So, my story began as a young woman, as an 18-year-old woman who was coming in to herself—partying like every other person my age, posting images from those nights on social media and soon finding out about this function called Google image reverse search. It’s a function of Google that lets you upload an image and it will show you where it is on the Internet. So, at 18—out of pure curiosity—I tried it for myself. I uploaded an image of me in a black dress and never in my wildest dreams did I think that I would see what I saw. In an instant, multiple images of me—dozens upon dozens, actually, of images of me—were posted onto pornographic sites. These pornographic sites had details of my name, of where I lived, of what I studied. They had juxtaposed images of naked women next to images of me and said things like, ‘That’s what she sent me. That’s her. They made comments about the way I looked: ‘Cover her face and we’d fuck her body,’ ‘She’s a whale’. Every kind of horrific commentary, highly sexually explicit and graphic, was on the sites.
I would soon discover that whoever was responsible for posting these images of me on these pornographic sites had also doctored images of me where my face was photoshopped onto the bodies of naked women and posted online. There were images of me where I was depicted in a situation having sexual intercourse, an image where I’m being ejaculate on, solo images, images where my blouse was edited so that it would appear see-through. Literally, images where they had edited semen onto my face and they had put my name in fancy font on the bottom of these images—so that it completely and utterly linked my name to these false images of me. In the beginning I went to the police, I tried getting a private investigator, I cried on the phone to government agencies. But there was nothing that I can do. There were no laws at the time.
The term ‘image-based sexual abuse’, which is what it’s called now, wasn’t coined. There was no term for the practice of someone altering another person’s images into pornographic material and distributing them. That wasn’t an issue that dominated discussion in the media, at all. I don’t even think the practice had been brought to light. So, I had no idea that this kind of thing happened. I was told that I had to contact the sites myself to get everything deleted. And so feeling absolutely helpless and powerless and ashamed and humiliated, and just feeling like my life was over, I went down that route. Sometimes I would spend my university breaks just going down the rabbit hole of searching for the sites, sending them messages and emails to get all of that material removed and deleted. But the more I would reach out and request that things are deleted, the more sites I would discover, the more images I would discover. And as time went on, the more graphic they became.
It was a never-ending battle and I simply could not win. In fact, as I look back now, even before I actually discovered anything, it was already too late for me to ever get on top of the situation. By that time, it was spread everywhere and it would just simply be impossible for me to ever delete everything and ensure that all the fake images are taken down. But I did not know what I know now. So, I continued to contact the webmasters. And it reached a point where one webmaster said that he’d only delete the site if I sent him nude images of me within 24 hours. And I just had enough. I wasn’t sleeping properly, I wasn’t coping well – smoking, drinking. I couldn’t study because I thought, what is the point of it if I’m never going to get a job? No one’s ever going to hire me because this is what’s out there.
I just had no help from anyone because there was nothing there in place for people like me. And so, I had reached a bit of a crossroads after years of fighting this, after years of feeling emotionally distressed. And the crossroads was, continue down this path and do nothing, or speak out and fight back. Speak out, fight back and reclaim my name. And so, I had to pick option two, because option one just was not working. And I think what made it easy, easier for me or what made it possible for me to take option two was because I knew deep down that what they were doing was wrong and that no one deserves to experience what I was experiencing and that no one should be allowed to go and misrepresent someone’s name and image, ruin their lives without being held accountable.
I believe that people ought to know what was going on and that if anyone was in a position similar to mine, I would want them to know that they weren’t alone. And so, I spoke out. Years into this experience of mine, I spoke out and my story reverberated around the world. But the dominant response when I spoke out was, ‘She’s an attention seeking slut’, Whore’. ‘What did she expect? Look at what she wears. Look at what she posts’. ‘Who would do that to her? She’s fat, she’s ugly’. Every kind of victim blaming and slut shaming, attitude and hurtful comment, I got. I think that was probably one of the most painful parts of this whole journey was, to share your pain and for it to be met with mockery and laughter and for people to not even try to understand what that would feel like.
That was definitely one of the hardest things. And it wouldn’t just come from the public, it would come from friends as well, or acquaintances or people that I would know in passing who had heard about the story. I mean, it was an inescapable reality that I had faced on top of what was happening, just this lack of understanding and compassion, that was suffocating. But again, I knew that what they were doing was wrong. And I knew that there needed to be justice. Justice, not just for me, but for everyone because I knew that I wasn’t the only person that this was happening to. And so, I kept speaking out. I kept talking to the media. I kept putting myself out there knowing the costs that would come to me. I advocated for laws to change, I petitioned, I contacted my state and federal MPs.
I didn’t stop talking about it. I didn’t stop talking about it even though it came at a cost. And so, it reached a point where leaders started listening and I was referred to the New South Wales Attorney General’s Office who were already in the process of drafting laws relating to this abuse. New South Wales, for the first time had—of all the laws in the world relating to this—included a specific section on altered images. And I ended up standing with the New South Wales Attorney General as he announced the criminalisation of image-based sexual abuse in New South Wales. I stood with the WA Attorney General as he announced the criminalisation of image-based sexual abuse in WA. And I met with the Foreign Minister of Australia, Julie Bishop, to talk to her about the criminalisation of image-based abuse across Australia. I petitioned the Commonwealth Parliament to criminalise this, and I got a response from them.
And so, soon enough—not because of what I had done, but because of the efforts of a lot of people—today image-based sexual abuse is criminalised across Australia. Australia is leading the global charge in this fight. You will be punished if you distribute intimate images that have been altered. So, images like the ones of me, you will be punished if you distribute intimate images that have been shared without consent. You will be punished if you record intimate images of someone without consent. This is where we are at as a country. And I’m so proud of Australia for doing that, but again, it doesn’t stop because perpetrators, if they want to target you, they can. And so, even though I have been a public advocate, and even though my story is known, the perpetrators—in an attempt to silence me and taunt me—have gone and created deep fake videos of me.
There’s one where I’m performing oral sex and the image used is literally me at the age 17. That is the face they have used where they have put that image into a video form of me performing oral sex. They have then edited another video of me having sexual intercourse with ‘big black cock’ and the title and the tags used, identify me: Noelle Martin, Australia. You know, they completely and absolutely link me to these fake videos and fake images. And while it would have hurt me before on such a deep level, I know that they can’t touch me anymore and I know that they can try all they want but they cannot bring me down. And I think that’s one of the most powerful things that I’ve learnt from this journey that I think everyone should know, is that no matter how tough it gets, no matter how powerless you feel, no matter what life throws at you, there is nothing too big that you can’t overcome.
People can go and steal your identity and degrade you, dehumanise you, on a permanent level, so that for the rest of time that is what employers and friends and family are going to see when they look at your name. That is what my future children will see when they look at my name, but that is not too big for me to overcome. And although it has changed me, it has not destroyed me. And so, I want people to know—people that might be going through the same thing, or people who might be feeling like something is just so overwhelming to them—that they have power and they have strength inside them. And all it takes is a little belief in themselves, a little bit of hope, a little bit of courage, somehow, and good things can come. And I think that I am the strongest and most empowered I’ve ever been despite it all. And so, if I can do it, if I can feel that way, then we all can.