Society says people should hide their bodies to remain safe. But what if there’s a better way?
Last year, one of the first national reports to explore revenge porn revealed a startling fact: 10% of women under the age of 30 and 15% of lesbian, gay, or bisexual internet users in the U.S. say someone has threatened to post explicit photos of them.
As we seek to adapt to a world in which technology is increasingly used as a tool for sexual shaming, many have advocated for what seems like the easiest solution to the problem: no more sexting of nude photos.
But Joana Varon and Natasha Felizi, activists from the feminist hacker group Coding Rights, believe there’s a better way.
When Varon and Felizi decided they wanted to discuss issues of digital rights with a wider audience, talking about nudes seemed like an important topic to “contextualize the debate of privacy and security into daily life.” But they wanted to approach digital privacy and nudes with a feminist angle.
15% of lesbian, gay, or bisexual internet users in the U.S. say someone has threatened to post explicit photos of them.
“We saw that many guides addressing digital security for nudes were very prohibitive, meaning the first advice would be ‘do not share nudes,’ and it was very patronizing and inadequate for this phenomenon because people are already sharing pictures,” says Varon, who founded and directs Coding Rights. She was also wary of this perspective because it can be seen as victim-blaming.
Felizi points out that it’s dangerous to tell marginalized people that they should restrict their sexual expression. “Society tells us to hide our bodies and our sexuality so we will be safer — not to mention trans, queer, bodies of color that are basically told to just disappear,” says Felizi. “But that is not the kind of safety we are pursuing. When one advises a women or a QTIAPOC person to avoid showing images of themselves, to avoid showing their bodies in their sexual power, they are in a certain way telling them to refrain from producing self-representation or from being who they are.”
‘Society tells us to hide our bodies and our sexuality so we will be safer.’
Moreover, Varon and Felizi wanted to highlight the empowering aspects of sending nudes, like “exploring your best angles, having fun with your body, and figuring out sex in a post-porn visual narrative.” In an effort to push for creative images outside of the traditional and patriarchal visual narrative of sex, Varon has advocated for experimentation with erotic photos of necks, ankles, or feet.
For the past 18 months, Varon, Felizi, and other members of Coding Rights — a group led by Brazilian women that aims to advance human rights in the digital world — have been busy with their project, which has involved writing on the topic in blogs and zines and holding several workshops in Brazil, Germany, and Canada.
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The topic of safer nudes, not surprisingly, has attracted significant interest. “Talking about nudes is sexy by default, so people pay more attention than if I come to you and say ‘Oh you should care about privacy or security’,” says Varon. “If I say ‘You should care about your nudes,’ more people raise their eyebrows and get interested.”
Coding Rights activists also put pressure on governments for legislative changes and privacy rights. They are currently developing a database listing the different laws related to digital rights in the hopes that it will help activists create better advocacy strategies. Both judiciary and legislative systems in many countries are still lagging when it comes to ensuring justice and equality in the digital realm. Judges are still unsure how to approach the non-consensual sharing of intimate images, sometimes known as “virtual rape,” and activists say the police and courts are too often not taking the problem seriously.
Judges are still unsure how to approach the non-consensual sharing of intimate images.
Coding Rights also closely follows and watches tech companies to push them to implement better default settings and protocols. Recently, they launched a new project in Portuguese and Spanish to analyze tech companies making money off of women’s bodies. For their initiative, called “Chupadados,” or “data suckers,” they assessed the terms of services and business models of many popular period trackers.
“In the end, if a lot of people collect lots of data, they can engage in discriminatory practices,” warns Varon, who’s been working in human rights in the digital world for for the past seven years.
In their workshops and zine, Felizi and Varon give advice on the best ways people can protect their digital privacy, especially when sending nudes.
For those who want to protect against abuse, without limiting their sexual expression, these tips are invaluable.
Anonymize your nudes.
This one is obvious, but important to emphasize: Avoid showing features of your body, such as your face, birthmarks, scars, or tattoos that could easily be identifiable. An application like ObscuraCam can be used to pixelate parts of a photo.
Be careful with metadata.
Pictures are attached to a lot of information, including the device they were taken with and when and where they were taken. To remove this data, Varon and Felizi recommend using metadata editors like Photo Exif Editor.
Use “safe” channels
In their zine, Varon and Felizi write, “Never use SMS, iMessages, Whatsapp, Telegram, Facebook, Tinder, Happn, or any other chat clients that will show your phone number or let the images you share be downloaded,” they write in their zine.
They prefer open-source apps that offer end-to-end encryption. Some of the important things to look for in a safe app for sending nudes, they say, are features enabling the user to block screenshots and self-destructing messages that disappear from both devices and servers.
Ideally, they recommend using apps that require no email, phone number, or real name to sign up.
Because they could not find an app that fulfilled all these criteria, they advise using apps like Confide and Wickr, which use end-to-end encryption and destruct photos after they’ve been seen. Confide also doesn’t show a photo in its entirety; the receiver has to scroll down.
Communication and distribution channels have changed significantly over the years — but sexual and intimate interactions will always be part of people’s lives. Fortunately, it’s possible to be smart about how nudes are sent…without infringing on one’s basic right to share, explore, and celebrate their body and sexuality.