“I am ready to do battle. They violated my privacy.”
– Female lawsuit applicant, 24
“It’s hard to deal with. You get ridiculed and judged wrongfully… It hurts you because you know it’s not true. They didn’t get consent. Who did it? It’s still a mystery.”
– Belizean woman, 18
The move by one young woman, 24, to sue a group of people who she believes were responsible for stealing and posting her private (naked) pictures—though not sexually explicit—on the Internet, including sites that exploit the beauty of women, has given others the bravery to come forward and not only tell their story, but to also see how they, too, can bring to justice those who they say had set out to wreck their lives and their reputations.
“I am ready to do battle. They violated my privacy,” said one woman in speaking with our newspaper today.
The young woman, who we will call Shellese for the purposes of this story, said that her boyfriend had taken his computer to a business to get it fixed, but when they got back the computer they noticed that an entire folder of pictures was missing from the hard drive.
According to the woman, they returned to the business to query about the pictures, and the technicians claimed ignorance and innocence about the matter. Upon subsequent queries, the owners of the computer were informed that indeed, one of the technicians had seen the photos, she said.
The story took a sordid turn when on December 8, Shellese reportedly received 100 missed calls and 50 text messages. A best friend from New York was alerting her that there were topless pictures of her posted on MySpace.com, photos of her lying and kneeling in her bed, wearing lingerie.
We spoke with the person in charge of the company’s tech room today, and he told us that the company was not responsible for removing the pictures. He said that the company has been doing its own investigations, and they have gotten indications that the photos may have been gotten from her cell phone, and that photos were being circulated even before the computer was taken for repair. He said that the allegations against them are negatively affecting the credibility of the company.
We tried contacting Shellese to check out this angle of the story, but we were unable to reach her.
She told us yesterday that she had a MySpace account, but someone else created a new page and sent invites to all 400 people on her friends list before exposing her private pictures on the site.
Shellese said that she was horrified by the news, because when she and her boyfriend took the pictures, they took them in the privacy of their home. They had just gotten a new camera, and wanted to take some shots for posterity, and “for their eyes only.”
She told us that when she found out what had been done with her pictures, she immediately went to an attorney, and threatened suit against the business she believes is responsible.
Shellese is being represented by Darlene Young and Michael Usher, and she says that in addition to suing for damages, she is demanding a public apology from those who have embarrassed her publicly.
She told us that when she notified the business of the lawsuit, she was, ironically, threatened by its attorney with a defamation of character suit.
According to the young woman, not only were her pictures posted without her permission on MySpace; they were also posted on hi5, and belizeanbabes.com, a blog site, accessible by subscription only, notorious for displaying revealing pictures of Belizean women. She said that some people had mistakenly thought that she was the one who had posted the pictures.
The picture of her female friend, which was also on the computer, was also posted on the web without her permission, and she is also joined as a second applicant in the suit.
The women we spoke with say that they understand there is to be another version of the site, whereby people can pay with credit card to access even more pictures of Belizean women, many of whom might not know that their pictures are being circulated.
Shellese said that some women have been so embarrassed by the web postings that they have ended up leaving Belize. One woman who was severely exploited via circulation of nude content on cell phones took it so hard she attempted suicide, we were told.
Even minors have been put in the mix. According to Shellese, there was a nude picture posted on the site of a Dangriga girl, then 14, apparently dazed by drugs.
Two sisters experienced a similar tragedy last year. At the time, one of them was 17, the other was 18.
The younger sister, Delese (not her real name), told us that the scandal began with a posting of their pictures on hi5, where their names, workplace, and even their home address were posted. They were dubbed “lesbian sisters,” and a snuggly photo of her and her sister, which they took at home on the day another sister had graduated, was posted, she claims, without their permission.
The young woman, 17 at the time the pictures were taken, told us that in other instances, her and her sister’s photos were manipulated – her sister’s head placed on other people’s body, and her clothes erased to make it appear that she was topless, even though she was wearing jeans and a halter top when the photo was taken.
“It’s hard to deal with. You get ridiculed and judged wrongfully,” she expressed. “It hurts you because you know it’s not true. They didn’t get consent. Who did it? It’s still a mystery.”
Over the past year, their pictures began circulating on the Internet and via e-mails. In addition to hi5, their pictures were posted on “belizeanbabes” and just last week, a picture of her started circulating among cell phone users.
As to how the pictures got to the websites, that is still a mystery, she told us. The family suspects that someone whom they allowed to use their home computer – someone they took for a friend – may have stolen the pictures.
Websites like hi5 and MySpace have rules against pornographic postings. We understand that after repeated complaints, the offensive sites and materials have been deleted.
Delese testifies that because of the postings, some men treat them disrespectfully and berate them when they won’t let them have their way, telling them things such as they’ve already seen them exposed on the Internet.
She said that the picture now being passed around via cell phone was on her friend’s cell, and her friend claimed that the phone was stolen.
The girls say that some people have gone so far as to post derogatory comments, along with the photos.
Delese’s mother, who accompanied her today, said that she was shocked when someone came to her with pictures of her daughter. She said that hearing Shellese’s story gave her daughters the courage to come forward, because for the past year they have been scared and traumatized by the ordeal.
She said that one of her daughters has had a rough time sleeping at nights, and they have both tried to change their appearance – one putting on weight, the other losing weight, dyeing her hair – so that people don’t readily recognize them.
Beyond the pictures being posted on websites, explained Shellese, sometimes men from abroad come to Belize with the intention to “date” some of the girls whose pictures are posted, with the intention of further exploiting them.
More than that, some people have also been spreading rumors that they are sick with syphilis and AIDS.
These women have found incredible comfort in the support of family and friends, who have looked beyond their grave misfortune and who have, instead, given them hope to move on with their lives.
“I still intend to accomplish every goal I’ve wanted to accomplish for myself,” said Shellese.
The sour lesson in her experience is that some people just can’t be trusted, and even business people sometimes lack professionalism.
She said that even though she still has to face the constant staring from people who know of the postings, she insists on demanding her respect, and she will continue to walk with her head held high.
“If you know you’re not that kind of person, don’t worry,” she advises.
Shellese’s case goes to court in the third week of March, and other young women are now trying to see how they, too, could seek legal redress.
The Women Issues Network (WIN) – Belize is trying to foster a forum (as well as facilitate assistance) for women who have been victimized. Those interested in participating can contact Anazette Olivera at 207-7652.
WIN Belize met on Wednesday evening with two of the women, but according to Olivera, they want to reach out to as many women as they can who have faced the same experience.
We understand that complaints have been lodged with Belize Telemedia Limited, which is investigating the websites, which continue to be operational as we write.
We note that the postings on the site date as far back as December, 2006, and the uploads were made by someone cryptically identified as “John Doe.” Apart from postings of women who appeared on past Belikin calendars, a few of the photos show explicit sex acts. Very few of the photos include men, and in one instance, the faces of a fair-skinned couple standing in a bedroom were blocked out, protecting their identity.
This evening, we were able to speak with the person who was the latest addition to the website, on February 12, 2008. The young woman, a very prominent young lady, said that the alarm was first sounded last Thursday when her father received a call informing him that his daughter appeared nude on the website.
She told us that she also intends to pursue legal action against the owners of the website because she has never taken a nude picture, and the body on which her face appears is not hers. The young woman has a belly tattoo, and we were able to verify that no such tattoo appears on the site. Additionally, the body appears to be much taller than hers, and the woman says that her head must have been pasted on another person’s naked body. She said that she did not know the website existed until she received news that her face appeared there.