Ruby will never forget the first time she clicked on the database AnonIB. It is a so-called “revenge porn” site and in January 2020, a friend had texted her for help. Ruby is a secondary school teacher, used to supporting teenagers, and her friend turned to her for advice when she discovered her images were on the site.
“She didn’t send the thread that she was on,” says Ruby, 29. “She was embarrassed, so she sent a general link to the site itself.” When Ruby opened it, “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I couldn’t believe that such an infrastructure existed: something so well organised, so systematic, fed by the people who lived around us.”
AnonIB was categorised by country – the US has the most entries, the UK is next – but then broken down by region, city and local area. “And when I say ‘local’, it wouldn’t be ‘London’ or ‘Birmingham’, a city of any size would have smaller, specific categories, like ‘Birmingham University students’,” says Ruby. The thread for Ruby’s town (population 55,000) stretched to 16 pages and with each intimate image of women and girls, there were comments with as much identifying information as possible by local users – names, surnames, the schools they had attended, who their relatives were. There were also lots of “requests” for pictures of certain women – often called “wins” (“Any wins on XXXX?” “There must be more of this slut out there.” “I can now look her boyfriend in the eye knowing I’ve seen his missus naked.”)
Ruby was horrified. “I was in shock. Disgusted that it existed, but also confused,” she says. “How could it be allowed?” But worse was to come. Four months later, she found her own pictures had been added to the site.
AnonIB has used various names over the last few years – always some kind of variation of “image board” and “anonymous”. It was shut down by Dutch police, but has since reappeared and is currently hosted from a Russian domain. In the past few months, it has gone behind a paywall.
Yet the site is not a one-off. It is just one example of what a report last month by the Revenge Porn Helpline (RPH) has termed “collector culture” – something the RPH identifies as “an emerging trend”, “increasing at pace”. In this case, collecting means posting, collating and trading intimate images of women.
“It’s one of the most dehumanising aspects of intimate image abuse that we see,” says Zara Ward, senior helpline practitioner at RPH. “Women are prizes to be passed around, shared and traded like a dystopian version of Pokémon. We often don’t know how these people gained the images in the first place – it could be exes, friends, or hackers – but this isn’t a place where women would consensually upload themselves. All we see on the comments is women consistently and aggressively objectified, humiliated and exposed.”
This happens on multiple platforms: Mega, Dropbox, Discord, anywhere groups can share. On Reddit, anonymous users post images of (likely oblivious) women with captions such as “trading my gf nudes” and “trading gf. Have bj videos too”. Interested parties are then usually directed to personal accounts on Snapchat or the messaging app Kik.
Although it is impossible to know how common this is, the evidence suggests it’s widespread. (When Ruby was added to the AnonIB thread in May 2020, she was image number 72,000.) One general study of intimate image abuse across Australia, New Zealand and the UK suggests one in five men have been perpetrators, and during lockdown – when online activity replaced real-life interactions – calls to the RPH doubled. (Its figures show that women are five times more likely than men to have their intimate images shared.)
“Traditionally, we think of ‘revenge porn’ as someone posting your images on Pornhub and sending you the link, or sending pictures and videos to all your friends and family to hurt and humiliate you,” says Elena Michael from the campaigning group #NotYourPorn. And, in fact, this is what current law nominally protects against. Section 33 of the 2015 Criminal Justice and Courts Act makes it illegal to disclose “private sexual photographs and films with intent to cause distress”.
Yet, says Michael, that is only one form of such abuse. “The truth is that most intimate image abuse is clandestine. It’s done without consent, but also, often, with no intention of the survivor ever finding out.”
Sophie Compton, who also campaigns against intimate image abuse with the organisation My Image My Choice believes “collector culture” could make up the bulk of cases. “I’ve been talking to survivors for 18 months and it’s huge – maybe more prevalent than any other form,” she says. “I’ve looked at the sites and the forums and the casual misogyny, the vile language, is absolutely chilling. The posters genuinely aren’t seeing victims as human, just stocks and shares to be traded. They could be anyone and everyone – and on sites like AnonIB which categorise by location, it could be the person standing next to you in Sainsbury’s.”
Clare McGlynn, professor of law at Durham University, says this is the “hardest message”. “People would rather think perpetrators of intimate image abuse are either perverts or an extremely malicious ‘other’ type of person,” she says. “The truth is that it’s everyday men and boys. Closed groups, lad chats, bonding over explicit images and ‘banter’ has become absolutely ubiquitous.”
Sometimes, it leaks out and the wider world gets a glimpse. McGlynn points to the rugby group at Oxford Brookes University that challenged players to get as many “Brookes girl” nudes as possible to share and rate. There is the “men-only” private Bristol Facebook group set up to share images of partners and ex-partners that gained 7,000 members in a matter of days.
Professor Nicola Henry, socio-legal scholar at RMIT University Australia, has studied the motives of perpetrators, looking at 77 platforms, image boards, community forums and blogging sites where images are shared and traded, and interviewed perpetrators.
“Despite a lot of media attention focused on revenge against an ex-partner as the key motivation, it’s more commonly related to sexual gratification or impressing online peers,” she says. “For instance, on some sites, images of wives and girlfriends are shared to get positive feedback from other users.” (“It might have been a bit of showing off,” said one perpetrator she interviewed. “After I’d built up quite a collection, I started to kind of take this pride in it,” said another.)
