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It’s baffling to adults. But this is why young girls like me get drawn into sending semi-naked pictures to boys… and here’s the horrifying impact it had on my life


Sitting on the bathroom floor, I looked at the empty blister packs of paracetamol. I’d swallowed the pills in such a frenzy, my eyes puffy and half-open from hours of crying, that I couldn’t work out how many I’d taken.

‘You idiot,’ I thought to myself, plunging two fingers down my throat and vomiting the contents of my stomach into the loo.

Back in my bedroom, I pulled out the nail scissors I’d hidden in my pillowcase and ran the blade over my arm. The sting felt comforting. I ran it back and forth across my skin until scarlet beads began to form in neat lines on my forearm and, at last, I felt a sense of control.

It was 3am, but sleep was impossible. Across the room my phone was buzzing with a torrent of Snapchat messages I knew I would have to look at and reply to. I had no choice. The group of boys who were targeting me for pictures and chat would turn nasty if I didn’t respond.

Last weekend, the head of child protection on the National Police Chiefs’ Council, Ian Critchley, described the horrifying growth among young people of ‘sextortion’, where schoolchildren are coerced by peers into taking compromising pictures of themselves. Blaming a ‘toxic culture’ of misogynistic material online, he joined the vocal calls for the regulation of smartphone use by children.

'Across the room my phone was buzzing with a torrent of Snapchat messages I knew I would have to look at and reply' (Picture posed by model)

‘Across the room my phone was buzzing with a torrent of Snapchat messages I knew I would have to look at and reply’ (Picture posed by model)

And he’s right, to a point. An entire generation is growing up thinking that the bullying and sexual objectification of girls is normal.

Last month’s inquest into the death of 14-year-old Mia Janin in 2021 concluded that she had taken her own life after what her father called ‘prolonged and sustained bullying’ by boys at the Jewish Free School in North London.

While there was no suggestion she sent any explicit photos herself, my own feelings of utter despair come flooding back.

Critchley’s warnings come too late for many of us, as does the new Online Safety Act, which promises to clamp down on content harmful to children by placing responsibility with social media companies. Because sextortion is not a new menace: I was a victim of it 12 years ago, when I was just 13.

It all started when I was added as a friend on Facebook by a boy I hardly knew, but had gone to nursery with more than a decade earlier.

Jake, as I will call him, went to a private boys’ school in the West Midlands, where I lived. He was 14 or 15 and was friendly with some of the older girls I did my performing arts GCSE course with at school.

We messaged for a while before he asked me to add him on the social media platform Snapchat, which was relatively new then. The first message, a simple ‘Hi’, was set against a photograph of half his face.

I replied, sending a similar picture back. His next message came soon after, though this was a little less innocent. A black-and-white mirror picture of his six pack with the words ‘now you’. I remember feeling a sense of confusion. This was the first time I’d ever been asked to send pictures — did he really mean what I thought he did?

Of course, I knew other girls were sending pictures of their bodies . . . but I sent back a fully clothed selfie anyway. ‘No, the same as me,’ he responded.

Why did I do it? This is a question older women often ask, failing to understand how profoundly the world has changed since they were young.

It wasn’t for a rush, or for any kind of boost to my self-confidence. I probably could have said no.

Looking back, the most tangible reason was that it didn’t seem at all out of the ordinary. Sending intimate pictures was, and still is, a commonplace, uncontroversial practice among my generation.

At the time, one of my best friends had sent topless photos to some strangers she’d ‘met’ over BBM (Blackberry’s messaging system). Other girls showed their underwear and bikini selfies to each other at school.

Sending full nudes wasn’t so usual, but carefully posed pictures in underwear and topless photos definitely were. After all, the influencers we followed all did it. Today, on TikTok there are even videos providing ‘inspiration’ for poses in these types of photos. At the time it seemed a harmless thing to do.

Even so, I didn’t include my face in the picture I sent Jake of me wearing a Gilly Hicks bra and Hollister jeans.

