Emma Holten was on her way to an oral exam when a message arrived on her phone. It contained a photo taken by someone watching a TV show on German broadcaster RTL. She was on the screen – naked and 17 years old.
“I was horrified and just broke down. I couldn’t believe that I still had to deal with this after everything I’d been through,” Holten says.
The images were first stolen from Holten in 2011 when her email account was hacked. They circulated across the internet and shown on so-called “revenge porn” websites along with her contact details. She was soon inundated with messages from men who attempted to intimidate, threaten and blackmail her.
Holten has since become an established feminist activist, though not because she was a victim of revenge porn, but because of what she did about it – she went on the counter-attack.
She reasoned that these websites thrived on the fact that her images had been shared without her consent – they enjoyed her lack of control over the situation. There was even the sense that she deserved the harassment, for having modelled for nude images in the first place.
So she took control, and commissioned a new series of nude and topless images to highlight the ethical problems presented by revenge porn. She wanted to show that the issue with the stolen images wasn’t that she was naked. The issue was that they were shared without her consent, and so violated her right to privacy.
Holten’s ‘Consent’ project brought her to the attention of international media, including RTL, one of Germany’s largest commercial broadcasters. According to Journalisten, they bought an interview with Holten that had been carried out by a freelance journalist. In the interview, she explained the difference between the images – there was no consent to share the images that were stolen from her email, but there was consent to share the new set of images.
RTL used the interview in a programme called Die 10, in which they showed Holten’s nudes from the Consent project. But the producers had also discovered the stolen nudes – whose illegal distribution set Holten on her activist path – and they broadcast those images too.
“RTL broadcast pictures that were initially stolen from me. This means that, while the pictures are in a sort of way in the public domain – meaning anyone can access them through the internet – they are still illegal. It’s pretty weird legal terrain, my lawyer said there really was no precedent,” she says.
Holten complained to RTL, who responded to by explaining that it was a misunderstanding.
“They said that they had portrayed me as a strong and independent woman who knows how to stand up to herself. They then apologised through (British newspaper) The Guardian, but obviously the damage had already been done by then.”
While RTL agreed to remove the clip and not broadcast it again, Holten decided to pursue a case. After negotiations, RTL apologised for the harm caused and settled for a substantial undisclosed amount.
“I feel relieved, and I feel in a way that justice has been served. It sends a fantastic message in my view, because it says that even though you can find something, it doesn’t mean you’re allowed to broadcast it. In this debate there is a lot of talk about responsibility, is it the victims who’ve been thoughtless? But this pretty clearly settles that – the publishers carry the responsibility of checking that there truly is consent. If there isn’t, that’s on them. That’s powerful to me.” M