INTERVIEW

Violated Intimacy: An Interview with Silvia Semenzin, Italian Sociologist and Activist

by Agnese Oliveri | 26 January 2021

I sometimes find it incredible that, to this day, I still get into fights with people who believe that the patriarchy doesn’t exist. With time, my reaction to these discussions has changed. I try not to get upset, or else it will be used against me, and I try not to answer rhetorical questions. I instead direct the other person to basic feminist texts, or attempt to describe my experience as a woman in Southern Italy in order to provide them with all the examples of how sexism has impacted my life every day (at which point I am actually upset as I have to recall all the unpleasant memories to build an argument). If all this fails, and my best attempts are encountered with aggressive tones or diminishing language (which aims to put me in my place rather than engage in a debate), I try my hardest to remove myself from the situation, as it is only harming me and not helping anybody else. After one such conversation, I emailed Silvia, who kindly agreed to be interviewed by me for the Courtauldian. This interview is part of a small endeavour to present the implications the patriarchy has for women on a daily basis in a productive and scientific way, as I turn to a woman who was instrumental to the criminalisation of revenge porn in 2015. Let’s proceed in order.

 

Silvia Semenzin is an Italian PhD student focusing on digital sociology that has made the law against revenge porn pass firstly as an academic with her paper (cowritten with Lucia Bainotti) ‘The use of Telegram for non-consensual dissemination of intimate images: gendered affordances and the construction of masculinities’, and then as an activist, keenly educating students in high schools and her twenty-one thousand followers.[1] As new scandals from Italy’s revenge porn groups on Telegram hit the news, I stumbled upon Silvia’s account as one that could give me more detail on the phenomenon. Firstly, although the term ‘revenge porn’ is commonly used and understood, Silvia and other scholars prefer to use the term ‘non-consensual dissemination of intimate images’ (NCII). This is for two reasons: the former being that ‘revenge’ implies that a portion of the blame lies with the victim whose photograph has been disseminated (one typically revenges to right a wrong doing), the latter being that by using the term ‘porn’ it is assumed that consent was granted. Neither ‘revenge’ nor ‘porn’ accurately describe what happens in the telegram chats. These are groups where fifty thousand people share images of ex-girlfriends, current ones, as well as sisters, minor daughters and various Instagram handles. It’s hard to believe in the realness of the screenshots that emerged from the initial investigations. It seems as inconceivable in the way in which ‘A Clockwork Orange’ violence does. Unfortunately, the brutality is real. This isn’t the first scandal to take place in Italy concerning NCII; I still recall when Tiziana Cantone killed herself after her video was shared online, my high school classmates repeating the unfortunate catch phrase that rendered the video viral.[2] More recently, a primary school teacher’s video was shared amongst the children’s fathers. When it arrived in the hands of the school heads, she was fired. The teacher was perceived as doubly culprit: not only did she film these videos, she also taught innocent children while being a ‘dirty’ woman. However, in reality, she is a double victim: her privacy has been violated with the publishing of intimate images of her without her consent, and she has also lost her job because of this act that she did not consent to. The people who shared the video and pressured the school to get rid of her, on the other hand, walk away scot free, whilst standing in the pulpit of moral righteousness. However, in contrast to Tiziana’s story, this one ends on a positive note: the woman was able to challenge the school for her unjust dismissal, and ended up winning the lawsuit. One of the reasons this was possible, is certainly the law against NCII that Silvia has helped to make a reality.

Jacques-André Boiffard, La Bouche in Chronique-Dictionnaire. Documents II/5 1930

Agnese Oliveri: There is already an abundancy of consensual porn online. What is the appeal of these pictures on Telegram? As often times there are even images of fully clothed women on these group chats, or deep fakes. [3] Why is that?

Silvia Semenzin: Yes, the thing is that it is not pornography that they go looking for on telegram. This is a big difference. What excites is the lack of consent. I believe that conceiving a woman’s body as directly pornographic is intrinsically problematic and we can see this also in the way media report the news. When a scandal comes out, titles often talk about ‘racy photos’ or ‘naughty videos’. The consequence is that a woman having sex is being portrayed as something ‘dirty’ to hide. Subsequently, this creates an obsessive search for intimacy, to discover a woman’s identity, to find her in intimate or erotic moments as to invalidate her integrity. How can she be a kindergarten teacher and have sex? The root of the problem lays in stereotypes, taboos, the fact that we still have a patriarchal view of women. Moreover, I find this phenomenon to have very little to do with sex itself. It is about power and dominion over a woman’s body. However, it is a sexual violence, why? Because through sex I can humiliate you, reduce you and put you back in your place. This is done through these practices that also affirm one’s virility in this game against men.