A fraction of a second later, my phone showed two notifications. Jake had opened the message. And then he had screenshotted it.

That wasn’t supposed to happen — the whole point of Snapchat is pictures disappear after a matter of seconds. I began to panic, begging him to wipe it.

‘It was an accident. I’ve already deleted it,’ he responded.

As a 13-year-old who’d never had sexualised contact like this with a boy, I believed him, and we carried on talking as though nothing had happened.

About a week later I was added on Snapchat by another boy, Sam, who was the same age as Jake. I didn’t know him, but we had several mutual friends. He told me Jake had shown him pictures of me (though not specifying what exactly) and that he had heard I was ‘nice’.

'I simply think they were boys with a phone and a nasty plan that seemed to work' (Picture posed by models)

‘I simply think they were boys with a phone and a nasty plan that seemed to work’ (Picture posed by models)

For a few weeks we messaged every day. We’d chat about music, TV, books. Sam told me about his mental health struggles and his parents’ divorce. Then, quite suddenly, he asked me if I’d ever given a boy a blowjob, a term I had to search for on Urban Dictionary.

Not long after came the request — inevitable, I see now — for intimate pictures. It was the same playbook. Sam sent me an unsolicited picture of himself in his boxers and told me to send one of myself to him. This time I refused and received a barrage of hateful messages.

‘You’re a bitch.’ ‘You’re not that pretty, you should feel lucky I’m giving you attention.’ Followed by the most common insult boys use at that age: ‘You’re frigid.’

I ignored it, feeling utterly confused, and the next day got several grovelling apologies until, in no time, we were back to our usual chat.

I know people find it hard to understand why I carried on talking to him, but I enjoyed the friendship we had and felt we’d grown close. I trusted him. In fact, within a week he had stroked my ego so much, I sent him a picture.

And so the cycle continued. I’d be put on a pedestal, told how amazing I was, and how ‘fit’ and pretty. And then out of nowhere, the story would change: I was frigid, and no one would ever want to be with me.

As time went on, this ‘negging’ (giving negative feedback) became more and more vicious — until it included encouragement to take my own life.

The only way to redeem myself was to send him a picture, and even though I never sent a fully nude photograph, I did take and send topless ones. The next few months are a blur, the finer details buried somewhere I have no desire to go.

At some point Sam’s school friend, Luke, began Snapchatting me. I remember nights when the three of us would stay up for hours on a Skype call, and I vividly remember the sinking feeling when Luke confessed he’d seen the intimate photos I’d sent Sam.

That was the first time I started to realise the hateful messages weren’t just random outbursts of anger, but a manipulative tactic designed to disorient me and lower my self-esteem.

This was 12 years ago, but I’m not convinced much has changed. I simply think they were boys with a phone and a nasty plan that seemed to work.

With Luke, a new modus operandi began. Sam would tell me I’d be better off dead, and almost like clockwork Luke would message me out of nowhere, telling me how awful he thought Sam was, and flattering me — before turning nasty himself when I refused to send a picture or be on the phone until 2am.

Then, who would be my knight in shining armour? Sam.

It was clearly a brutal, co-ordinated campaign to wear me down and get pictures from me.

To them, I think it was a game. To me, however, it was an increasingly inescapable trap. I felt so low most of the time that the high they gave me when they were being nice started to become addictive.

I was made to feel so worthless and self-conscious that I craved their compliments. So why didn’t I tell my parents? It never crossed my mind because I thought they would never understand.

It wasn’t taboo at school to admit to friends you had sent sexy pictures or ‘sexts’, but there was a level of shame when it came to parents. I felt ashamed to be struggling with my mental health and ashamed to be self-harming.

Today, parents are made to feel guilt if they don’t know what their kids are up to online, but I don’t blame mine for not realising what was going on.

At some point, seeing how little sleep I was getting, they took my phone away at night, but then I just accessed Facebook Messenger through my Kindle.

