subject, Zoë Ligon, told ArtNet that she thought the work “resembles revenge porn and harassment more than anything else”; explaining that she was a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and her “sexy selfies” were a way of reclaiming her sexualised image, she said she felt “violated” by Prince’s use of one. The issue of his appropriating women’s pictures was brought into wider consciousness when model Emily Ratajkowski wrote about buying one of Prince’s works using a post from her Instagram, within a potent, widely-shared piece about not having control over her own image last year.
Absolutely, I think the nude selfie can be an art form. It’s nice to see that thought and reflection. It shows the person respects themselves – Julianne Ingles
While Prince’s work inadvertently highlights very serious questions about how the selfie can be appropriated unethically, it is also clear that it is a medium which deserves artistic interrogation. Here is a striking, thorny new form of communication and self-presentation – and one that is, after all, purely visual. Nonetheless, in transposing that visual language into a new medium or context, artists are both reflecting on and actively removing the primary function of the private nude: they are not seeking to turn the viewer on. “I honestly don’t know of artists who would admit to intentionally titillating,” says Borzello.
But does the nude selfie, in its purest state, have the potential to be a new art form? Ingles thinks so. “Absolutely, I think that it can be an art form,” she says. “It’s nice to see that thought and reflection, not just snapping a photo – people taking time to do the lighting, your hair and make-up. It shows the person respects themselves.”
Which brings us back to Berger’s formulation of how, when a woman imagines themselves through the eyes of the external, male viewer, she “turns herself into an object… of vision: a sight.” Fifty years on, women are still more judged on how they look than men, and the tyranny of that internalised male gaze persists. But it also seems that anyone engaged with visual digital culture – anyone posting selfies and in particular anyone sending nudes – is today actively participating in turning themselves into an object of vision.
The irony is, perhaps, that the filtered, posed, explicit images we now so easily recognise as a smartphone nude might have come full circle – bringing us back to the aesthetic of the traditional respectable art historical nude: codified, safe and strangely conventional. Designed to be gazed upon. Designed to please the viewer. Designed to turn our complicated and messy bodies into the ideal object.
The European Parliament has declared that the whole of the European Union is an “LGBTIQ Freedom Zone”.
The symbolic resolution was passed in response to local authorities in Poland labelling themselves “LGBT ideology-free zones” in recent years.
Poland also plans to close a loophole that allowed same-sex couples to adopt.
The Polish government announced its proposal for the adoption ban just hours before the European Parliament’s declaration in support of LGBT rights.
Same-sex relationships are not legally recognised in Poland, and the country already bans same-sex couples from adopting children together.
However, as single people are permitted to adopt, some have managed to get around the ban by applying to adopt as single parents.
Under the new law, the authorities will be required to perform background checks on anyone applying to adopt a child as a single parent.
If a person is found to be applying as a single parent when they are in a same-sex relationship, they will be criminally liable.
Announcing the new plan, Deputy Justice Minister Michal Wojcik said: “We are preparing a change where… people living in cohabitation with a person of the same sex cannot adopt a child, so a homosexual couple will not be able to adopt a child.”
What is in the EU resolution?
The resolution declares that “LGBTIQ persons everywhere in the EU should enjoy the freedom to live and publicly show their sexual orientation and gender identity without fear of intolerance, discrimination or persecution”.
It adds that “authorities at all levels of governance across the EU should protect and promote equality and the fundamental rights of all, including LGBTIQ persons”.
The resolution was supported by 492 MEPs, while another 141 voted against it and 46 abstained.
German MEP Terry Reintke, one of the people who put forward the resolution, praised the “overwhelming majority” in favour of it.
“Let’s use it,” she tweeted after the vote. “Let’s put it into concrete political action: better laws, better enforcement, better protection. Together we can do it.”
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen had already backed the resolution before it went to a debate on Thursday.
“Being yourself is not an ideology. It’s your identity,” she tweeted on Wednesday. “No one can ever take it away. The EU is your home. The EU is a #LGBTIQFreedomZone.”
Last year, Ms von der Leyen said that Poland’s “LGBT-free zones” had “no place in our union”, and vowed to push all EU member states to recognise adoptions by same-sex couples.
Thursday’s resolution said that discrimination not only needed to be addressed in Poland, but that it was “an issue across the EU”.
“I want to address my appearance on the @mothecomedian podcast, when a story I told caused massive and righteous offence,” she wrote.
“Firstly, I want to say that I am wholeheartedly sorry”.
