Last week, the Instagram account @Diet_Prada, notorious for exposing fashion designers knocking each other off, posted a thread revealing photographer Marcus Hyde as a sexual predator. Known for working with the likes of Ariana Grande and Kim Kardashian, Hyde was accused of sexual misconduct by various women—including manipulating up-and-coming models into sending him nudes in exchange for photoshoots.
Model Sunnaya Nash initially posted screenshots on Instagram showing Hyde asking her for nudes in exchange for a photoshoot. When she declined, she received a shocking and aggressive response from him where he said that if she didn’t send him nudes, she would have to pay the $2,000 for the shoot. This inspired numerous women to reach out to her and share the unpleasant experiences they’ve had with the photographer, which she posted on her account. Instagram soon deleted the posts and threatened to delete her account as a violation of their guidelines.
Shortly after, LA-based photographer and art director Haley Bowman called out photographer Timur Emek for pressuring her into sex acts when she was 19. Since sharing her experience, numerous women have messaged her and @Diet_Prada explaining in detail the similar experiences they’ve had with Emek. Somehow, this resulted in Instagram disabling Bowman’s account for 30 hours for ‘violating’ Instagram’s bullying policies and guidelines, once again.
In contrast, just two weeks ago 17 year old Instagram influencer and e-girl Bianca Devins was murdered by a male family friend who shared graphic images of her bloodied corpse on various internet platforms, captioning them with “You’re gonna have to find someone else to orbit”—orbit being a term describing men lurking around a woman with the hopes she will sleep with them. Instagram happened to be one of these platforms. These images were quickly reposted and began circulating across the platform, with Instagram taking no immediate action to take them down.
So why is it that the platform was so quick to remove a post by a woman who called out a sexual assault and predatory behaviour by a powerful man, labelling it as ‘bullying’, and yet was so slow to take down graphic images of a murdered woman who fell victim to this exact same predatory behaviour?
Ironically, platforms like Facebook and Instagram make a profit off of horrific content. Every terrorist recruitment post, every graphic image, every threat of violence means more people become active on the platforms and more revenues are being generated from advertising companies. In Bianca Devins’ case, by keeping these images on the platform, the murderer received recognition—which then led to numerous fake accounts being created by people impersonating him, bringing Instagram more users. Of course, accusing Instagram of attempting to profit off of a young girl’s death is a big allegation, but the question as to why it took so long to delete and flag these images remains unanswered.
Upon regaining access to her account, Haley Bowman went on to say on her Instagram story that she “was being punished for calling out a rapist” by the platform, and made clear that Instagram accusing her of using the platform to ‘bully’ and ‘harass’ photographer Timur Emek is far from palatable, saying, “You can’t harass a rapist by sharing stories of him raping, that’s not harassment – that is the truth”. (Technically speaking, Instagram has a rule to delete all “content that targets private individuals to degrade or shame them”, however, this makes it difficult to find a platform on which these women can share their stories otherwise).
Since then, Instagram disabled both Timur’s and Marcus’s accounts, gave Haley her account back (although, when searching for her Instagram handle via my search engine yesterday, her account wouldn’t show up, despite being live again), and apologised for deleting Sunnaya’s posts, saying they were “deleted in error”. Of course, Instagram only openly admitted it was an error after receiving backlash for silencing Sunnaya in the first place, so whether it was really just an ‘accident’ remains questionable.
Do men and women have the same rights to freedom of expression on Instagram according to its rulebook? The answer is very simple—no. In April, the platform began demoting photos that were deemed ‘inappropriate’ but didn’t actually violate any guidelines. Instagram used its algorithm to put these at the very bottom, while being particularly vague about what it considers inappropriate. Naturally, this includes censoring the female body; we are all acquainted with Instagram’s rule that bans most images of female nipples but not male.
While it might not seem like a big deal, Instagram’s inherent shadowban on what is appropriate and what isn’t is harmful to many. Sex workers who rely on their social media, influencers who make a living of this, and general body and sex-positive pages, models, photographers, artists are all affected by it. Not only is Instagram censoring the female body but it is also impacting some women’s work.
