The woman who fought for our right to privacy and won

Emma Holten argues revenge porn is a breakdown in social empathy, fuelled by individualism and made possible by a lawless online realm. While new laws will combat the phenomenon, the only solution is building a world where we can trust each other again – we just need to learn the power of consent

When hackers broke into Emma Holten’s email account in 2011, they found nude photographs she had sent to a former boyfriend. They stole the photos, posted them with her personal information on a website, and encouraged visitors to harass her.

It didn’t take Holten long to realise what had happened, and in a panic she called the police and directed them to the website. While they acknowledged it was criminal behaviour, they said it would be a waste of time to report it.

“That was extremely shocking,” she says.

“Anyone who has experienced being violated by the justice system will recognise this feeling – that a system you thought would protect you is simply not functioning. It’s a violent feeling, because you feel completely outside society, like your rights don’t matter.”

Almost six years on, Holten has become one of Denmark’s most recognised advocates for victims of these sorts of violations, often called either ‘revenge porn’ or ‘non-consensual pornography’. Her work is motivated by a lack of empathy for victims by police, the media and public figures, who often argue that the solution is simple: stop taking intimate photographs.

Attitudes have begun to change, however. Once seen as unfortunate but inevitable teenage behaviour, the non-consensual sharing of intimate photos is now increasingly regarded as criminal and antisocial behaviour.

This was formalised in February, when the government released a series of new measures designed to tackle digital sex crimes. They increased the penalty for sharing other people’s private images and proposed a number of initiatives to better manage the intersection of youth sexuality and digital technology.


Photo: Peter Stanners

To Holten, the new measures are a major step forward.

“The conversation leading up to this was very much about how revenge porn victims felt bad about what happened because they were somehow ashamed of having taking the pictures. The way to stop the crime was to tell people: don’t have a private life, and there won’t be stuff you don’t want to show people. That seemed misguided to me.”

Holten argues that there is still work to be done, both in terms of securing justice for victims and changing social attitudes toward digital sex crimes.

But to understand where Holten thinks we need to go, we need to see where we have come from. We can start at the moment when Holten realised she was far from alone.

The right to humiliate
There is a thriving online industry based on publishing intimate photographs without the consent of the subject. Sometimes they are stolen, but often they are provided by jilted lovers.

As she browsed the websites that hosted her images, Holten could see that she was not alone. Thousands of young people around the world had suffered the same fate, their intimate photos posted in folders along with personal details like their phone number, address and email addresses.

And it got her thinking: what motivated people to share others’ intimate photos? The motive couldn’t simply be financial – some websites offer to remove the photos for a fee, but far from all. And it couldn’t simply be sexual, either, as there is plenty of free and consensual pornography on the internet.

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She found a clue in the emails that had started to fill her inbox. “Do your parents know that ur a slut?” “Send me more nudes or I’ll send the ones I have to your boss.” “Did you get fired?”

“It became apparent to me that it’s about having the right to humiliate someone,” says Holten. “It’s a power grab, getting a kick out of having another person’s life and identity in the palm of their hand and feeling invigorated by it.”

Sharing another person’s private images is illegal in Denmark but, as Holten discovered, the police didn’t have the resources to investigate.

Meanwhile, perpetrators were getting away with the crime because their actions were being tacitly accepted by society at large. It seemed that sharing someone’s nude image was somehow no worse than agreeing to be photographed in the first place.

The consent project
Three years after her email account was hacked, new topless images of Holten were circulated online. Except this time, Holten herself was responsible.

She commissioned photographer Cecilie Bødker to take the new set of images, which they published in the feminist magazine Friktion. Entitled Consent, the goal was to demonstrate that the problem with revenge porn wasn’t sex, nudity or shame – it was the violation of privacy.

The photo series was also published online, and soon attracted media interest from around the world. Holten was surprised, thinking the project would only appeal to a niche feminist audience. But she soon discovered she had touched a nerve.

“I was deluged by emails and messages from people who had similar experiences – they had been filmed in changing rooms, or had their medical records hacked and leaked. All these crimes related to a violation of consent. The one unifying factor was that none of us received help or understanding from law enforcement or the wider culture.”