She continued: “I know that in this case, sorry is not nearly enough, throughout my life I have made a lot of mistakes and what I have come to know is that the only benefit to making one is to learn from it.
The word Jess used in her interview is among the most commonly used slurs against trans people online – according to a recent study.
“To be in the knowledge that I have negatively impacted the community through my own ignorance has ripped out a piece of my heart.” she explained.
“I know I needed to address my mistake head on and educate myself about an issue I was frankly ignorant of.
“The language that I used on the podcast was unacceptable, as someone that has always been immersed in the LGBTQ+ community, I have witnessed first hand the progress that has been made when it comes to language, I am ashamed that I was unaware of the potency of the T-slur until now.”
The singer then shared a list of organisations we she said her followers could “learn from”.
Organisers of London Trans Pride say the singer “still has a lot of work to do”, but called her apology “a step in the right direction”.
Newsbeat asked Mo Gilligan for comment, but he hasn’t responded.
Old-fashioned romantics might have the wrong idea about love. Strong beliefs in true love could be blinding you to both the good and bad in your partner, with sometimes toxic results.
Have you ever explained issues you have with your partner to your friends, only for them to think they are not worth worrying about? Or have you seen a friend start a new romance with someone you think is completely unsuitable but they seem to go from strength to strength?
Psychologists have found two scales that influence how we start and maintain relationships.
One measures how much importance we put onto first impressions and early signs of compatibility, while the other measures how likely we are to work through problems in relationships. They are called implicit theories of relationships (because we don’t often talk about them). We might intuitively think of ourselves as more or less likely to believe in true love – but this is not something that we openly discuss with others or are conscious of when we start new relationships.
Together, these two scales can tell us if we are more likely to avoid talking about issues with our partners, look for faults where they might not exist, and ‘ghost’ our way out of relationships. Differences in these implicit attitudes can also help us understand the reasons that others’ romantic choices often seem inexplicable to us.
To find out how you score, take the two quizzes below.
The Soul Mate scale
Answer the following questions on a scale of one to seven, where one is strongly disagree and seven is strongly agree.
1. Success in a romantic relationship is based mostly on whether the people are “right” for each other.
2. There is a person out there who is perfect (or close to perfect) for me.
3. In marriages, many people discover (vs. build) a deep intimate connection to their spouse.
4. It is extremely important that my spouse and I be passionately in love with each other after we are married.
5. I couldn’t marry someone unless I was passionately in love with him or her.
6. There is no such thing as “Mr. Right” or “Ms. Right”.
7. I expect my future husband or wife to be the most amazing person I have ever met.
8. People who are searching for a perfect match are wasting their time.
9. The reason most marriages fail is that people aren’t right for each other.
10. Bonds between people are usually there before you meet them.
Now for scoring. First add your answers for 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 9 and 10. For questions 6 and 8, you need to subtract each answer from the number 8 and use the new number as your answer for that question. For example, if you answered “6”, add a 2 to your total. Once you have your final total, divide by 10 to get your average for this scale.
The Work-it-out scale
Answer the following questions on a scale of one to seven, where one is strongly disagree and seven is strongly agree.
1. Success in a romantic relationship is based mostly on how much people try to make the relationship work.
2. In marriage, effort is more important than compatibility.
3. In a relationship, love grows (vs. love is found).
4. If people would just put in the effort, most marriages would work.
5. I could be happily married to most people, if they were reasonable.
6. The reason most marriages fail is that people don’t put in the effort.
7. How well you know someone depends on how long you have known him or her.
8. If I were to marry a random person, I would be satisfied.
9. Only over time can you really learn about your partner.
To find out your score, add together your answers and divide by 9.
The questions in this quiz are taken from the Relationship Theories Questionnaire used by Renae Franiuk, of Aurora University, Illinois, in her research into implicit theories and relationship satisfaction and longevity. Franiuk uses ‘Soulmate’ and ‘Work-it-out’ to describe the two scales. Other researchers use ‘destiny’ and ‘growth’ to describe similar scales.
If you scored highly for ‘soulmate’ beliefs and are surprised by this, Franiuk says you won’t be alone. “People have a tendency to think they will be a ‘work-it-out’ type but we see pretty high endorsement for ‘soulmate’. When we hear about the theories on the surface, ‘soulmate’ turns people off because it’s not scientific but it’s just a word. We could call it something different to make people want to identify with these romantic beliefs. It’s not surprising that we want to believe these ideas when so much in Western culture pushes people towards them.”
