More than 95 million photos are uploaded to Instagram every single day. Posting pictures to social media like Instagram has become part of life, especially for young people who have practically grown up on the internet.
Young people who grew up with social media are also familiar with its dangers; they know how to use privacy settings and not to give out their details to strangers. Yet, many young women are falling victim to a disturbing social media trend that they are probably not even aware of.
Earlier this year, university student, Becca, received a message request out of the blue from an old schoolmate. The message alerted her to the fact that photos she had uploaded to social media after a costume Halloween night out with friends, had been re-posted to a Twitter account alongside a sexual caption.
Becca was not the only one who had her photo used in this way. The Twitter account, which had a description stating its mission was “revealing local talent to the world for them to see and enjoy”, contained hundreds of photos of young women, re-posted in a hypersexualised context.
They’ve taken something so personal, something I enjoy and twisted it to make it sexualised
Becca describes her disgust upon finding the page: “The Twitter account had crazy amounts of photos of young women, sexualising them as if they were a product, something to be viewed… Thousands were retweeting, sharing, commenting under these photos.”
“It’s as if they’ve taken something so personal, something I enjoy and twisted it to make it sexualised. That’s not how I want to be viewed.”
Holly* is another young woman who had photos from her social media shared on a Tumblr account without her consent. She felt “angry and disgusted” that photos which she described as “innocent”, ones which she never intended to be sexual, could be misused in this context.
Most of the photos on these social media pages are not explicit, yet the photos have been taken out of context and re-posted for strangers’ sexual gratification.
I 100% believe that the person that made this page is someone that I know
The Twitter and Tumblr pages where Becca and Holly had their pictures posted have since been taken down but sites like this continue to exist on mainstream social media.
One such “community” on Reddit, r/chavgirls, posts photos of women they deem “cheap, chav sluts” and has 122,000 members. The photos on the site appear to be taken from young women’s social media. It is likely that none of the women have knowledge that their photos are being used in this way.
The posters in the subreddit are anonymous, hiding behind usernames. But many of them claim to know the young women whose photos they re-post alongside classist and misogynist captions. Becca and Holly are both convinced that whoever re-posted their photos is known to them.
“I 100% believe that the person that made this page is someone that I know or have heard of as the majority of the girls on the page were girls that I know and we are all in a close proximity of each other,” Holly says.
Indeed, Becca’s social media accounts were all set to private, meaning that her photos could only have been viewed by those she had chosen to have access to her account.
“This makes the idea even more scary as I never know who I can trust, not just on social media but even in person,” Becca says.
Dr Elena Martellozzo is an associate professor in criminology at Middlesex University, London whose research has included exploring young people’s online behaviour. She said that young people tend to want to accept followers, rather than decline them, and warns that young people should be aware that when you accept a follower on social media you are effectively “welcoming people into your personal space”.
One solution could be to step away from social media, but in an age of influencers, there are different societal pressures on young women and a feeling that they cannot win either way.
I’m scared if the page came back, what information they have or photos they have already taken from me
“Women get judged for not living up to beauty standards, and then when they do, they get sexualised and objectified and treated as though they are just there for men to look at,” Holly says.
The incident has made Becca warier of what she posts on social media.
“I haven’t posted as much as I usually do. I’m scared if the page came back, what information they have or photos they have already taken from me. Do they still follow me or are they still friends with me?”
Becca tells me that her female friends are now more cautious about what they post on social media, with some even going back and deleting certain photos, worried it might be taken and sexualised.
These young women are now feeling the need to moderate themselves in order to avoid their photos being used in this way. They worry it could happen to them at any point.
On fast-paced social media, it is easy to forget the permanence of what is posted. Dr Martellozzo says it is practically impossible to trace an image once it’s out there — even when a photo is deleted from its original platform, it may already have been spread across the internet.
I don’t believe that it would be right for me to limit what I post, just because a man out there cannot control himself
One of the most concerning aspects of the disturbing pages like those Holly and Becca were featured on is that most of the women whose pictures are used will probably never know their image is being misused in this way. Becca tells me the Twitter page where her image was only taken down after lots of women came together to collectively report the account.
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That this dark corner of social media is largely unknown means it can continue to exist undisturbed, objectifying and sexualising hundreds of young women without their knowledge.
Social media is a part of life, and for most young people, shutting yourself off from it completely is not an option.
For Holly, what happened to her has not made her want to close herself off from the world of social media.
She says: “Personally, this incident has not made me think twice about what I post on my social media as I don’t believe that I should have to suffer the consequences for someone else’s horrible actions. I don’t believe that it would be right for me to limit what I post and overthink what I do on social media, just because a man out there cannot control himself.”
Dr Elena Martellozzo says while social media has always been a space for young people to socialise, it has become an even more important space in the context of a pandemic which curtails face-to-face socialisation.
Social media has become more important than ever; however, it comes with its risks, particularly for young women. There are pages out there devoted to objectifying unwitting women who post on social media. Female users face a dilemma between isolating themselves from the social media world or having to deal with the seemingly unavoidable risks which come with being a young woman online.
*name changed at the request of the interviewe