The Audience is Listening
Steve Vai, Passion and Warfare, 1990
The internet, my relationship with it, and matters of online security. Hmm, possibly not the most exciting of subjects to write about and yet desperately practical and important for so many of us to think about. Whilst much of what I will write could apply to anyone in any walk of life, there is a reality that development of IT and social media has been an important factor in the growth and expression of my female persona. The use and misuse of the internet is therefore intrinsically linked to my story such that it warrants its own blog. I will try not to lecture but show through my own examples some of the pros, some of the cons, and some things you might want to think about.
So why has the internet mattered so much to Stephanie Ashton?
Well let’s start with the positives. Back in 1993 I undertook a thesis at University that involved running endless non-linear dynamic scenarios to map the behaviour of chaotic impact devices. Deep huh? Yes, it was…I still have no idea to this day what it was all about. In any event. the creation of the impact "maps" involved using every PC in the computer lab, every night, for literally months on end. So, with time on my hands at night and being a sad geeky sort, I quickly descended onto the fledgling internet to hunt for everything that was naughty, in-between chasing blobby looking Tie-Fighters on the PC game “X-Wing.” As a result of this early geekiness, I found myself on the front end of the internet and sort of stayed there in terms of understanding how it could connect us, where to find best of everything, including you guessed it…all things trans.
When I finished university the internet was still quite basic, but within the next 2 years it took off in terms of connecting people, promoting business, and being a definitive source of dodgy information (no, your cold symptoms do not mean you have contracted cancer as stated on Netdoctor.) So I rode the internet wave and connected myself to everyone and everything I need to know about the trans world. So my all time favourite thing about the internet is that it revolutionised by female self through access to information, goods and lovely people to chat with/meet in real life. Without it – life would have been very different and possibly never flourished without the realisation that my desire was perfectly normal and there was lots of support out there.
As time progressed we moved from sharing slow messages in a chat room to social media platforms. Myspace was the first platform I used in a big way and it provided access to creating lovely sites with pictures, music, profiles and ability to connect to others. It is only my view but in many ways Myspace was superior to Facebook in design but hey-ho; it didn't keep up and fell out of fashion. It was through Myspace that I connected with many people who would go on to be great friends between 2003 and 2010. Since then I have used a number of different platforms, and these days Facebook and Instagram are my main haunts due to their wide spread popularity, in addition to having my own .com space on the web.
My second all time favourite thing about the internet is the relatively recent explosion of internet shopping and delivery. Being OCD, I track and plan everything to a ridiculous level of detail and can confidently state that 87% of all things trans I bought in 2018 came from online shops. That is quite surprising given how much I enjoy shopping in real life. Well I really should be more factual; it is a wonderful experience to be out shopping as a woman, looking at all things female without feeling awkward, trying on shoes and picking up the odd thing here and there. However, shopping in girl mode can be a huge hassle, as anyone who has attempted a Houdini-esque escape from a tight midi dress in the ladies change rooms can confirm. And so, internet shopping is ace. Tonnes of items delivered right to your door without the hassle of having to carry it around or attempt the great escape from a wiggle dress in Zara without losing all your make-up on the dress.
Okay, so that is great! Lots of positives. But what about the negatives, or more specifically the risks I have encountered...
There can be little doubt that the internet and social media developed way faster than human understanding of its potential positives and negatives. For many, myself included, we ventured happily onto the internet sharing information and talking about ourselves in an open and friendly manner. This was naïve…in the extreme.
Firstly, many of us enter into the delusion that we are in a safe, secure and anonymous environment and so present ourselves online with a certain “devil may care” attitude. This includes posting outrageous pictures and saying even more outrageous things with no thought to where all this information might end up, or the consequences. Of course, this is not a problem if you have nothing to lose, but that is almost certainly not the case for you the dear reader of this blog. For many trans peeps back then and even today, we are taking a big risk presenting our female personas online that could be damaging in the extreme to relationships and basically every aspect of our lives if exposed.
