THE BADASS ARMY: A Radical Response to Cyber-Sexual Harassment
By Sophie Maddocks, November 2019
“Two years ago today, Katelyn Bowden reached out and changed my life.”
This is the title of a post shared in a Facebook group for victims of cyber-sexual harassment. The group was founded two years ago by activist Katelyn Bowden after intimate images of her were distributed online without her consent. The non-consensual distribution of intimate images is a form of sexual harassment that has become commonplace online, causing immediate, severe, and long-lasting harm to victims. In August 2017, Bowden decided to do something about it. She set up a Facebook group called “The BADASS Army” (Battling Against Demeaning and Abusive Selfie Sharing). I interviewed Bowden in 2018 and subsequently joined her Facebook group in order to learn more about her work. BADASS was founded with two goals: to support victims and to expose their abusers.
Attached to the Facebook post mentioned above was a screenshot showing a message received from Bowden two years ago: “I am so sorry to tell you this, but some jerk is sharing your nude photos in an app called discord. I monitor those boards since I became a victim myself, and I have started a group fighting back. We can help you take the photos down. I’m so sorry this happened to you.” People typically discover that their nudes have been leaked when they receive scary, threatening, and sexually explicit messages from strangers. What doesn’t happen every day is a supportive advocate reaching out to them first. This is where Bowden comes in. After her own victimization she began searching message boards, finding non-consensually leaked nudes, exposing those who view and share nudes, identifying victims, and inviting them to join her Facebook group. What happens after we are shamed, exposed, and exploited online? This woman’s radical answer is to return to the site of your abuse: to surveil, disrupt, and ultimately dismantle the network of actors who abused you.
Non-consensual intimate image sharing was originally defined by legal scholars Danielle Keats Citron and Mary Anne Franks as “the distribution of sexually graphic images of individuals without their consent. This includes images originally obtained without consent (e.g., hidden recordings or recordings of sexual assaults) as well as images originally obtained with consent, usually within the context of a private or confidential relationship”. This definition has recently expanded to include content fabricated using artificial intelligence, commonly termed “deep nudes.” Non-consensual intimate image distribution is a complex harm that takes many forms. Current or former intimate partners, child abusers, sex traffickers, scammers, hackers, and voyeurs create and distribute sexual images without consent for different purposes. Representative studies in the United States and abroad indicate that this harm disproportionately impacts young, single, and marginalized women as well as sexual minorities.
What happens after we are shamed, exposed, and exploited online? This woman’s radical answer is to return to the site of your abuse: to surveil, disrupt, and ultimately dismantle the network of actors who abused you.
Scholarship about life online has historically emphasized the break between the physical and the virtual: the disembodiment of our online selves and our consequent ability to experiment with our identities and transcend offline social norms. For the digital radicals in this story, any semblance of separation between their online identity and physical body is cruelly collapsed by the distribution of their intimate images. Even when victims legally change their names, quit their jobs, and move to different states—“troll armies” still find and expose them. As well as personal trauma, this also causes systematic impacts: Legal scholar Mary Anne Franks argues that cyber-sexual harassment has a chilling effect on free speech, driving girls and women out of public spaces at an alarming rate. Returning to social networks is undoubtedly a fraught and dangerous process. BADASS carves out a safer path-of-return for victims.
Existing cyber-security resources typically focus on combating attacks from anonymous hackers, scammers, and voyeurs. What is lacking is support for people whose abusers are still part of their lives. As Diana Freed and colleagues explain, “Intimate relationships complicate digital privacy.” Your current or former boyfriend may be the person who distributed your nudes. They may still have access to your devices and accounts. You may share children, extended families, and friends, making it impossible to “delete” your abuser. Many conversations in the BADASS Facebook group revolve around managing these issues. At a time when there is no “best practice” solution, and even professional support workers are “googling-as-they-go,” the BADASS group crowd-sources essential advice by and for victims.
Our goal is to arm victims with the tools they need to become their own advocates for justice and provide the resources they need to regain control of their images, empower themselves, and get justice.
The group’s supportive environment is characterized by a feminist ethics of care and compassion that infuses every post. This is no more apparent than in group members’ responses to male victims. While the majority of group members are women, a significant minority of male victims are also active in the group. This is a considerable achievement within a patriarchal context that discourages male victims from coming forward and minimizes the harms they experience. Bowden applies her ethics of care to all—and goes to great lengths to support male victims within the group. In BADASS, Katelyn Bowden has built a sex-positive group. She looks at graphic photos every day and takes pride in withholding judgement from victims. A testament to this is the support BADASS has received from many sex workers, a group who are especially vulnerable to image-based cyber-harassment. BADASS is a two-part system: the ethics of care within the group facilitates an oppositional gaze towards perpetrators outside the group. By monitoring, exposing, and reporting people who share nudes without consent, victims participate in a reversal of the voyeuristic gaze of perpetrators.
Part of BADASS’s work—and arguably, feminism’s challenge—is to interrogate the behavior of men. As Denise Thompson explains: it is through “exposing male domination as domination that feminism poses its major challenge.” For BADASS activists this is an immense task, and it pits them against aggressive groups of users that “monitor and disrupt feminist activity online.” When first formed, BADASS was a self-described “vigilante movement” whose members were “mad.” Bowden found a lawyer who joined the Facebook group to advise the group on a pro bono basis, and they began coordinating searches to locate victims.