 

AO: I agree, it seems clear to me that this is also the consequence of a very fragile masculinity that manifests itself and is built on the oppression of the other. I also found it very interesting that in your article you focus a lot on the relationship between men in the groups and we can tell it’s a very important component.

SS: Yes, we can find on the internet these areas called manosphere, i.e. places where mostly men are present. Here the fragile masculinity you were talking about is rendered manifest with misogyny. Therefore, women are used as targets for men to affirm themselves. This has to do with the way men have been socialised. Fragile masculinity is also very toxic. A proper man has to be strong; he has an aggressive behaviour and women cannot be considered their equal. Behaviours such as falling in love, treating women with respect or showing sensibility are considered ‘camp’, as these people would say. Because what women actually deserve is to be put in a second place to men. Many of these people don’t even do it consciously. Some do it only as a consequence of societal pressure. It must be said, there are incels[4] in the manospehre, and there are also many people who don’t see violence in their acts. Many lawyers say that these people don’t see the violence in what they say. They don’t see violence in calling someone a ‘whore’, for example. Which is something that is still very normal and its encouraged.

 

AO: How do you manage to engage with someone like this? How do you conciliate your role as an educator when met with this kind of attitude? How can you reach these men that refuse to listen to you in the first place because you’re a woman? I also find it very painful as often you’re discussing personal experiences.

SS: I don’t hide from you that this was a very frustrating battle when I started. Yes, great steps forward have been made which surprised me a lot and I am very happy about… however I got tired of having these kinds of discussions, probably I am becoming more radical over time in saying ‘I don’t have to educate you’. Of course, if you are calling me in a school, I will do it. That’s an entirely different environment and the discussion takes place under different premises. I have time to explain in a detailed speech from beginning to the end the roots of the problem. I can explain my whole view and then you tell me your opinion. Whenever instead I am speaking to someone who keeps interrupting and is not even listening, that’s when I refuse to keep going. I believe that right now the most important thing is probably for women to recognise the problem. I find that when women come together, they can become very powerful, especially when they begin to realise that they have been discriminated against for a long time and that they have a power that they never use- that they can now use. Whereas right now I only ask men to listen. There are many activists online asking for men to speak out, however I think that men should stay and listen, but it is not their moment to speak. If we were to give them the floor then they would say ‘there is no problem’, like they have always said. But of course, that is not right, there is a domestic problem, there is a revenge problem etc. etc.  

 

AO: This reminds me of a time in which I was once taking part in a society against sexual harassment where the panel of a talk was made mostly of men with only one woman. The reason for doing so was that in this way men would actually come in and listen… which I found absurd because it promotes the idea that men are the only ones worth listening too. I found it really nonsense.

SS: Yes, it’s the kind of things that try to have feminism as their foundation, but actually don’t have it. In Treviso for the 25th of November (the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women) they did an event about violence against women where they invited twenty-five men. they still don’t put themselves in a place of listening, but instead want to be the ones to speak. To me this is quite irritating. Of course, there are many exceptions of men who are allies, however there are others that only care about their own voice. When that happens, I don’t engage anymore.

 

AO: I wanted to ask you whether due to your role as face of the campaign, as some articles define you, you have ever been targeted in these groups as someone who was opposing them.  

SS: To be honest, not in the first year I was doing the campaign. And I was looking for my name every now and then. But I can tell you that the campaign had more resonance when it was over, articles really started to come out once it was done. In Italy often we notice something big happened only once it’s happened. So, when people actually started to talk about the campaign and the groups, my name was always more associated to these studies. But I never looked on telegram after that, I can assure you that after months constantly reading what they write, I was quite sick of it. But I do get DMs from people on Instagram that make me understand that these are people coming from the telegram groups, so I think that my name has been in these groups. You can tell when people organize shitstorms against you that that must be the case. However, I do not investigate on it, as receiving these messages is not pleasant already… I don’t really feel like seeing what they write in these groups as it would only make me so mad and at the same time there is nothing, I can do about it.

 

AO: Shitstorms also bring me back to thinking about collectivity. Firstly, I think of the toxic telegram collectivity, but then I turn to thinking about the potential in positive female collectivity that you were mentioning earlier. So, I wanted to ask you about your role as an activist in trying to shape these realities and about the increasing individualisation of activism that I am perceiving these days.

SS: I can tell you that the problem of individualisation of social movements is very present. Sometimes being at the centre of so much responsibility scares me. To me this is a communal movement, I am a part of it, but definitely not a leader. I feel like we are all part of it. Otherwise we are looking for a guru, which is something potentially very toxic. That is why I was critiquing some influencer activists who forget that they are not the only ones doing something about their given campaign, we are all doing something, and this is not only about you. I believe that this is an important part of militancy, remembering that we are all part of something, so you cannot only do online activism. Online activism is by definition very individual. You need to go and work in person in your territory, meet people, educate yourself.