In the early days of the internet many of us simply did not understand the now obvious fact that once information was out on the internet, it could no longer be controlled. Nor were the sites we used very secure and, in many cases, could be broken into by just about any Tom, Dick or Harry. In my case being a humble sort, I also seriously doubted that anyone would be even remotely interested in me. And even if they were, anyone looking at a “tranny” could hardly then call them out, right? Wrong.
The other very serious error in thinking, and that many still have today, is the notion that the audience is a known quantity of like-minded and friendly people. This of course is complete rubbish. In fact, it is such an obvious break from the reality of life that it is not even amusing. The truth is that on many platforms, Instagram included, we have no idea who is looking at us, their motivations, values, behaviours or how they may act in response to the information we present. Dressers in particular are nearly always sexualised so one response to our images is quite obvious, and not always discouraged. However, presenting our best pictures of us all dolled up will also attract and encourage undesirables, the problem also faced by our genetic sisters.
So why am I writing about all of these obvious points…well they had a profound impact on Stephanie, and I want to now do some worked examples. Frankly, I would have preferred these had been a desktop exercises but as ever with me, I decided to experience these things in real life. Brilliant ):
In 2007 I encountered a particularly odorous man who, over the course of several months, continually turned up in my favourite pubs and clubs and pestered me non-stop. Fortunately, I was rarely alone, and this individual was dealt with in a strong and direct manner, on one occasional by friendly bouncers. This guy was rich, intelligent and sinister beyond belief. In fact, to give you some sort of idea how sinister he was, he had a frighteningly strong resemblance to Rufus Sewell’s Stalker character in the 1993 film "Dirty Weekend", a frankly abysmal film by the late Michael Winner. Worth a google...and yes, I do dream of being Bella.
At any rate, things really took a turn for the worse when said Stalker discovered my little home on the web. He would then write me numerous messages blah blah. No problems - they could be ignored and deleted. But it didn't end there. After my Stalker did some research and checked out my pictures, he quickly figured out roughly where I lived... and then started showing up in my street...frequently. It has just occurred to me that referring to a stalker as “my" is way to personal and makes him sound like a modern-day commodity doesn't it? How totally inappropriate! Sorry about that distraction, lets move on!
Now, being a 6-foot-tall ape descendant myself with the training to deal with any personal threat this situation should not have concerned me at all. However, there was something alarmingly deranged about this guy. I had a strong feeling he might be as hard to get rid of as Schwarzenegger’s Terminator. Well the fun did not end there and in summary after I contacted the police my modern-day accessory stalker threatened repeatedly to kill me for being a "grassing whore who deserved the grave." In the end I moved to a new house. In fact, I actually moved to a new country but that was partly driven by other decisions in my life. After that I never took published pictures which basically told the world where I lived.
Okay, so you are maybe thinking wow this is a mega extreme example and it would be inappropriate for everyone reading this to react to it. And you would be right - it was extreme, and I was very unfortunate to meet someone with the make-up of a serial killer. But I guess the moral of the story that is no matter how tough the guy underneath may be, as a dresser we are vulnerable and can attract the wrong attention. So, worth thinking about what you post where, and how that audience may use it.
Back in the Naughties I was super proud of my little Myspace account, how it played a cool song when it loaded up and how it contained ALL of my pictures and contacts from year 0 of being a tgirl. That was until I got hacked in 2010 and everything was destroyed. To say I was upset would be putting it mildly. At this point time I was generally feeling quite unhappy with dressing so when everything online was lost, I just thought "stuff it." It was the straw that broke the donkeys back and a dreaded purge followed.
Fortunately, at that time I was totally unaware of what had happened to all my pictures. Because they had not just been deleted. No, someone had kindly downloaded a lot of them and plastered them all over the internet. So much so, that when I next returned to dressing, it was immediately annoying the discover that fakers were presenting themselves using my old pictures! Even as recently as 2017 I rejected a friend request from a faker on TVChix who was using an old picture of me from early 2000's.
Lesson to be learned; always have a good back-up and don't publish lots of high-quality images that others can claim as there own. You may notice that these days I stamp my pictures in bid to fend off fakers. Yes, I acknowledge that it is not a fool proof measure to anyone with even basic photoshop skills. However, it does means anyone trying to take my photos has to do some work, so may choose an easier target.