Intentionally or not, Instagram is allowing dangerous men to have a voice on its platform. Of course, in today’s world where everything is so fast and instant, it is easy to forget that people need time to act on an issue, and, yes, Instagram did eventually delete the photographers’ accounts as well as the images of Bianca, but how come when my nipple is slightly showing in a photo or when I post a painting depicting a naked woman, my images instantly get flagged and deleted? Why is there an urgency to silence women but not an urgency to silence rapists and murderers? It certainly feels like there is an agenda here. And Instagram needs to sort its priorities out, quick.
As the effort to tackle sexual harassment in the workplace gains steam, California has recently passed two bills that would prevent silencing sexual harassment victims. The bills, currently pending California Governor Jerry Brown’s signature, are both aimed at assisting men and women who seek justice after suffering sexual harassment by their co-workers or employers and protect them from binding confidential settlement agreements. Similar bills are currently circulating around legislatures in 16 states and have already been enshrined in law in Arizona, Maryland, New York, Tennessee, Vermont and Washington. While such pieces of legislation are certainly valuable, it remains unclear whether they pose a big enough deterrent to sexual harassment in the workplace and the silencing of victims.
There is no doubt that both bills constitute positive developments, and will hopefully encourage legislators elsewhere to adopt the same approach when it comes to protecting sexual harassment victims. That being said, it remains unlikely that such legal action is sufficient in combating sexual predators who seek to silence their victims. One issue is that bills adopted on the state level only protect victims within the boundaries of those states (currently a mere fraction of the entire country).
Bills of this type generally protect victims who have made the decision to come forward and hold their aggressors accountable; a step many are hesitant to take in the first place. This directly ties to a broader issue, which is the general failure of the political and justice systems to foster an environment in which sexual harassment is truly discouraged and in which victims feel sufficiently empowered to come forward and seek prosecution. When across the country politicians, legislators, and judges continuously weaken protections for women and members of the LGBTQ community, and place under doubt their right to their bodies and lifestyles, it becomes ingrained in the national psyche that they are, for lack of a better term, ‘fair game’. It therefore seems that serious gaps exist in the U.S. legal system when it comes to protection of sexual harassment victims and their ability to properly pursue their cases.
What, then, could fill in such gaps and provide an extra support to those seeking to come forward? The answer, perhaps not so shockingly, is tech. Numerous technological startups and innovations have been launched in recent years to support victims of sexual harassment, particularly in taking the first, arguably most daunting step, of coming forward. Stopit, which started as an app designated to assist victims of school bullying report their abuse, has now evolved into a tool for people to instantly and anonymously report abuse or harassment. The app currently operates within educational institutions, businesses, and government agencies. Callisto is an online sexual assault reporting platform, which operates across college campuses as well as various business industries. Through Callisto, victims may insert encrypted information regarding their harasser while their name and contact information remains private and confidential. The report is then decrypted by a Castillo Options Counselor (a lawyer), who provides support and practical information regarding the different legal paths victims may take to win justice. The app also provides a “Matching Escrow” service, which alerts the counsellors whenever two or more people were abused by the same individual, consequently helping identify (and hopefully prosecute) serial offenders.
This isn’t to downplay the role of laws and regulations in the fight against sexual harassment. The first bill passed in California, titled AB 3080, is set to outlaw confidential agreements in sexual harassment cases as well as prohibit mandatory arbitration agreements in employment contracts, both of which discourage many victims from pursuing their legal cases. The other bill, SB 820, would ban agreements that prohibit “disclosure of factual information” in sexual assault and discrimination settlements. Among other stipulations, the bill would allow the name of the victim to remain private but require that perpetrators’ names be made public, thus encouraging victims to come forward without fearing the consequential public recognition. According to Senator Connie M. Leyva, one of the bill’s sponsors, “Legislative approval of SB 820 sends a resounding message to victims that we will do all we can to make sure that their perpetrators are held accountable for their reprehensible actions.”
The introduction of these bills shows that the legal system is waking up to its duty by providing better protection for victims of sexual harassment. In the same breath, the flaws and limitations of the justice system in preventing such abuses and prosecuting perpetrators should be acknowledged, and technological advancements ought to be adopted to complement the legal tools available to victims.