And while politicians earnestly debate banning smartphones in schools, they should know we got round such rules with ease. If you position the screen at the right angle in the inside pocket of your blazer you could even read a message in class.

Nowhere was I safe from the bullying that by then was occupying my every thought.

The real problem, however, wasn’t my access to a phone, it was the boys. And the wretched social media sites where teenagers could abuse each other.

I even self-harmed in school. I’d read a message and then, swallowing back tears, take a compass from my pencil case and trace scratches into my arm until the skin was bloody and raw.

It got to a point where I wouldn’t even say I was depressed — I was numb. I no longer cared about anything, especially not myself.

It went on for another six months, past my 14th birthday and with the addition of a fourth boy called Henry. There were threats to send my pictures to people I knew, and more messages telling me it would be better if I killed myself when I didn’t do what they said. I must have sent them around 20 pictures over that time.

One day I logged on to Ask.fm, a popular social media site at the time which allowed people to send questions to you. It was on there that I found a barrage of horrific messages.

All anonymous, they insulted my appearance with references to hidden imperfections, such as a particular birthmark, which meant the people sending them had seen the pictures I’d sent to the four boys. One day Henry let slip that my pictures were being used as a kind of currency between them. ‘He owed me a spliff, so he sent me your picture’, he told me of an interaction he’d had with Sam.

I started to spiral. I was mortified at the thought of the photos getting out. I was awkwardly tall, athletic in build and not much past puberty. As an underweight 14-year-old I was hardly the porn star these boys desired me to be. Yet I stopped eating. I gave away my lunch at school and started restricting what I ate at home.

I quickly dropped to below 7st — at 5ft 8in, I was becoming dangerously thin. And still my mental health grew worse.

I felt sick every time I ate, and the bloodied mess of my arm was becoming harder to hide as the weather grew warmer.

The fact is, I’d invested nearly all my self-worth in how I was viewed by a group of boys, and yet I was of no value to them except as a sexual object.

Even the fact I was a virgin — I hadn’t even had my first kiss — was fetishised by these boys who were barely over the age of consent themselves.

During this whole time, my abuse was conducted entirely online.

In the end, I went to the one adult I felt wouldn’t judge me. My geography teacher had children my age, and genuinely seemed to care about us.

Quickly she set up safeguarding meetings with senior teachers — some of whom did judge me, with one calling me a ‘silly girl’ to have got myself in that situation.

I refused to reveal who the boys were, so they didn’t get in trouble. I later found out that my parents had gone to the school around the same time, having gained access to my Facebook account and seen some of the abuse. To this day we have never spoken about it.

I cut all contact with the boys, deleted social media and saw a psychiatrist for a few weeks, until I refused to go because I hated it.

I threw myself deeper into schoolwork and slowly dragged myself out of the dark place I was in.

My faith in men is still lacklustre, to say the least. I still have moments where I feel my worth is based solely on my looks and what I can do to please a man. I’m not sure these feelings will ever go.

What became of the boys? Nothing good came of Luke, who is still in and out of trouble. Jake requested to follow me on Instagram when I was 19. I said no.

When I was 17, I went to a party with a girl from school. Henry walked into the room and I thought I was going to be sick.

He came over and asked if I knew who he was, before apologising about how he had treated me, and almost breaking down in tears.

A few weeks after the party I received a friend request from Sam on my newly created Facebook account. My heart sank. First a chance encounter with Henry, now this. In reality he’d heard from Henry and felt so awful himself that he wanted to say sorry, too.

Writing this, I managed to find the messages and look back at what he said. The apology seems sincere enough, though he added: ‘Do you fancy getting a drink?’ I almost laugh at how deluded it sounds. Indeed, that might be the most frightening thing about all of this — how unaware the boys are of the damage they do. And its possible consequences.

  • Names have been changed to protect identities. If you need help, call the suicide helpline for young people on 0800 068 4141 (papyrus-uk.org). Or for advice on any teenage issues, contact Childline on 0800 1111 or visit childline.org.uk



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