 

AO: I also found that online activism can sometimes bring a lot of misinformation, as when it is online and not on the territory, you think you are doing feminism however you are lacking a proper experience.

SS: Absolutely, that’s partly because giving a single person the role of explaining activism is very problematic. It’s also because feminism is not an end goal, but a path. I have my fixed points, but my definition is often changing. One always has to doubt themselves to be feminist. A question I got on Instagram is from a girl who asked me ‘I’m trying to do activism on Instagram but my numbers are not growing, what am I doing wrong?’ and I just thought that this question has many problems. First of all, you don’t do activism on Instagram, Instagram is a channel to give light to certain debates but followers and likes shouldn’t be your aim, otherwise you are actually doing self-branding and nothing else. Whenever you put marketing strategies you are making a political cause ‘impure’ in a way.

 

AO: There are many questions I would like to explore concerning the role of Instagram and activism or what happened to Eddie[5] recently… however, I have to ask you just one last question and that is: Any advice to practice safer sexting?

SS: Ah, I like this question! Let’s start by saying there is no 100% safety. However, there are some measures that can help. Once for example I really enjoyed as a friend of mine was telling me that something erotic is not necessarily your entire naked body or your face, replicating some pornographic pose etc… sometimes something very erotic can be anything, just a small part of your body, your mouth…

 

AO: As Art History teaches us!

SS: Exactly! Amazing! This was very inspiring to hear because it helps you first of all to be very creative and to play, but also avoid reflecting the male gaze through which we so often look at ourselves. Also, if possible, hide your face, if you have tattoos, cover them, so there are some precautions to take just as you are taking the picture. Then there are some platforms that are better than others, I advise against any Facebook-affiliated app, such as Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger. Telegram actually under this point of view is ok. It allows you to create secret chats and to send a picture that destroys itself after an amount of time you establish. Also, now you can decide to delete a picture that you sent previously directly from the other person’s phone gallery. However, the other person could always take a screenshot. That is why I tell you that 100% safety is never guaranteed. Signal is another encrypted platform you can use. Also, you shouldn’t keep naked pictures on your iPhone, as you know the cloud can be hacked very easily. So, in general just be careful about passwords and the platforms that you use. But unfortunately… you know you can always be unlucky… I was about to tell you try to trust the right people but that doesn’t mean anything at the end of the day.

 

AO: Totally, also because one doesn’t want to give the responsibility to the victim after all… Because anyway there are realities like deep fakes or spycams that still elude any kind of precaution.

SS: Exactly, I would say that first of all you have to be sure that you want to do it. To make sure you are not being pressured like many women are, fearing to be seen as ‘frigid’ or to be broken up with. But once you decide you want to do it… that’s great, and there are many ways you can make it safer.  

[1] The paper is retrievable here: https://osf.io/preprints/socarxiv/v4f63/ . At present it counts more than 4200 downloads. ; If you are not familiar with Telegram, Wikipedia describes it as such: Telegram provides end-to-end encrypted calls and optional end-to-end encrypted "secret" chats between two online users on smartphone clients, whereas cloud chats use client-server/server-client encryption. Users can send text and voice messages, animated stickers, make voice and video calls, and share an unlimited number of images, documents (2 GB per file), user locations, contacts, and music. In January 2021, Telegram surpassed 500 million monthly active users.

 

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/sep/16/italy-grapples-with-suicide-of-woman-taunted-over-online-sex-video

[3] https://www.forbes.com/sites/chenxiwang/2019/11/01/deepfakes-revenge-porn-and-the-impact-on-women/

[4] Wikipedia’s definition of an incel: ‘a portmanteau of "involuntary celibates", are members of an online subculture who define themselves as unable to find a romantic or sexual partner despite desiring one. Discussions in incel forums are often characterized by resentment, misogyny, misanthropy, self-pity and self-loathing, racism, a sense of entitlement to sex, and the endorsement of violence against sexually active people.[14] The American nonprofit Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) described the subculture as "part of the online male supremacist ecosystem" that is included in their list of hate groups. Incels are mostly male and heterosexual, and many sources report that incels are predominantly white. Estimates of the overall size of the subculture vary greatly, ranging from thousands to hundreds of thousands’.

[5] Maria Edgarda Marcucci is an italian militant who has been sentenced to additional years under ‘special surveillance’ for fighting alongside Kurish women in Syria: https://tekdeeps.com/eddi-marcucci-special-surveillance-confirmed-its-an-ideological-sentence/

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