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Helen Mort Behind Every Image is a Person

Violence against women is nothing new, but as new forms emerge, the law must evolve to protect victims. Acclaimed writer Helen Mort shares her experience of ‘deepfakes’ – and the poem she wrote in response.

Helen Mort
Helen Mort by Emma Ledwith

Trigger warning: deepfakes, revenge porn, sexual violence.

Scrolling through Twitter in December, I noticed that writer Helen Mort had shared a petition asking followers to spread awareness about ‘deepfakes’. It was the first time I had heard the term and a Wikipedia search revealed that they are ‘synthetic media in which a person in an existing image or video is replaced with someone else's likeness’. The word is a blend of "deep learning" and "fake”.

Reading Helen’s statement, I was shocked, saddened and angered. I felt compelled to get in touch with her and offer my support in promoting the campaign to tighten regulations on taking, making and faking explicit images. Here’s her story.

Your experience with deepfake pornography began in 2020. Tell us about what happened and how it has made you feel?

Towards the end of last year, I discovered, through an acquaintance, that someone had been uploading non-intimate photos from my private social media accounts to a porn site, inviting other users to turn them into 'fakes'. I felt dizzy and sick. I remember holding on to my chair as if it would anchor me. Later that day, I decided that I needed to see the images for myself.

I'm glad I did because it felt like I was taking control in a way, but I can never unsee the violent and explicit pictures that were up there. Captions demanding me to be abused and humiliated. Violent sexual acts shown with my face photoshopped onto the woman's body. Degrading 'cartoon' pictures. An image of me being strangled, which was so realistic that if I were a stranger encountering it, I wouldn't have been able to say for sure that it was a fake.

They’d gone to some length to make a few of the images seem plausible. They’d even photoshopped some of my tattoos onto the arm of the woman in one picture. The original photos of me were holiday pictures and seeing my smiling face grafted onto these scenes was sickening. For days, I felt scared, ashamed and didn't want to be seen by anybody. I had to cancel work and even collecting my son from nursery became an ordeal. Then, the nightmares started, violent scenes from the photos playing out in my head when I tried to sleep.

What are the current regulations on taking, making and faking explicit images? Where are the gaps?

At the moment, it is illegal to share intimate photos of someone without their consent. This is known as 'revenge porn'. If this has happened to you, the Revenge Porn Helpline offers really great support and guidance about what you can do. I assumed that manipulating someone's photo in the way my images were defiled would also be illegal, as the effect is just as traumatic as revenge porn – it's a huge violation. So, I was shocked when the police told me there was nothing they could do to help. At the moment in England, it is not illegal to produce fake pornography using someone's images or to distribute those photos.

As a writer, you've responded creatively to this experience by writing a poem. What was your intention when writing this?

It felt like the only power and source of dignity left to me. I can't change the fact that this happened and I may never find out who was responsible. So, the only constructive thing that I can do is to reclaim control by telling my side of the story, taking my image back, doing so with words. The person who did this said that they wanted to see me 'humiliated'. So often, victims of image-based abuse and other forms of sexual abuse feel scared and shamed into silence. By broadcasting my poem, I wanted to say 'I am not humiliated' and show solidarity with other people who may have experienced things like this and suffered in silence. If the person who did this sees the poem, I hope they feel ashamed. Art is powerful and redemptive. There is nothing it cannot encompass.

Deepfake pornography sits alongside a number of new and emerging forms of image-based violence, including cyber flashing and revenge porn. What advice would you give to someone who has been a victim of this type of violence?

You are not alone and this was not your fault. One of my initial reactions was to wonder whether I had somehow 'deserved' or even 'invited' what happened to me, which is obviously nonsense. But the insidious, pervasive nature of sexual violence against women in our culture primes us to feel like that. There are support groups to help you, like the Revenge Porn Helpline and My Image My Choice, which I urge everyone to follow on social media – they are doing great work to help victims. In some cases, the police may be able to help, too.

You've launched a campaign for the regulations to be tightened. How would you like to see them changed and how can people get involved?

I share the aims of My Image My Choice who, in turn, have taken their recommendations from the work of Professor Clare McGlynn QC. For a start, they are asking for the term 'image-based sexual abuse' to replace ‘revenge porn’, which implies blame on victims and falsely labels private images as ‘porn’. Their other demands include:

  • Recognise image-based sexual abuse as a sexual offence.
  • Extend automatic anonymity to all complainants.
  • Cover all forms of this abuse including threats and fake media.
  • Remove motive requirements (often impossible to prove).
  • Extend civil legal aid to cover legal advice for these offences.

Of course, changing the law is only part of this. We need to change our culture, too, educate people on the damage these kinds of offences do and show how they connect to other forms of abuse and discrimination.

I'd recommend that anyone who cares about these issues should read Laura Bates' brilliant book 'Men Who Hate Women', sign my petition and sign the petition started by My Image My Choice. You could also write to your MP urging them to support these much-needed reforms.

Deepfake: a pornographic ekphrastic

‘The deftest leave no trace: type, send, delete.’ Don Paterson

i. My blonde gf

This is my gf, Helen. She’s amazing. I love her deeply.
I want to see her used hard, abused, and broken sexually.

What’s the dirtiest thing she’d do? Tell me.
There are some great ideas in my galleries!

Your profile image is me aged nineteen.
in a floor length dress stitched with pine green stems,

pink roses. Me aged nineteen.
My smile is tentative. My face outstares the screen.

ii. How I want my blonde gf used

Here I’m grinning from a frame of blue, Ibizan sky.
Here is a woman with two men between her thighs.

Here I’m on holiday, freckled and sun flecked.
Here is a man with his hands around my neck.

Here I’m pregnant with my son.
Here is a body overrun.

iii. Tags

BDSM, Rough, interracial, BBC.
Hot wife. Captions. Cheating. DP.

iv. Fakes and captions by other users

These are the warped pixels of my face,
the features I’d learned to find commonplace,

I want to see her filled in every hole!
The eyes, which we call windows to the soul.

v. How my gf got knocked up by her boss

This is you doing your worst.
This is language reduced to words.

This is me using you hard in a poem
where I decide what’s shown.

I want to see her humiliated. Whore.
I am not humiliated. I am heavy bored

like Berryman. Bored of open flesh
and women in my area available for sex.

This is the entered body of a stranger.
This is my mouth courting danger.

vi. Images uploaded: 1007

Your lightless room. Defend. Attack.
The lit screen giving your own face back.

The tiny tap tap of your keyboard -
the claws of a puppy crossing floorboards.

vii. Last online one day ago

Outside it snows and snow reclaims the lawn.
Day reclaims sky. Sky reclaims dawn.

Here is Helen walking to her son’s nursery.
Here is Helen on her first anniversary.

Then comes the evening talking its cue,
the sound of history forgetting you.

Helen Mort

by Felicity Jackson (she/her)
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