For people who score well on the growth scales, a conflict can improve the strength of the relationship
Now you have your score, what should you look out for? When relationships are struggling, people who score highly on growth scales cope best. In fact, the presence of a problem to work through can improve the strength of the relationship; couples who score highly on growth scales actually report feeling better about their relationship after a conflict has been worked through. For these people, it might be necessary for small, fairly inconsequential, issues to arise in the relationship to keep the couple focused on working together. The more investments a couple make, the more committed they feel. They enjoy the challenge.
For these reasons, growth believers will overlook big differences in compatibility. For them, compatibility might become more aligned with time – and that is something that is worth being worked on.
The opposite is true for people with strong destiny beliefs, with some potentially toxic consequences.
Particularly in the early stages of a relationship the presence of an issue can precipitate a break-up, as the destiny believer realises that their “perfect” soulmate is fallible. The destiny believer may argue that their partner “never really understood me” or that a small fault is “evidence that we’re not really compatible.” This is the case even if the couple are relatively well matched, Franiuk has found.
People who believe in true love are more likely to ‘ghost’ their ex-partners
Worse still, they may exit the relationship in a less-than-charitable manner. People who believe in true love are more likely to ‘ghost’ their ex-partners – avoiding contact until the other person gives up speaking to you. Perhaps because the ghoster does not feel it is worth the investment to try to maintain the relationship if the other person is not ideal for them and does not see the benefit in providing feedback. “They don’t see it as a negative thing to do,” says Gili Freedman, a psychologist at St Mary’s College of Maryland, who studies social rejection. “Your score on the growth scale had less of an effect overall, although, if you scored highly for growth you were more likely to feel negative about ghosting.”
If they don’t break up over an issue – and still believe that they’ve found their true love – the destiny believer may simply overlook the issue altogether. “Destiny believers tend to be more forgiving of a partner and more likely to avoid a fight because they want to believe that this person is their soulmate,” says Franiuk. That could be positive for minor disagreements. “But if you’re avoiding big conflict you end up staying with someone who is not good for you.”
And the consequences can be extremely serious. Destiny believers who have been together for longer are more likely to overlook issues, fooling themselves into thinking they are a better match because of the amount of time they have been together.
“We found that the longer destiny theorists stayed in relationships with someone who is not the right person, the more they reported violence,” says Franiuk. “They downplay problematic relationships. They might give someone a longer chance than other people might. Some might see warning signs early and end the relationships, but there will be some who don’t believe they are in a relationship with the right person but for economic reasons they remain and their personality traits make them more forgiving, which puts them in dangerous situations.”
It would seem that romantic beliefs remain fixed over time. So, once a destiny believer, always a destiny believer. “These theories are deeply held. Once people hit their 20s and 30s personalities are pretty stable. Like personality, relationship building is developed at an early age – children form these ideas based on the relationships around them,” says Franiuk.
The two implicit theories do not need to be mutually exclusive, though. “You can have beliefs that relationships improve when couples work on them together, but [still believe] there is still the ‘right’ person out there for you,” says Freedman. “There are not going to be many people that think that no growth is possible. And we can still alter the ways we express those beliefs. We would expect that past experiences will shape how we approach new relationships.” So just because you believe in romantic destiny, you might end the relationships in a more compassionate way, rather than ghosting, or you might make a more conscious effort to work through problems rather than overlooking them.
They say the course of true love never did run smooth – but a greater awareness of our own romantic tendencies might just help us navigate those bumps and turns along the way.
Social isolation has also meant sexual isolation for people keen to explore physical intimacy. Is virtual sex enough – or do we need to be touched?
About three months into lockdown in the UK, 26-year-old student Emma signed into a Zoom meeting with a group of people she’d only ever met through online chats. Organised by Killing Kittens, a company that, pre-Covid-19, hosted in-person sex parties with an emphasis on women’s empowerment, the “virtual house party” kicked off with drinking games. It was unlike anything she’d ever attended.
“We played ‘Never Have I Ever’,” she says, “and [the organisers] asked us questions like, ‘Which celebrity would you most like to see at a Killing Kittens party?’.” It got attendees talking about their fantasies and preferences – a smooth segue into the less structured part of the evening, during which some participants “removed clothing”, says Emma. “It was just a really good, quite sexy interaction with other people.”
It was the kind of connection Emma had been craving. With her one housemate staying with family, and having lost her job in March, Emma has spent much of the pandemic physically isolated. “There were points at which it got quite lonely,” she says.
Though she’d attended sex parties in the past, Emma had only just joined Killing Kittens in November 2019. “I was a little nervous to get properly involved,” she says, and when the pandemic hit, she worried she’d missed her chance. Instead, she joined one of Killing Kittens’s singles chat groups and started making close friends, which made her feel comfortable enough to try a virtual party on for size.
