Former glamour model Jess Davies uncovers the hidden trade in nude photographs.
For model and influencer Jess Davies, Instagram is a largely positive place for posting about body positivity, female empowerment and self-love to her 148k followers. For the last decade though, huge swathes of the internet have been less hospitable for her.
On an almost daily basis, Jess, who began a glamour modelling career as a teenager, finds herself at war with an army of social media profiles that are using her identity to impersonate other women online. Intimate images from her early modelling days have been leaked, sold and misused all over the internet without her consent – on porn sites and by escort agencies – leaving her feeling helpless, ashamed and mistrustful of men.
Jess says she no longer does topless shoots and regrets taking the topless selfies for her members-only website years ago. Even though that is part of her past, she says, “These selfies literally haunt me”.
In a new BBC Three documentary, When Nudes Are Stolen, Jess explores how people (mostly men in her experience) are taking women’s online images without their consent, selling them and using them to catfish other men for money, in a cybercrime known as ‘eWhoring’. She meets other women whose images have been misused, speaks to cyber experts, a former scammer and those working to challenge this global issue.
Jess’ friend, the glamour model Joey Fisher, makes her living from OnlyFans, a membership-only app that allows fans to pay to see content from entertainers and performers they like and is known for its X-rated content. Joey has been through a similar experience. “I had to battle to become a member of a Subreddit about myself,” she says. What Joey eventually discovered was a page full of images of her – including recent ones from her private OnlyFans account – with 30k followers. Soon after, she found people selling huge folders containing her images on Twitter.
Jess describes eWhoring as “a more extreme version of catfishing using nudes”. Pictures of people, mostly women, are traded and sold in packs between scammers, who then impersonate women to get money out of unsuspecting victims.
Scott McGready, a scam tech expert who has spent years tracking perpetrators of eWhoring, says people trade images of women “as if they’re Pokémon cards”. Speaking about the people behind it, he says: “We know some of the culture is incel culture, we know some of the culture is anti-women.”
Jess takes a glimpse into the secretive world for herself and discovers she has been a victim without her knowledge. Her images have been put in a ‘pack’ which is traded for as little as a $15 Amazon gift card. “To know that my images are being sold on eWhoring sites for $15 a pack, I just think ‘wow, you’re actually ruining my life for $15’.”
With victim-blaming still commonplace in discussions of image-based sexual abuse (IBSA), Jess says she believes people would be more likely to care and feel sorry for victims if this form of abuse were taking place in a more visible location, say, on the street.
It’s a sentiment echoed by image rights campaigner Megan Sims, who spoke out about what happened in Ireland last November, when an online server with links to a huge number of leaked intimate images was discovered. The story made international news and sparked an online rally against IBSA.
“There’s a lack of respect for women, they [men] just don’t care,” Megan says.” Even when we did call them out, they said ‘oh they won’t let us wank in peace’.”
Megan continues: “Image-based sexual abuse boils down to consent… it’s so dehumanising for the people who are impacted.”
It wasn’t the first time images of Megan had been leaked without her consent. In 2016, photos and videos of her were shared thousands of times, including to her family and friends, resulting in a suicide attempt.
Before the leaks, there were no specific revenge porn laws in Ireland, but after campaigning by Megan and others, in December 2020 a new law criminalising IBSA was passed.
In the UK, sharing intimate photos is illegal if they were leaked with the purpose of causing distress, but this is hard to prove and means a huge number of scenarios aren’t covered. Whereas in Ireland, a far broader range of intimate image sharing has been criminalised and breaking the law can result in a prison sentence of up to seven years.
But law changes won’t stop everyone from leaking images online. It’s possible to legally request images to be taken down one by one, but for someone like Jess whose images have been reposted in their thousands, that’s not realistic.
In the documentary, Jess meets Ashley Harrison, an Australian-based takedown expert, who is trying to make it affordable to get leaked content taken off the internet. Of her clients, many “haven’t had a relationship in five years.” Often, if you’ve been a victim of IBSA it’s just easier to be alone than in a relationship, whether that’s because you worry new partners won’t accept your past, or because you don’t trust your images not to be leaked again, she says.
Jess’ own experiences of betrayal by male partners may have contributed to her current years-long single status, she says. After going home with a man after a date a few years ago, she remembers, “I had a weird feeling in the morning… he went for a shower so I checked his phone. He’d taken pictures of me naked in bed when I was sleeping and WhatsApped them to his friends and said ‘I’ve just slept with Jess Davies’. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.”
Even before that, aged 15, some intimate images Jess sent to a boy at school in Wales were shared and eventually found their way to her nan. “I do eventually want to be able to find a partner, but when I go into situations and meet people that’s the first thing I think of… What are they going to think when they Google me?”
Indeed, it’s victims – rarely the perpetrators – of IBSA whose lives are blighted by these cybercrimes. Until she has control over where her images end up, Jess says she is trying to move on from her deep-seated shame. “I can’t be defined by those pictures anymore. The only thing I can try to control is how I feel about it.”