Is there anything the Internet can do to prevent candid photos of women from spreading without their permission?
It was a photograph that was never supposed to be taken.
Lissie Monicatti was at a party wearing a black dress. She was topless and dancing on a pole.
The photo was posted by her ex-boyfriend on Reddit’s r/pics, a forum on the site’s default front page that has millions of subscribers and even more monthly visitors.
Monicatti, 25, was stunned. This wasn’t the way she wanted to end 2008. The photo had collected more than 200 comments. Her face was clearly visible. She wanted it taken down, but that wouldn’t be easy.
“I was asked to prove who I was, via more photos, in order for it to be taken down,” Monicatti told me Monday night on Facebook. “That made me angry.”
The photo was never removed. It made its way through r/pics and with time it was forgotten by the masses. Monicatti had avoided a massive personal tragedy, but the anger was still there.
Over the next six years, Monicatti provided media organizations with detailed reports on subreddits like r/creepshots, a place where redditors share suggestive photos of women taken publicly and without their consent. By the fall of 2012, r/creepshots and many of its clones had been cut down like weeds by Reddit administrators. But almost as quickly as they were removed, a new batch of similar subreddits sprouted up in their place. Some were yanked immediately, but others, including the largest of them all, are still active more than 15 months later.
It all came crashing down on Oct. 10, 2012.
R/Creepshots moderator CreeperComforts was presented with two options by a group of anonymous users: Take down the site that has gotten at least one substitute teacher fired or have his personal information dumped online.
“Please don’t go to the trouble of of denying your identity. We have archived a great deal of evidence to confirm it,” wrote the anonymous user, according to a screengrab posted on Reddit. “Clean up your mess, change your behavior, and move on with your life.”
CreeperComforts complied with the anonymous blackmailers’ demands. Sometime after noon that day, r/creepshots went private. The next day, Reddit administrators officially banned the subreddit without explanation. It had 12,000 subscribers. One of r/creepshots’s moderators, POTATO_IN_MY_ANUS (known as PIMA), was also banned for allegedly “creating a subreddit that disregarded Reddit’s rules against sexualizing teens and minors, and not being active in moderating posts that broke that rule.”
Then on Oct. 12, Gawker dropped a bombshell. In an award-winning expose by Adrian Chen, the identity of r/creepshots moderator and Reddit porn king violentacrez was revealed. Violentacrez, real name Michael Brutsch, was fired from his job a day after the story ran. The fallout even reached CNN’s Anderson Cooper, who interviewed Brutsch on his program.
“Well, I am to some degree apologizing for what I did,” Brutsch said. “Again, I was playing to an audience of college kids. Two years ago, when all of this was at its height, the audience was appreciative and supportive of the sort of gallows humor that I put out there.”
While Brutsch was busy trying to piece together his life, Reddit administrators were quickly banning any subreddits with the words “creep” or “shot” in it. The list included forums like r/cshots, r/creepsquad, r/creepshots2, r/creepshots3 and r/CreepyShots.
The lone r/creepshots clone mysteriously left unscathed was r/CandidFashionPolice, a demented twist on TLC’s What Not to Wear.
The subreddit contained photographs of women from the waist down, wearing shorts, bikinis, and other tight clothing. Each photo also featured titles that pretended to focus on the women’s attire (“Girl, dark gray shorts don’t go well with that black top” or “Those dirty boots are a travesty”) as a half-baked way of hiding the creepy intent behind the candid shots.
Just a few days after the subreddit was launched on Oct. 13, three different articles (including one by the Daily Dot) were published to shed light on this reboot that had eluded the Reddit administration’s banhammer. BetaBeat even reached out to Reddit general manager Erik Martin to find out if Reddit had plans to ban r/CandidFashionPolice. Betabeat received no answer. And neither did I when I emailed a Reddit spokesperson earlier this week.
Today, r/CandidFashionPolice has more than 17,000 subscribers—5,000 more than r/creepshots had at its height. In the past year alone, r/CandidFashionPolice has grown by more than 12,000 subscribers.
The simple answer as to why r/CandidFashionPolice remains open for business is because it hasn’t technically broken one of Reddit’s rules.
Monicatti believes the answer is much more complicated and wrapped up in Reddit’s pursuit of profitability.
“With bigger subreddits like this it’s hard to convince administrators to delete a popular subreddit without a strong hand forcing them because they don’t want to remove profitable content,” she said. “Porn, even illegal porn, means big money to Reddit. I think the admins also like to to think at least this way, they know where all the cockroaches are, so to speak.”
Or maybe the answer is that creepshots is a pornographic trend that existed before reaching Reddit, and has grown well beyond a single website.
Since 2009, the term “creepshots” has barely registered a blip on Google Trends, an algorithm that measures how often a specific word or phrase has been searched. That’s because creepshots were, and still are, a social media–driven obsession.
On Twitter, an endless number of accounts post thousands of candid photos each day. These includes profiles like @creepfan (43,000 followers), @creepBJ (48,000), and @timetocreep (30,000), which have sent a combined 160,000 tweets filled with images. All three accounts predate the r/creepshots drama. This is also the case for creepshots.tumblr.com, which is run by the owners of creepshots.com, a site that has been ground zero for creeping for nearly four years.
The site features videos, galleries, and a Twitter Hall of Fame filled with the most popular creepshot accounts. It also has a detailed “Creep Tips” section.
In June, a Change.org petition was started to shut down creepshots.com and all its social media accounts. The petition has since collected 32,800 digital signatures. The site and its Tumblr are still up. Its social media crown jewel, Twitter’s @creepshot, wasn’t so lucky. Sometime in the past two weeks, the account was suspended in the biggest strike against the creepshot community since the Reddit bans of October 2012. It had 90,000 followers.
Meanwhile, on Reddit, a sense of futility has set in among those who want to end the photo-stalking phenomenon.
“I report every single new thread that comes up in /r/CandidFashionPolice whenever I have the time,” 2ugly2love commented in June. “I know it probably doesn’t do anything, but it makes me feel a little better.”
With Reddit administrators turning a blind eye and a report function that merely sends messages to the subreddit’s moderators, it appears r/CandidFashionPolice and its ilk aren’t going anywhere.
As we truly enter the “golden age of creepshots” thanks to devices like Google Glass and cell phones with 41 megapixels, there’s is literally nothing a woman can do to ensure she’s not the victim of someone’s prying lens in public. And even if you’re like Nikki Messmore, who was able to catch a pervert in the act, it’s not easy trying to get help from others even right after a creepshot is taken right in front of you.
I explained but added that he had already left. I had not been sure to make a report but decided to do so (not mentioning how it took me a while to get over the anxiety of the issue). [The Barnes & Noble managers] remark? “You don’t have to (i.e., in a ‘you should have’ tone), but I wish you had reported this right away so we could have said something. If you see him again in here let us know.” I was dumbfounded. And feeling a bit guilty. Had I screwed up by not reporting it sooner? No, wait, I hadn’t – forget this! Who is this manager trying to make me feel guilty?
Monicatti believes sharing stories like Messmore’s is the key to turning the creepshot tide. Victims need to somehow show the world how creepshots have affected their lives. But maybe that’s not enough.
“[Maybe] mass emails and a demonstration at Reddit offices in San Francisco or some kind of other media reporting,” Lissie said. “But that’s been done before. So if there is going to be any kind of fix, it needs to be something unique.”
Photo by Luis Hernandez/Flickr (CC BY 2.0) | Remix by Fernando Alfonso III