No shame in being a victim
The central problem is this: the victims pay a much heavier price than the perpetrators. This is certainly the case in schools, where Holten learned that students who shared photos suffered few or no repercussions, while the students depicted in the photos often had to change schools.

Not that it always helps. According to the government, a third of Danish municipalities are aware of folders containing the intimate photos of hundreds of young men and women. The folders are shared on Facebook groups, where requests are made for photos of specific individuals.

“What often happens is that the victim changes school, but the violator will stay and their social status doesn’t change. That’s not a problem that can be fixed by law. Why do we not find it reprehensible that people do these things? Why is it not a deal breaker?”

There has seemed to be little social stigma attached to sharing intimate photographs of other people without their consent. This was confirmed by a 2015 government survey, in which 22 percent of young people aged 15 to 30 responded they had no problem with sharing a nude photo of someone they didn’t know. Ten percent of young men aged 15 to 25 responded that they had shared a sexual photo or video of someone else.

Holten has spent the last three years since the Consent project trying to challenge these attitudes, writing columns and speaking regularly in high schools and debate programmes.

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February marked a major milestone in her activism, when the government released a document entitled “Enhanced measures against digital sex crimes” outlining the measures it would take to tackle revenge porn. The government hopes that preventative strategies, increased support for victims, and stricter sentencing will bring an end to a culture that affords social status to those who share intimate images.

“It is not shameful to be the victim of a digital sex crime. It is not wrong to send an intimate photo of oneself to a partner,” the government writes. “But it is both wrong and disgraceful to send or share nude or intimate photos of others against their will.”

When Holten read this, she felt vindicated.

“This was the most important signal – that we were right and everyone telling us that we deserved this or put ourselves in this situation were most definitely wrong. That has been one of the central tenets of the work I have been doing over the past two and a half years: to say privacy is a right, and having your privacy violated is a serious crime. The government has now written a ten-page document saying this. They could just have written, ‘Emma Holten is right and you should just shut up!'”

It’s ok to trust
To Holten, it’s simple: violating someone else’s privacy should have far greater consequences than having your own privacy violated. While the government now agrees, there is still broad resistance to the idea that people who take intimate photos are not even partially responsible when those photos are non-consensually shared.

One argument she commonly faces, for example, is that while violating someone’s privacy is wrong, you ought to at least minimise your own risks. You wouldn’t leave a laptop unattended in public and not expect it to get stolen, so why would you not expect someone to share your nude photos?

But this argument has a number of problems, argues Holten. Firstly, people and property are fundamentally different. It’s obvious that stealing someone’s unattended property should be considered a far lesser crime than violating someone’s personhood. As a society, we accept that people should be held liable for guarding their possessions, but people should never be held liable for being subjected to violence.

Photo: Peter Stanners

Holten warns that the logical extension of the “you were asking for it” argument is that people become liable for all violence committed against them.

“I kind of fear that we are retreating into a society where people who are trusting are considered naïve, and I think that’s incredibly sad,” says Holten.

The second problem with victim blaming, argues Holten, is that it absolves the perpetrator of responsibility. With revenge porn, this is most often young men.

“What they are saying to young women is they are idiots for trusting young men. People don’t even hide it – it’s one of the first things people said to me,” Holten laments.

“This makes young men think that they are not expected to behave differently, that we can’t expect boys to respect basic human rights. Every time they say to victims or young people, ‘Don’t take naked pictures’, they are telling potential perpetrators that the person who takes the picture is at fault. Imagine if we told storeowners that they can’t have apples lying around because people will take them. I wouldn’t feel so bad about stealing an apple, because at least the storeowner was warned!”

Consent as a universal right
Holten wants society to have more compassion for people who suffer crimes against their privacy. But one difficulty with this is that we don’t all agree about what should be kept private.

“Having your privacy violated is very abstract. If people have a right to privacy and it’s being upheld, they don’t care, but as soon as they lose their privacy it becomes very concrete. I think a lot of people have this sense that they could never be a victim like I was, because it’s not a problem that’s relevant to them,” says Holten.

“But we all have things we try to keep private. I don’t know what it is for you, but there must be something. This is about protecting exactly that. It’s difficult because apart from the word ‘consent’, there really is no rallying cry for this.”

