Two sisters from the Midwest are among the untold number of survivors of child sexual abuse who say they are unable to escape their horrific experiences because of the internet.
Millions of photos and videos of children being sexually abused exist on a wide range of platforms, from Dropbox to Facebook Messenger, for criminals around the world to see. An investigation by The New York Times found that the technology industry has consistently failed to take coordinated steps to shut down the illegal content.
Because online predators sometimes stalk people victimized in the photos and videos, the two sisters, now 17 and 21, do not discuss their experiences publicly for fear of being recognized. They agreed, however, to talk to The Times if they were not named. They are identified here by their first initials, F. and E.
When they were 7 and 11, the sisters were sexually abused by their father. In one video, the younger sister, F., was drugged and raped by him and another man. Both men are now in prison, but the imagery continues to circulate on the web.
This year alone, photos and videos of the sisters’ abuse were found in over 130 child sexual abuse investigations involving mobile phones, computers and cloud storage accounts.
The following has been condensed and edited for clarity from recorded conversations with the sisters and their mother.
Q. What do you want people to know about online child sexual abuse?
E. It’s more than just images. When I’m in public with my little sister and I see some man looking at her, that is one of the first things I think about. You’re always worried. Already as a girl you always have to think about that kind of stuff, like guys being creepy. But then it’s something like, “Have they seen a picture of you when you were a kid?” It’s going to be there forever, and you just learn to deal with it.
F. People think I’m really fragile. I try to let people know that I went through that. I would love to speak out about it. We’re out of sight, out of mind. If it can help other people, and if I can talk to other victims and help them feel better, that’s all I want.
How do you talk to friends and others about the abuse?
E. If people ask me, I’ll tell them. But I usually spare them. I’m like: “You don’t want the answer to this question. It’s going to shock you, and then you’re going to feel weird and I’m going to feel weird.” People like to ask me, “What about your dad?” And there’s just no simple answer to that. I can just say, “Oh, he’s in jail.” But everyone is going to ask why he’s in jail. And every time I’ll just tell them. I’ll just say, “He’s a child molester.” And they’re like, “You’re kidding, right?”
F. I’m ready to talk about it. It’s not easy, but I want to do it because I know that it could help someone else. I’ve heard other people talk about it, and then it inspires me. It’s very hard to talk about, but I think it’s really important.
What does it mean to you that pictures of you are still out there?
E. It just sucks that it’s still going on, because the pictures are still circulating. It’s like another form of abuse. People would say: “It’s just pictures. Who are they hurting?” No, that’s so violating. If those were pictures of you, you would understand. It’s not like a harmless thing because of that.
F. It angers me more than upsets me. That stuff just really makes me mad that I’ve been through it and that so many people are still doing that stuff. It scares me for other kids because, you know, I’m more of a person where I get concerned for other people over myself. So it scares me. They have my pictures. They are out there. If you’re looking at that, you’re obviously out there looking at little girls. Eventually, you’re going to want to act on it. And I just don’t want anybody else to go through what I went through.
What is the biggest burden right now?
E. What sucks is you almost get your voice taken away too. If it were up to me, if it weren’t so dangerous, I would love to just say my name, put my face out there and say what I want to say. It takes away the personal part of it.
F. When it first happened, I was so young and I didn’t really process it for a long time. When he first got arrested, I was like, “Why is he getting arrested?” When that stuff was happening, he would drug me, so I wouldn’t really know. It was more just like losing my dad in general. But then as I grew up, more stuff was bothering me, but I didn’t know that was the cause of it. The way that I would do things, the way that I would react to things, was because of that event, but I never really made that connection. And so I would be really hard on myself. When I got older, my mom would talk about it a lot, and helped explain to me why I was like that. And now I understand fully.
How do you view social media?
F. I took pictures to accentuate my body, to get attention. I just wanted attention so bad. Now I’m way more protective. I appreciate my body way more than I used to. I know that it’s a gift. I’m not useless like a rag. I am sacred.