During the pandemic, social isolation has also meant sexual isolation for both individuals and couples hoping to explore physical intimacy. While recreating the tactile experience of sex online isn’t straightforward, virtual experiences – from dirty-talk Zoom workshops to sex parties like the one Emma attended – have helped fill the intimacy-shaped void felt by so many. To a certain extent, at least. For attendees and organisers, online sexual encounters can ‘mimic’ in-person experiences and offer much-need psychological relief, but there’s no direct replacement for physical touch.
However, beyond just acting as a stand-in for sex during the pandemic, these virtual experiences may also be showing us what’s important in intimacy writ large – both while we’re in isolation and once we can touch each other again.
Discovering digital intimacy
Almost a year into the pandemic, many have found ways to date and form relationships online. Dating apps such as Bumble now let users indicate “virtual only” or “socially distanced” dating preferences. According to a Bumble representative, in-app video calls were up by 42% in May 2020 compared to pre-lockdown March.
But replicating a first date via video chat is a far cry from recreating sexual experiences over the web. Key elements – physical touch most prominently – don’t have a straightforward, online substitute.
Still, people are getting virtually intimate. In October, hard-seltzer company Basic surveyed 2,000 single under 35-year-olds in the US, and found that 58% had had virtual sex during the pandemic. Of those, 77% did so with someone they’d never had sex with in person. Per a Bumble survey of 5,000 UK singles, 32% said “digital intimacy” was important in a relationship “both during lockdown and when measures lifted”.
There’s a big sexual gratification in being able to watch and be watched – Emma
For Emma and others who’ve dabbled in online sexual encounters in the past year, things like virtual sex parties, educational Zoom workshops, remotely controlled sex toys and simply engaging in sex-positive communities have proven to be both sexually fulfilling and antidotes to physical intimacy. “There’s a big sexual gratification in being able to watch and be watched,” says Emma, who describes herself as an “exhibitionist”.
Plus, watching real couples have sex is different from watching pornography. It’s personal – and the connections Emma’s made in these sex-positive spaces are, too. She and other single attendees have formed “tight bonds”, she says, “because we’ve all shared this experience on a very similar level”.
In London, David runs the brick-and-mortar adult lifestyle club Le Boudoir. In October, when he started hosting virtual sex parties with other London lifestyle clubs such as Purple Mamba, he noticed first-time attendees behaving like they would in physical spaces. Instead of huddling in the corner, they’re initially hesitant to virtually chat with others, but “you can literally see them warm throughout the evening”, says David.
Like Killing Kittens, these events start with icebreakers and performances (i.e., erotic dancers), which help get people in the mood. The progression of the parties looks a lot like it would in real life. “That’s technology mimicking real life,” he adds.
The element of safety
The online nature of these events also expands attendee demographics, so they span more locations, age ranges and experience levels.
People attend Boudoir and Purple Mamba’s events from Israel, South Korea, Australia and the US. A party that starts on Saturday evening, UK time can roll into evening on the US’s East Coast and across America. Sayle has also noticed virtual events attracting younger attendees – not only because they’re more online and “that’s how they communicate”, says Sayle, but also because online events remove the financial barrier to showing up at a physical party. Online Killing Kittens parties cost £20 ($27), while in-person ones can cost £350 ($480).
Emma, who doesn’t live in a major city, likes that she doesn’t have to spend money on travelling to an event in London, which would include putting up for a hotel, meals and new clothes. “As a student, that’s quite nice,” she says.
Boudoir and Purple Mamba’s virtual sex parties now attract around 150 attendees on a given Saturday. About half are first timers. Sayle sees a similar split at Killing Kittens’ events. “A lot of [attendees] are totally new people who would never have thought about [attending a sex party] before,” says Sayle. There’s a “safety element” to showing up via video chat, she adds: “You can close the screen at any point.”
That’s exactly what made UK-based couple Matt, 31, and Emily, 29, feel comfortable about going to their first-ever sex party during the pandemic, with Boudoir and Purple Mamba, online. “You’re in your own house,” says Matt. “It’s the safety of it.” Though they would have likely gone to an in-person event eventually, “it would have taken longer,” says Emily.
Just because you’re separated by distance doesn’t mean the activity you’re doing… is somehow less than if it was in person – Megan Stubbs
So far, the online events have let them explore their sexuality and relationship. Everyone’s “different styles” come through, says Matt, which creates a real, shared experience with another couple – one they didn’t think they’d want to experience before the pandemic. They’ve since changed their minds. Virtual encounters have also helped Matt and Emily put language to their desires. Because they’ve had to clearly communicate with others remotely, they’ve learned certain terms that describe their preferences.