In the previous two examples you could say that the outcome was partly a consequence of my own stupidity. And I would agree. I could have been more careful and not posted pictures of me at Altrincham tram station telling my stalker "look where I live!" Equally, I could have kept my pictures and personal information backed up on an external drive (as I do now), and not stored only on an online system, that had the security presence of JFKs motorcade detail. Anyway, in the next example the person involved did nothing wrong except fail to appreciate that the motives of the audience are not always known to us.
My good friend Ellen is a closet dresser who I have known for many years. She is lovely beyond belief with excellent values and a kind generous soul. Ellen is still happily married, no thanks I should add to the group of vicious female youtubers who exposed her publicly, in 2009, her boy name plastered over female pics, and even where she worked. This was also at a time in the UK when there was a lot of national press about lack of management of paedophiles out in the community. Well the vigilantes who exposed her also played the card that she was a deviant using similar rhetoric to that used in the media to inflame the paedophile issue. Are there laws to protect us against such abuse...yes retrospectively...but as the old saying goes, many will always think "no smoke without fire." This was a quite unique and nasty incident but a real-life example of what can happen. Needless to say, my friend Ellen still dresses but she does not keep any pictures online.
Now this example is not intended to frighten as I acknowledge it is again extreme. However, it should maybe give us cause to stop and reflect...do you know for example who all those faceless friends are on your various platforms? What are their motives?
I am not preaching a course of action, but I will share my own response to this terrible event. Typically, I will not accept friends on my main platform Facebook, without a requester having at least a 5-6 good face shots which are obviously of a real person. Following the excellent advice of Tina Martini, I also check if requesters have a high number of mutual friends which would indicate they are genuine people known within our community. This rule set is not bullet proof of course, but for me provides some level of filtering. Interestingly, some tgirls refuse entire groups for example, male admirers. For myself, I do not take this approach and am happy to be friends with anyone so long as they are open and genuine about who they are. It is only the faceless "watchers" that I am wary about.
Oh, I love both the platform Facebook and Apple technology is the best. But you know, they really can be a bit forward at times. What do I mean?
Okay so let’s imagine the scenarios where you have a boy Facebook account and secretly a dresser, Facebook account for connecting to wonderful people like, say for example me! Well, I strongly recommend that you never put your boy mobile phone number into the dresser Facebook account. It is also a good idea to avoid using the same web browser to access both your boy and girl accounts. Why? Well, super considerate Facebook thinks "Ahh, you must know each other but aren't connected - lets be friends!" The next thing to happen, that you will most likely be blissfully unaware of, is that Facebook now suggests girl-you as a possible “Friend" to your boy contacts. Not good. In some cases, I have heard Facebook even offers some of your tgirl close contacts to your boy contacts as well. Not good at all.
In the same manner it is important to be careful with Apple devices. They are worse for gossiping than a group of Aberdonian fishwives. For example, another good friend of mine had her phone locked down, like seriously, it was Fort Knox of the iPhone world. That was until she left it charging in the back of the family Mac. Can you guess what happens next? Oh yes! My friend’s wife sits down at the Mac to do some accounting whereupon the super considerate Mac pops up with a window saying something along the lines of "would you like to download the pictures from this iPhone?" At this point, the wife was probably thinking "not really" but now you are offering "why not!" Whereupon, this poor lady discovered to her shock that "her man" was in fact "her woman." Not good either. Not good at all.
So, I will pop off now to re-check my own Security settings but not before I restate that my purpose of this write up was not to scare everyone, but to share my experiences and prompt thought. Maybe this blog will make you reconsider if your current privacy settings and controls are appropriate for the level of risk you are taking in showing your femme self to the world.
There are other wonderful girls-like-us out there who have written really great articles about online security and how to avoid exposing yourself, so to speak. I would strongly recommend reading the fine blog [Advice] I’ve Flickr’d my Tweets, and been Zuckerberg’d….. by Sarah Lewis, on her site https://transretrogurl.com.
Be safe out there...and handbags at dawn for anyone else claiming to be me with my old pictures :D