By Jane*, a friend of CEASE
I’m 17 and standing in the doorway of my parents’ bedroom with my heart in my chest and a lump in my throat. “Mum, dad, I don’t know what to do. There’s a guy online saying he’ll shut off our wifi if I don’t take my clothes off on camera for him”.
As a teenage girl grappling with the two realities of a) being lonely with insecurities remedied only by validations from boys, and; b) finding sex exciting; I had been going on anonymous one-on-one chatrooms like ChatRoulette and Omegle to appease both sides.
And so, when a cute guy flattered me on Omegle, I didn’t question giving him my Skype details. It meant he wanted to keep talking, and the sweet sound of validation rang louder than any warning bells about giving out my information to a stranger online.
His friend request appeared alongside a message containing my first, middle, and last name. This information wasn’t available on Skype, he shouldn’t know it. I questioned it, and he replied “that’s nothing”. He proceeded to tell me to take my clothes off on camera. If I didn’t comply he threatened to turn off my wifi to show the power he had over me.
I was scared but still thought I could regain control. I told him no and he just shook his head at me.
Suddenly the wifi was off on my laptop and my phone. It was too much of a coincidence. I breathed a sigh of relief and apprehension when the wifi was back on a few minutes later. But if this had been him, what else could he find out or do?
He called back and told me to strip again, clearly enjoying making me afraid. He said he had other girls who would do this for him, making me wonder if he was blackmailing them too. I hope they’re ok.
He then threatened to tell my parents what I’d been up to. He also found out where I went to school and threatened to shut down the entire school’s wifi.
I was crying at this point, terrified. But I still couldn’t make myself strip.
My parents had never failed in making me understand that things are replaceable, but people aren’t. So despite the shame and fear, I knew my parents cared more about me than having to buy a new wifi router. And as much as I didn’t want my school to find out, I knew my parents would protect me there too.
So I hung up and turned off the laptop. I went to my parents and told them everything.
They handled it beautifully. I was immediately taken seriously and made to feel no shame. There was no punishment, no new rules beyond a soft “and now we’ve learned that we should avoid sites like that”. We took my laptop to the police and I was later given a new one. Importantly, I was not cut off from the internet, regardless of how keen my parents were to protect me. The experience was punishment enough, and I’ve not been in a chat room since.
Men blackmailing women and girls for pleasure is not only common, but its own genre of pornography. If I hadn’t told my parents, there is a very real chance that my crying face and naked body would have ended up on a porn site seen by millions of people without my knowledge or consent. Knowing this only makes me more grateful to them for fostering trust between us.
A parent’s natural instinct to shield children from the world and its dangers is not one I am here to question. But surely second to the hope that your child will never come to harm, is the hope that if they do, they feel safe enough to tell you.
What I hope to impart with my experience is that if your child is victimised by porn culture, try not to worsen the experience by punishing them, even in the name of protection. I commend my parents for facing their fear, shock and disappointment on their own rather than projecting them on to me.
Today, almost a decade later, I still flinch away from the memory of how unsafe I was made to feel by that man online. And whenever I think about it, my mind goes through the motions of blaming myself. Why did I go on that site? Why didn’t I just stop the interaction the moment I became uncomfortable? Why on earth did I share my Skype details? Why did I agree to sext? Did that just make me an easier target?
And then I have to go through the motions of forgiving myself, of remembering that I was a 17 year old insecure girl. And while I made a series of ill-advised decisions that does not mean I deserved to be threatened with blackmail. I had the right to set my own boundaries and have them be respected. I had a right to be safe online.
Prohibiting children from accessing certain websites does not mean the websites are not there. Hoping that your child doesn’t fall victim to entitled men online isn’t enough. There is just too much material out there, and pornography is simply too ingrained in our culture, for any parent to be able to shield their child completely. As long as it is legal and unregulated, the unrelenting demand for content will drive more ‘amateurs’ to seek out young, insecure girls who lack the safety net to say no, and upload their exploitation for public consumption.
Inevitably there comes a point where parental protection can only go so far. Safety online must be considered as important as safety offline or in public, and be upheld by the laws of the land.
Protection has to be a priority. So I am joining with CEASE to call for age and consent checks for everyone who appears in pornographic content online, as well as stronger age verification for pornography websites, and for this to be implemented within six months of the passing of the Online Safety Bill.
Join us in keeping them safe.
*(Jane’s name has been changed to protect her identity.)