This fits with a trend Michigan-based sexologist Megan Stubbs has observed. “I see more avenues of communication being open. People are talking more and getting more specific about their needs.” Distance necessitates this. When you’re not in the same room as your sex partner(s), you can’t rely on body language and subtle cues. But, she adds, “Just because you’re separated by distance doesn’t mean the activity you’re doing… is somehow less than if it was in person.”
Still, experts and people having virtual sex agree nothing can completely substitute for physical touch. As Sayle puts it, “You can’t recreate an orgy online.”
This is, in part, because of the cellular processes that take place when a person is touched. Tiffany Field, who heads the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine, explains that “moderate pressure touch” stimulates pressure receptors under the skin. “That sets off a chain reaction,” she says, that slows the nervous system. “The heart rate slows down, blood pressure slows, and brainwaves change in the direction of theta, which is a relaxation state.”
Levels of cortisol, the stress hormone that kills immune cells, also decrease when we’re touched, while natural killer cells (which kill bacteria, viral and cancer cells) increase, according to Field’s research, which specifically examines massage therapy. “It’s ironic, during this time when there’s a lot of touch deprivation going on,” she says, “that we don’t have the protection of the natural killer cells killing the viral cells.”
Based on her research of “moderate pressure touch,” Field says people living alone can still help stave off touch deprivation through “self-touch”. That even includes simple activities such as stretching and walking, which stimulate pressure receptors on the bottoms of our feet. Engaging in virtual sex surely falls into that category, if participants are willing to get active.
A deeper appreciation
Of these online-sexual-experience organisers and participants, all say they’ll likely continue with virtual experiences even when it’s safe to mingle with strangers. Digital intimacy offers something unique – the ability to stay at home but still engage in a fulfilling activity, with a geographically wider array of people, for minimal or zero cost.
In-person events, though, will likely boom. “Thousands of years of history of what happens post-pandemics and post-war show that people start shagging,” says Sayle. “It’s going to happen.”
The pandemic could also have another effect – it may make us all realise how touch-deprived we were to begin with. Before Covid-19, touch expert Field and colleagues were conducting a study in which they observed how much people were touching one another at airport departure gates. People were touching, says Field, only 4% of the time. Sixty-eight percent of the time, they were on their phones. Online platforms and social media were driving us physically apart pre-pandemic. Now, they’re facilitating people being together.
“I think what Covid has done has exacerbated [touch deprivation],” says Field. “Maybe [people] are beginning to appreciate that they’re missing the touch they did have.”
It is an offence under the act to “disclose a private sexual photograph or film of an individual who appears in the photograph or film without their consent with the intention of causing that individual distress”.
Only disclosures of private sexual photos or films made to third parties with “an intent to cause distress” currently constitutes an offence.
Ms Sims believes the laws, like the ones in Northern Ireland and England, are failing because “it’s very hard to prove intent” and “it is on to the victim to prove that intent”.
A spokesman for NI’s Department of Justice (DoJ) told BBC News NI that Minister Naomi Long is “fully committed to playing her part in addressing this issue”.
The Irish legislation introduces two new offences to deal with the non-consensual distribution of intimate images.
• The first offence deals with the distribution or publication of intimate images without consent and with intent to cause harm. The penalties applicable can be an unlimited fine and/or imprisonment of up to seven years.
• The second offence deals with the taking, distribution or publication of intimate images without consent even if there is no specific intent to cause harm. This offence carries a maximum penalty of €5,000 (£4,386) and/or two months imprisonment.
He said that while telecommunications is a reserved – rather than devolved – matter, DoJ officials have been liaising with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) to “ensure the interests of Northern Ireland are fully met”.
“On 15 December 2020, the UK government published its response to the Online Harms White Paper which sets out how a proposed legal duty of care on online companies will work in practice and gives them new responsibilities towards their users,” the spokesman said.
He added: “Social media sites, websites, apps and other services which host user-generated content or allow people to talk to others online will need to remove and limit the spread of illegal content such as child sexual abuse, terrorist material and suicide content.”
He said the UK government is working with the Law Commission to improve protection afforded at present in criminal law.
“It is recognised that reform of the law is needed to protect victims from harmful online behaviour including abusive messages, cyber flashing, pile-on harassment and the malicious sharing of information known to be false,” the spokesman said.