Whatever the motivation, the impact can be devastating. Ruby learned that her images were on AnonIB when a former schoolmate sent her a message breaking the news. The pictures were taken when she was 17, on a girls’ holiday. In one, she had been sunburned, and was lying topless on her front while a friend rubbed aftersun on her back. In the other, she was demonstrating the size of the hotel towels, not big enough to cover her.
“On the scale of things, they were not that explicit – although in the context of that website, they looked suggestive,” she says. “I’d uploaded them for about three weeks after the holiday in a private Facebook album. I probably had about 400 Facebook friends at the time so whoever posted them was one of those people. I’ve resigned myself to never knowing who.”
But as a local teacher, she had to inform her employer; she has no idea if her students have seen the pictures. And in the immediate aftermath, she found herself bolting from a post office queue simply because the teenagers outside suddenly made her feel uncomfortable. She formed a WhatsApp group for other local victims from the thread; in her small town, news travels fast and friends share their stories. “It has been far worse for some of them,” she says. “Their images were often far more explicit. Some haven’t been able to tell family or friends. Some were pregnant and so distressed they had to make emergency visits to hospital.
“One girl wanted to pursue a career in the performing arts but she has put it off. She deferred her place at drama school because in that industry, image is everything. She didn’t know if she could cope with the anxiety of being Googled.”
For Helen, 28, it feels as if she is an entirely different person from the one she was before her intimate images were shared in an encrypted chatroom. This spring, she received an anonymous “tipoff” on her Facebook account that explicit pictures of her had been gathered in a Google Drive folder and posted online. The informer – who was later traced to Australia – attached some of the pictures and said they thought she would like to know.
She remembers collapsing on to her bed in shock; going for a run, dropping to the ground to cry, running again, then dropping again. The images in the message had been created in the course of a five-year relationship that had ended two years previously. “My ex had assured me they’d all been deleted,” says Helen. “We’d been speaking as friends right up until weeks before this happened. I had no reason to think he’d ever do that.”
More than 18 months on, she still struggles. “I’m single,” she says, “and dating is really tough. I used to be open, confident, proud of my sexuality. It has damaged something I loved about myself, made it something I have to fight for again.
“I have moments of shame I can’t control, moments when this fear arises that I can’t predict. I’ve had times when flirting with someone suddenly seems to cross a boundary I can’t understand. I’ve largely avoided intimacy as it’s too terrifying to really give that trust to another person.”
Helen has tried to find out as little as possible about what was posted and where. “I’ve kind of chosen not to know,” she says. “It could be a lot. I was with that person a long time.” Her ex-partner was interviewed by police and also sent her a message admitting to sharing the images, but adding he had “never meant to hurt her”. He said he did it for his own “kink”.
“As painful as it was to have it confirmed, I was happy that at least I had a confession the police could use,” she says. “Then it transpired that his claim of not wanting to hurt me was precisely what protected him from any prosecution.”
Ruby and the other victims in the WhatsApp group from her local town have also found no recourse in law. She reported her case to police who gave her a crime reference number and referred her to Victim Support. Others in her group heard nothing back. In one case, one woman said, the officer actually yawned and said it was the 20th AnonIB report of the day. It took a lot of collective pressure for their cases to be referred as cybercrime to the Regional Organised Crime Unit. There has been no update since.
“We really felt the police didn’t support us, but the law doesn’t support the police,” says Ruby. “Yes, there’s the website, the infrastructure: why are we allowing access to it in the UK?
“But there’s also the local element. Some of the images on the thread were FaceTime screen shots. The image in the corner of the man on the calls could clearly be seen. We positively IDed at least two of them. We know who they are, where they live and told the police – but they didn’t even knock on their doors. Perpetrators have so many admissible defences. ‘I did it for a laugh and didn’t think she’d see.’ ‘I was paid a tenner to upload pictures of girls in my area.’ Doing it for sexual gratification is an admissible defence. We’re campaigning to remove the motive element from the law. Sharing intimate images without consent is the bottom line and that’s what should be illegal.”
There are signs that things will change. The Law Commission review of the laws around intimate image abuse began in 2019; the final report this spring is expected to make nonconsensual sharing an offence. However, warns McGlynn, changing the law is a very slow process – and only part of the solution.
“It also comes back to culture change, education, work in schools,” she says. “Evidence from studies shows that just as teenage girls are pressured to send nudes, teenage boys are also feeling pressure to get nudes and share them, to gain kudos. Collecting digital trophies is becoming part of being a boy and a man – that’s what we need to change.”
In the meantime, Ruby is not sure that it’s worth knowing that your images are online, passed between others, traded, shared, collected and commented on by friends and strangers.
“It’s really difficult,” she says. “On the thread for our town, there are girls I recognise, who I haven’t spoken to since I was 16. You feel a sense of moral obligation. Do I tell them – even when I know nothing is going to come of reporting it and there’s nothing they can do? Is it better that they don’t know or is it better that they do know and are as distressed as we were? I’ve decided I’m not going to pop up and derail their life. Maybe ignorance is bliss.”