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A tale of exhibitionism, sexual harassment and male entitlement

Musings and questions about unwanted sexual photo-sharing in private, online conversations.

A friend of mine, a freelance journalist who writes about music, recently shared with me a disturbing on-the-job experience. For a variety of personal reasons, she decided not to go public by writing about it herself. I asked her if I could share her story and its repercussions without revealing any names and she agreed.

Read it on medium.com.

What should you do?

 

In summer of 2018, my friend — for purposes of this story I’ll call her Rose — attended a well-known festival to interview and write about some of the performers there on behalf of a magazine she freelances for. One of those performers was a fairly notable European musician. I’ll call him Mr. P. Rose attended his performance and after being formally introduced to him in her role as a journalist by festival staff, spoke to him briefly. They agreed to communicate via Facebook Messenger following the festival so that he could provide her with details for the proposed article.

About a month after the festival where the meeting occurred, she and I ran into each other at another venue where I was performing. She took me aside saying she needed to talk to me about something bizarre that had happened.

She told me that after meeting at the aforementioned festival, she and Mr. P had “friended” one another on Facebook in order to begin the interview process. A few days later, she received a private Facebook message from him saying that he would send along a photo of the cover of his new album to begin the exchange. A few moments later, she received a photo. When she double-clicked to open it for closer inspection, instead of an album cover, she discovered a frontal photo of a man below the waist, sporting nothing but a mesh thong that clearly displayed its contents. She was surprised and a bit confused but not initially upset, as she isn’t particularly prudish and assumed it was an attachment error. She quickly wrote back to him saying that the photo didn’t appear to be an album cover. He responded with an “Oops, wrong photo!” sort of message (it happens, right?) and proceeded to send another image. This image wasn’t an album cover, either, but a photo of the same body parts, only no thong this time around. Rose ignored it again and bravely continued on in business-like fashion, talking about the story she would be writing, but he didn’t respond to her questions and instead continued to send more photos, each progressively more sexually explicit, now with his upper body and even his face clearly showing. The photos included erection, masturbation and ejaculation. At this point, she was pretty creeped out, so she stopped responding or trying to get him to explain what he was doing and left the conversation.

Rose first contacted the organizers of the festival where she had been introduced to the perpetrator to let them know about his behaviour. They were shocked and promised to take definitive action. After exploring their limited legal options, they wrote him a formal letter objecting to what he had done, stating their support for Rose, and informing him that he would never again be invited to perform at the festival.

She hadn’t yet blocked or “unfriended” him, so we reviewed the offending messages on her phone, to rule out the possibility of their being the result of a hacked or spoofed account — but no — clicking Mr. P’s Messenger profile photo took us directly to his Facebook page where we could see that he was posting regularly (and recently) from the places his calendar showed him to be playing at. His friends, some of them mutual friends of ours, were actively commenting, in real time. We wondered how a performer, with a very public profile, who depends on fans for his bread and butter — fans who get most of their information about him from his Facebook posts — could be purposely sharing sexual photos with no apparent fear of being called out, banned from Facebook or even potentially reported to the appropriate authorities. It seemed unimaginable. Was he drunk? Possibly. Was he crazy? It certainly seemed that he had issues. He chose to do this to a journalist, after all, and someone who had many connections within his personal and online circles.

We discussed what she could do about the situation. Report him to Facebook in hopes of getting him banned? Banishment is a pretty big deal when you are a touring musician because social media is so often the source of your main interaction with fans. A quick read of Facebook’s Community Standards suggests, but isn’t exactly definitive, that the content of Mr. P’s messages do not comply with their policies. The standards appear to be different for publicly visible posting and private messaging but the language doesn’t always refer specifically to one or the other. When I visited the Facebook Help pages to look for instructions for dealing with sexual harassment in Messenger, “unfriend” or “block the offending person” were the key suggestions (Rose has since done this). To report someone for doing (in Messenger) what is legally considered a crime in lots of places, you have to make a claim that the message goes against the published Community Standards. Users are only advised to go to the authorities if they are in “imminent danger”. The fact that the medium of communication — the Messenger application — is the property of Facebook potentially really complicates things. Unlike email, you can’t save Facebook messages into a folder for later reference. When she was trying to figure out what to do, Rose took screenshots of the entire exchange and saved copies of the photos Mr. P sent, but we all know that digital documents are easily manipulated with apps like Photoshop and unlikely to be the most widely-respected forms of evidence, plus, couldn’t Facebook simply make that conversation disappear anytime they liked if it posed potential legal issues for them? I don’t know if they would actually do this but it does seem a tempting, possible reaction.

