When more than 500 Australian women had their naked photos leaked to a US-based website in June, it was horrific, but there was a silver lining: the fact that the media had finally decided to bring awareness to the issue. Another mass leak, of more than 700 women's images, occurred only a week after the first incident.
Many media outlets associated the incidents with ‘revenge porn’ - where scorned ex-lovers upload intimate files of their once-significant others online. But that's only part of the issue. While some images may have originally been passed on by ex-boyfriends, many of the perpetrators responsible for the leak were complete strangers. This was voyeurism at its most indecent. And on the Internet, it's pretty big business.
There are hundreds of highly active underground communities around the world where men treat pics of women like baseball cards - trading, selling and collecting intimate files they've amassed over the years. And it's happening without the permission, or even any knowledge, of the many women whose bodies and faces are revealed.
The South Australian leak came from a US-hosted image site, where men post clothed photos of women with offers of cash for more scandalous pictures, and trade photos of more "sought after" girls in exchange for others.
Some even offer up social media or even email accounts so that tech-savvy hackers can attempt to find nude pics, while others even post photos of females requesting that they be photoshopped to appear explicit.
June's leak was a result of a ‘collector’ - someone who had systematically built up a categorised archive - unleashing his entire perverted database to the world.
Open-access channels like this are common, but things get darker with invite-only portals, like a Fight Club for dirtbags. Earlier this year in the US, it was reported that Penn State University's Kappa Delta Rho fraternity allegedly had secret Facebook groups dedicated to the celebration of conquests. Students were accused of posting naked pictures of girls passed out or asleep. And before you say, "Only in America..." it's important to know that it's happening in other parts of the world.
Lauren*, 27, found out her previous boyfriend had posted nude images of herself on the forum. "I demanded he show it to me, because I'd heard that he was also posting naked images of girls that he had cheated on me with," she recounts to CLEO. "I found images of women that were complete strangers, photos of women that I knew and even pictures of me, along with specific details about some of the intimate times we had shared together."
Many of the images had been taken (or filmed) without the subject's knowledge - snapped or filmed stealthily by the perpetrators, or in some instances with hidden cameras or by other men secretly watching. "It was horrible finding out that someone I loved and trusted was sharing intimate stories about me and taking pics of me without my knowledge to share on the Internet," Lauren says softly. "I was humiliated and betrayed."
Retail employee Hayley*, 24, was exposed to a similar Facebook group based in Perth. "I found out about the group when a guy misjudged exactly how 'one of the boys' I was by showing it to me while we were at the pub," she recalls. "Inside the group were nudes (some voluntarily taken, some not) of girls that I knew and girls that I didn't. He tried to laugh off my protests by saying it was all a bit of fun and that I shouldn't be so uptight about it."
Murky sub-groups also exist within dating forums, especially the ones targeted at men who share advice on methods of attracting women. There's a particular online community based in Melbourne, Australia, where the bulk of the content consists of FRs (field reports: a depiction of various attempts to pick up women) and LRs (lay reports: graphic descriptions of sexual encounters).
While the concept of FRs and LRs are disturbing enough, it gets worse. Once you attend one of the group's infamous introductory meetings and gain the trust of the administrators, you're given access to their inner sanctum. In this restricted forum, members allegedly post explicit photos and videos of women they've encountered, while others congratulate them in a kind of sick communal jerk off.
Disappointingly, victims feel too stigmatised to make a police complaint. "There is much victim-blaming - with many saying that people should not take nude or explicit images of themselves in the first place," says Dr Nicola Henry, a senior lecturer of legal studies at La Trobe University. "This is something that we need to work hard to challenge. People should be able to take intimate images of themselves and should be able to then share these images and trust that their partners will respect their privacy."
The very fact that private images are being shared is beyond repulsive - but when you consider the unfathomable size of the Internet, the recent leaks are just the tip of the depraved iceberg.
*Names have been changed for anonymity
Have you had your intimate images shared online? How do you think women should be protected from this form of exploitation and abuse by men? Share your story with us here.