“The way our group has grown is going through websites and hunting down the victims in the same way that the creepers are. And once you have their first name, last name, and city, you’ve found them. It’s empowering to fight back and find these people.”
Because it is a mainstream social networking platform with close ties to the pornography industry, BADASS activists use Twitter to search key words like “revenge porn,” “anon IB,” and “leaked nudes.” To find victims, they join Facebook groups—everything from stem cell research groups to feminist art groups. Within social media platforms historically hostile to victims’ needs, BADASS has carved out a disruptive space to gather evidence, mass-report abusive posts, and trade tips on filing take-down requests and police reports. Well aware of the privacy, surveillance, and data mining critiques of big tech, Bowden sees the privacy settings of a closed Facebook group as “just private enough” to support her model of intervention. Through Facebook, BADASS activists enjoy having a window into each other’s lives, family situations, interests, and communication styles. With a diverse group connected only by trauma, Facebook profiles help members to understand each other’s personal context.
As more women and girls are driven offline by intimate privacy violations that threaten their physical safety, BADASS offers a path of return, repair, and resistance.
Many scholars are rightly concerned about the consequences of feminist organizing taking place on commodified and surveillant platforms. Jessica Megarry characterizes the digital terrain on which they operate as an “apparatus of communicative commodification and surveillance, which encodes male dominance, and presents multiple risks of unwanted identification, tracking, assault, and misdirection for women who wish to contest male power.” For BADASS, the fallout of operating on this type of platform is frightening. As these activists mobilize a mass-movement of victims, their images continue to be maliciously reposted. Trolling, doxxing, and false reporting keep BADASS group-members and their families under constant threat. This group’s work makes sites like Twitter safer places, but instead of being verified by Twitter, Bowden’s account was suspended briefly towards the end of 2019. Although she acknowledges the challenges of operating on mainstream platforms, housing BADASS on Facebook and operating via Twitter was inevitable because “it’s really the only thing that everybody uses, so we can find people, we can bring them into our group, and they can still be private about what they’ve gone through.”
“For them to see us as human beings with lives is a big deal and that’s something we’re really trying to convey, by sharing our personal stories and keeping it humorous, because with humor comes humility.”
Within two years the BADASS Facebook group has amassed over 1,000 active members and become a recognized non-profit organization. Becoming a formal organization has enabled the group to build meso- and macro-level communication streams: Instagram stories about how to watermark nudes, a film project, state legislative lobbying, guest appearances on television, and “how-to” guides for getting images removed from sites have all been incubated in the group. Part of the group’s formalization was the development of a website with the following mission statement:
“The badass army is a nonprofit collective of image abuse victims fighting back. Our goal is to arm victims with the tools they need to become their own advocates for justice and provide the resources they need to regain control of their images, empower themselves, and get justice.”
Behind the BADASS mission statement lies a deeper goal: to shift the attitudes of those who view and share images non-consensually. In her interactions with abusers, Bowden has found that many who view and share nudes forget that a human exists behind the content. Her work brings victims’ suffering to the doors of abusers—and doesn’t let them look away. To preemptively dispel the tension that comes with these confrontations, the BADASS group uses humor.
“On these websites when they aren’t posting photos they are discussing us as if we are objects, tearing us apart “look at the boobs on that one,” “she’s got a great ass,” we are nothing more than an amalgam of body parts to a lot of these guys. For them to see us as human beings with lives is a big deal and that’s something we’re really trying to convey, by sharing our personal stories and keeping it humorous, because with humor comes humility.”
While the use of humor for issues of sexual harassment may seem incongruous, it succeeds by tapping into the reluctance and embarrassment many people feel when talking about sex, particularly their own sexually-problematic behaviors. BADASS’s social media content often uses double entrendre to communicate key cyber-security issues.
The current conditions of social media demand new rules of engagement: both at the level of corporate governance and at the level of individual activity. As more women and girls are driven offline by intimate privacy violations that threaten their physical safety, BADASS offers a path of return, repair, and resistance.
Towards the end of our interview, Bowden described her cell-phone background. It is a picture of a message sent to her by a woman who was deeply traumatized after experiencing a harrowing episode of image-based abuse. Two weeks after being targeted, she received a message from Bowden. Two years after being targeted, she is one of the most vocal advocates in the BADASS group. For Katelyn Bowden, transformations such as these help her build meaning in her own life.
The story of BADASS offers one roadmap for life after cyber-sexual harassment. While reclaiming space online can lead to personal and collective liberation, it also causes increased exposure and precarity. By creating a simultaneously caring and confrontational group, BADASS activists manage their ongoing precarity while mobilizing against their abusers. The final question I posed to Bowden was about the name of her group, to which she replied: “I met all these women who’d been through so much. Some of them have had their photos online for 10 years, and they’re still dealing with this, and they’re still here, and they’re not giving up. The only word I could use to describe them was ‘Badass.’” Sexual harassment has become part of the scenery in cyberspace. Through their radical acts of repair and resistance, BADASS activists destabilize and disrupt this new normal.
Go to www.badassarmy.org to learn more about how you can become involved in activism against image-based abuse. You can also donate to the BADASS army, a 501c3 nonprofit dedicated to fighting image abuse through every method available.
Sophie Maddocks is a doctoral student at the Annenberg School for Communication. She is broadly interested in cyber civil rights, gender and sexuality, youth media literacy, and popular culture. Her current research explores individual, organizational, and legislative responses to online gender-based violence.