What Mr. P did is nothing less than sexual cyber-harassment, a kissing-cousin to cyber-stalking. Even though the conversation was mutually initiated, Rose did not want what she ended up receiving and was not a willing participant once it went in that direction. It was aggressive and psychologically threatening.

These kind of crimes are very difficult to document and punish, especially when they happen in proprietary spaces, and there is no physical contact or real physical danger from the perpetrator.

In fact, I think we should all think very hard about using third-party applications (i.e. Facebook Messenger, chat apps, etc.) for official communication of any kind. In fact, it is one of my pet peeves when working with clients. It is convenient to communicate via social media apps but you cannot download all of this content, file it or count on easily consulting it in the future — it is not your property.

After much discussion, Rose and I and a few others who joined in the conversation agreed that even if a letter had been sent, Mr. P was still basically being given a pass on his actions, and so with her go-ahead, we all decided we would feel free to speak privately about the incident to others we came in contact with in the music world, some of them presenters and performers.

On the same weekend that Rose shared her story with me, one of the people present was a young musician who had just finished a European tour with Mr. P. We worried that future incidents (or past ones we weren’t aware of) involving Mr. P could have a negative effect by association on our young friend’s career. We figured that at the very least, by selectively sharing what Mr. P had done, he might not be hired by presenters we knew and he might eventually suspect that his actions hadn’t remained a secret. But seriously, how secretive is it to send incriminating, explicit photos of your whole self to a journalist?

An article by Marlisse Silver Sweeney in The Atlantic tells a similar story of a digital connection gone awry and does a good job of explaining the legal challenges of the situation. Another by Doug Criss on CNN explores the reasons that people — especially men — decide to share photos of their genitalia.

The story doesn’t end there, because as it happens, Mr. P and I move in the same general circles. Although I barely knew him, he was already friends with me on Facebook (the music world can be a very small place) and I was slated to come in contact with him a month later when I would be touring in Europe. Mutual friends had even arranged a musical get-together during our tour that would include him. I was apprehensive about seeing him, but saw no diplomatic way out prior to our arrival other than to decline his email invitations to dinner at his house with a vague excuse about scheduling. Several nights before the party, we played a concert in a nearby town and Mr. P showed up out of the blue. I was very uncomfortable because of what I knew and he was clearly mystified as to why I was avoiding him. When he finally cornered me, I kept him at bay by selling him a CD and ducked when he tried to kiss me goodbye. I’d like to qualify my second-hand reaction to this guy by saying that I have a finely-tuned fight-or-flight reaction to questionable men due to previous bad experiences.

A few days later, we attended the party (a jam) at our friends’ home. Mr. P arrived visibly drunk, and immediately shoved a chair in next to mine, way too close for comfort, aggressively man-spreading. Earlier that day I spoke to the host — someone who knew Mr. P pretty well — letting her in on his interaction with Rose. At first, before I had finished describing the incident, she suggested that North Americans are more easily shocked by sexualized behaviour and/or imagery than Europeans (sometimes true), but once she heard the full details, she admitted that she was equally disturbed by it. Even though she had never witnessed this type of behaviour from him first-hand, she said that it didn’t 100% surprise her — exhibitionism wouldn’t be out of character for Mr. P. She shared the story with her partner, as well, but they never did confront him directly and I could understand her reluctance within their small circle of friends. We are taught, with good intent and often with good reason, that talking about someone behind their back is nothing but gossip. However, the fact that his offence was committed privately and the victim’s discomfort with sharing it publicly (it is her word against his) are reasons why people like Mr. P will continue to get away with this kind of behaviour.

While we were there in that crowded room, I really wanted to be brave enough to confront Mr. P directly, but there was no moment or place to have a private discussion. And one of the guests in the overflowing house was his girlfriend, who I had just met. We all know that it is common for victims of all sorts of abuse not to report it for fear of impacting themselves and those around them and since the incident didn’t happen to me personally, I didn’t feel that I had full rights to the confrontation. As weird as it sounds, I actually felt guilty for being unreceptive to his attention without telling him why. I was dishonest but couldn’t fake friendliness; that’s not in my skillset. So I left without doing anything.

On my flight home, I resolved to email him to let him know that I was aware of his exchange with Rose and that was why I wasn’t friendly to his overtures. I would also let him know that I had no intention of keeping his “secret”. I had originally planned to offer him a chance to explain himself, but a psychologist friend suggested that someone who takes pleasure in sexual provocation doesn’t possess an active right-and-wrong filter and might easily interpret any “benefit of the doubt” as an invitation rather than a condemnation.

That email sits in my Drafts folder and I have yet to click the Send button.

I’d like to know what you think about this whole scenario, whether you have a similar tale to tell and what you would do — or have already done — about it.