This week, we’re introducing you to Venus Black, a California woman who has experienced an extreme violation of her personal privacy that may have even been a case of online sexual exploitation. She wants to share about it so that others can learn about the danger and how to protect themselves. We hope you’ll find this information as important and helpful as we do. Here’s her story, with our gratitude to her for sharing.
A few years ago, Venus started using online dating apps as a way of coping with and trying to find connection after divorce. She met men, dated them, and sometimes brought them home with her. It’s one of these men that she believes became her exploiter.
How it Happened
Over the course of two years, someone had been breaking into her home, but when she reported these break-ins to the police, nothing came of it. Finally, she decided to move. When the movers came, they went up into the crawl space above her home, and they discovered a horrific sight: sleeping bags and pillows, blankets, clothes, and even food. Someone had been living in her home, without her knowledge or consent. Venus learned that this person had installed video cameras, an electric breaker, and computer equipment, and had been recording everything she had been doing the whole time–bathing and showering, dressing, private conversations with her mother, and private moments with partners she had brought home.
She shared all her contacts with investigators, hoping to find the perpetrator. She says the police were able to narrow it down to about 5 contacts on Kik [a social media app], but when the detectives reached out to Kik to pursue the investigation, Kik declined to participate, citing data protection policies. She says this was the point where the case was dropped.
Venus also felt stigmatized for having dated many men, as though she had deserved what happened to her. “I went on single dates with a lot of men at that point, trying to find the right one. That makes you look bad too. So they basically just drop the investigation. At this point, we’re past the statute of limitations. There’s nothing legally you can do either to the apps who were involved or to the people that did this.”
We want to share Venus’ story to highlight three key points. One, it is hard to pursue a case of potential trafficking and online exploitation, even with a lot of evidence at hand. Two, stigmas against women’s sexuality make it even harder. And three, there are not enough protections in place to make sure this doesn’t happen.
The Challenge In Getting Help
Of course, being unable to find the perpetrator made it difficult to prosecute this case. Despite having two years’ worth of data in their hands, it still wasn’t enough.
But the violation is clear. As Venus explains, “Somebody had suggested at one point that they were broadcasting this to one of the black market video networks….Because they do have a lot of peep show or voyeur type of websites. It’s actually one of the most popular content types in the pornography industry. To have somebody do something like that, it just extra messes with your head.”
The trauma has left a lasting impact. She says, “This is something that I’m probably going to live with for the rest of my life, where I’m at least working on it, and taking another leg up, and another leg up. You don’t really recover from this.”
And despite the clear violation, Venus says she was not offered any therapy, counseling, or access to other kinds of support. She says, “My thing is that this is the opportunity for us to change. We’ve got too many people with very, very large voices coming forward and saying this is not okay. It’s absolutely not okay for people to be treated this way, to experience traumas to this degree, and then not be offered any kind of counseling, any kind of therapy, any kind of support.”
The Stigmas She Faced
Venus also shares that, in her experience, being an openly sexual woman left her vulnerable to stigmatization and dismissal. In her view, “our sexuality as women is very, very suffocated. So when you find a woman who is very openly sexual….It is still seen as being akin to prostitution and you are treated as though you don’t deserve acknowledgment or respect, or just basic compassion….It was just kind of blown off as you’re a throwaway.”
What She Wants Others To Know About Protecting Themselves
In no way is this kind of exploitation the fault of the victim–no one deserves this, and one shouldn’t need to take extreme measures to protect themselves. That said, there currently are just not enough protections in place. While there are laws regarding “revenge porn,” there are gaps in legal protection for adult victims of online exploitation.
Interestingly, this year, the California Women’s Law Center co-sponsored a piece of state legislation with Senator Dave Cortese (SB 435) that would help fill some important gaps and provide much stronger protection for victims. The bill “will allow a victim of online sexual trafficking or exploitation to bring a civil action for damages against any person or entity that makes, obtains, uploads, reuploads or distributes in any form, sexual content without their freely given permission. Once a victim has given notice that their rights are being violated, a distributor has two-hours to take down this content. After that, an offender must pay damages of $100,000 for every two hours of online exposure, or $200,000 for every two hours if the victim is under 18 years of age.” (Source: Office of Senator Dave Cortese website) The Senate Judiciary Committe is expected to hold an informational hearing about it on November 9, and hold a hearing about it in January.
Venus shares some ideas on what might have helped protect her, for example: being more communicative with neighbors, more aware of how technology could impact her, being more careful to meet people in neutral settings, and having a secure website instead of social media. As she says, “ [not taking these precautions] allowed people to find me who did not need to know where I was at.”
And she says tech companies could do more to educate their consumers about signs to watch out for and avoid. “A lot of it is if you don’t know the signs to look for. How do you tell? They look just like everybody else. The guys that I was bringing home, they were mostly younger men. They just look normal….They don’t look like they’re going to hurt you. You feel safe with them. And that’s what makes them so dangerous, is you do feel safe with them.”
Her Reflections on Her Personal Experience
In the end, for Venus, it’s not about cutting yourself off from social connections that, for many reasons, might be very necessary. But it is about being more aware so that you can protect yourself.
“I don’t think that there was anything [wrong] with what I was doing, just being out there, dating, because this is the same thing that men do. I don’t think it’s wrong that men do it, I think women have the same right. But there are things as a woman that you do have to [do], if you want to protect yourself, that I could have done, that would have allowed me to still live my life without danger of them having access to my home.
“When you hear that statement ‘prevention,’ it’s easy to take that very personally, that it’s your fault, that you shouldn’t live the life that’s most pleasing to you. At that time, I was going through so many things. Just [from] a mental health capacity, I needed that experience. But without the crazy!
She hopes that by sharing her story, she can help others protect themselves too. “The true resolution for me is putting information out there that is going to be useful to another me. Because there is another me out there, who is just coming into her phase. And there is another me out there who has the same mental health problems and the same personal needs. But without the danger of somebody coming in and taking advantage of her situation.” And she hopes no one else will feel so alone. She says, “The truth is we’re alone in our own experience, but in the general experience we are very much not alone.”