The point is that it’s not about what should be kept private, but that we all have the right to privacy. For if we accept that other people’s privacy can be violated – because they took nude photographs of themselves, for example – we risk undermining the fundamental nature of privacy.

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As a philosophy for protecting individual rights, it’s compelling, because it can be applied regardless of the cultural context or norms – it’s universal.

“Two central principles hold: we all have the right of consent over what happens with our bodies, and we don’t have the right to regulate other people’s bodies. Those two things are almost the same. The issue in some conservative countries – and also in Denmark – is that a lot of people apply their own bodily cultural norms to others. They say, ‘seeing as I would normally not take a naked picture, you shouldn’t either’.”

The internet
You can’t discuss revenge porn without discussing the platform that made it possible – the internet. It has transformed society by radically enabling the sharing of information. But its potential for abuse has gone unchecked for so long, argues Holten, that it has become a parallel world in which normal ethical rules have been discarded.

“It’s almost as if, ten years ago, after the creation of the internet, people sat down and were like, ‘Ok, we have a completely new public space where strangers can contact each other, and at the same time we are putting everyone’s private information in this space, and we are going to pretend this is not ever going to be an issue’. It was naïve.”

Photo: Peter Stanners

The internet is placing particular demands on parenting. The average Danish child first watches pornography at around age 11, according to the Danish Family Planning Association, meaning that parents have to talk to their children about sex, consent and exploitation when they are preteens.

“A concept like consent over your body is quite complex. Many adults don’t really master it fully, but it’s a concept that we must now reasonably expect a 12-year-old to understand,” says Holten.

The police face their own set of challenges in enforcing laws that protect victims of revenge porn, though Holten acknowledges that the government’s new measures are a step in the right direction.

The national police, Rigspolitiet, will now work together with the state’s attorney, Rigsadvokat, to draw up new guidelines for securing digital evidence. Information campaigns will communicate the severity of digital sex crimes. Sex crimes will be easier to report, and police will be given better training in how to respond to allegations and speak to possible victims.

Those found guilty of sharing another person’s private images may be given a jail sentence of up to two years – a significant increase over the current six-month maximum sentence.

But without increasing the police’s resources to tackle internet crime, the initiatives won’t have much effect, argues Holten, who accuses the government of not truly acknowledging the scope of internet crime.

“Police funding has been severely cut over the past 15 years because there’s been less violence. But a lot of the crime has moved to the internet, and it takes different types of resources and skills to solve internet crime. It can’t be done by the same people who solve other crimes, and it can’t be solved with the same means,” she argues.

“Currently, if you get a rape or death threat online no one is going to care – the police will ignore you, even though rape and death threats are illegal in Denmark. That is not being upheld right now because we have seen a proliferation of threats, and I think that in that sense revenge porn is symptomatic of problems that exist all over the internet. A lot of things are happening in the legal system, and police are simply not able to keep up.”

Make it political
Like many notable activists, Holten was thrust into her role by circumstance. Despite this and her young age, she’s helped shape an agenda aimed not only at implementing better protections for victims of digital sex crimes, but also at increasing empathy in society toward these victims.

The first step was to make her struggle political, not personal.

“As soon as you reduce your struggle to what happens to you as a specific person, you end up blaming yourself, and that goes for racism, consent violations – for everything. The most liberating thing is to educate yourself on the violence you have been subjected to and ask: why are you ashamed that it happened? Why does this happen? Has this happened to others? What do you have in common with them? How is this related to money, class or technology? Once you look at your victimisation from a broader perspective, you are going to be in a better, more empowered position.”

She blames individualism for making people less resilient and less able to tackle struggles like the one she has dealt with.

“Every time young people face some sort of hurdle, they blame themselves – that they should be strong enough to fight against it. And I’m afraid that sometimes I get used as a poster child for that response, that ‘don’t make yourself a victim’ response. But I am a victim, and what happened to me definitely shouldn’t have happened. It made my life a lot more difficult than I deserve, and it shouldn’t have happened. But it doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t be empowered and have agency within my victimisation. Some people are victims in ways they don’t deserve, and that sort of victimisation is political – so making it political is the best way to stop crying and get out there.” M

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By Peter Stanners

Co-founder and Editor-in-chief. Occasional photographer.

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