For our Global Societies project, reporters around the world will be writing about societal problems, sustainability and development in Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe. The series will include features, analyses, photo essays, videos and podcasts looking behind the curtain of globalization. The project is generously funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Olimpia Coral always thought that she would become a “good woman,” that she would get married and have children – and otherwise keep her “legs closed,” as she says. But when she was just 18 years old, everyone suddenly knew what she looked like naked.
Her boyfriend at the time had passed along an intimate video of her – he can’t be identified in the shot. The video quickly began spreading on Facebook and WhatsApp like a wildfire through the idyllic, conservative town of Huauchinango, in the Mexican state of Puebla, where Coral grew up.
Then, newspapers caught wind of the supposed sex scandal and wrote about the good student who was allegedly “used up” and printed lurid photos of her on the front page. Her name became a hashtag, social media users had their say and porno sites published copies of the video. And hundreds of thousands of people – both acquaintances and strangers alike – saved the video and shared it further. “It felt like being raped without your body being touched,” Coral, now in her late 20s, says in a telephone interview. “Over and over again.”
Machismo and all kinds of violence against women are day-to-day facts of life for women in Mexico. Every year, thousands of women are brutally murdered, with domestic violence and homicides having increased further during the pandemic. Mexican society often blames the victims – because they behaved improperly, because they were out by themselves, because they met up with men or because they were wearing indecent clothing.
Continuing Protests in the Pandemic
In an attempt to decry such misogyny and violence, a large women’s movement has developed in Latin America in recent years, staging frequent demonstrations before the coronavirus put a stop to large gatherings. In Mexico, activists and victims have continued to protest during the pandemic, even occupying the offices of numerous human rights commissions in addition to other actions.
Still, too little attention is being paid worldwide to the relatively new phenomenon of digital violence, despite the fact that sexual assault on the web – in the form of harassment, threats of rape, the dissemination of personal information or naked photos, or even surveillance using spy software – can have brutal consequences.
Perpetrators can destroy a woman’s reputation or feeling of self-worth, they stalk and threaten them online or they use their personal information to track them down in real life. Violent partners terrorize their girlfriends and wives, sometimes even using web-controlled household items like speakers or heating systems to harass them. Or they install spy apps on their phones or those of their children so the victims can even be found if they flee to a women’s refuge.
The recently published report “Free to Be Online?” by Plan International found that more than half of the 14,000 girls and young women surveyed worldwide have experienced online harassment or abuse. They are unable to continue to be active on the internet without being attacked or watched. One in four victims report fearing for their physical safety as well.
This form of digital violence is apparently growing at the moment as well. Olimpia Coral and others are documenting such cases in Mexico and say that they receive five to eight reports each day, whereas they documented an average of three incidents a day prior to the corona crisis.
“During the crisis, we have shifted much of our lives and our intimacy to the internet,” Coral says, and that has increased the potential for online abuse.
“The Virtual Is Real”
When the video of Coral went public, other students, co-workers and even perfect strangers on the street would make fun of her – and blamed her for the fact that such a video existed in the first place. She lost her job as an assistant for a local political party because she would allegedly have a bad influence. Men would ask her for sex and downloaded photos of her from her Facebook page. “People hypersexualized me, they didn’t see me as a victim at all, nor did they view what happened as violence,” Coral says. “But the virtual is real.”
She shut herself up at home for months. She says she felt like a convict herself and thought about taking her own life. Only when it became clear to her that many girls and women had suffered through similar experiences – a realization that came from her discovery of more and more websites on which intimate photos of women were posted and rated – did she recognize that she was a victim and hadn’t done anything wrong.
“As a girl from a poor, indigenous family in conservative surroundings, I didn’t realize for quite some time that I have a right to intimacy,” says Coral. “I needed someone at the time to tell me that I didn’t have to be afraid and that it wasn’t my fault – that it was a crime to share the video without my consent.”
She sounds combative over the phone, open and energetic. She has a powerful voice and laughs frequently and loudly – indeed, as a girl she was repeatedly told to quiet down and that only “vulgar women” laughed that loud. In Huauchinango, it is considered unseemly for girls and young women to stand around on the street in front of school or their homes – like prostitutes.
Going to the Police
“You grow up with these clichés, and the thing you are most afraid of is belonging to the whores, the bad women and exhibitionists,” Coral says. “I also thought that feminists were just women that men hated.”
She was panicked by the idea that her family might see the video and tried to keep its existence secret. Her mother is illiterate and doesn’t use the internet, but one Sunday, her 14-year-old brother outed her by laying his smartphone on the table and playing the video.
When her mother started crying, Olimpia Coral cried along with her, sank to her knees, apologized and asked her mother to help her die. The reaction came as a surprise: Her mother responded that everybody had sex. “The only difference is,” her mother said, “that people can now watch you having sex.” That doesn’t make Olimpia a bad person, her mother continued.
“The women of my family were the first to offer their support instead of condemning me,” Coral says.
Coral mustered the courage to go to the police. As she sat across from the officer at his desk, he watched the video and even brought over some other officers. Once again, her private life was on full display to complete strangers – just that this time she had to watch them watch.
The policeman then asked if she had taken any drugs or if she had been drunk. She replied in the negative. He asked her if it had been consensual sex. “I said yes, and again felt like a criminal,” Coral recalls. He replied that there was nothing he could do since the sharing of videos wasn’t against the law.
Her only option was to take the initiative.
A short time later, when she was in her early 20s, Coral left her hometown for the capital of Mexico City. She didn’t have a job or money and initially stayed with friends, but for the first time in her life, she felt understood, while “everyone in Puebla denounced me.” Together with other victims, lawyers and women who work with victims of violence, she founded the feminist collective Frente Nacional para la Sororidad.
Coral and the others allied with local women’s movements and examined the forms that digital violence could take before then pushing politicians to change the laws. The result was Ley Olimpia, a package of reforms bearing Olimpia’s name. For the first time, digital violence was recognized as a crime, with punishments ranging from a fine to a multiyear prison sentence.
And it’s not just the perpetrators themselves – but also those who produce intimate video or audio without permission or who pass along jointly produced material without permission – who will be held liable. Those who spread such material, reproduce it or seek to profit from it are as well.
In 2018, Puebla, the state that Coral left behind, became the first state in Mexico to implement Ley Olimpia. Since then, 27 of 31 Mexican states have adopted the reform and the Senate recently approved the introduction of the reform at the federal level. Beyond that, Coral says, there is a widespread lack of established procedures instructing police how to approach digital crimes and how to deal with the victims.
Olimpia Coral has become a full-time activist, earning her living with workshops and lectures on digital violence. She is difficult to reach and often works late into the night. Sometimes, she and her co-campaigners are verbally, and sometimes physically, abused and she had thought about giving up because of the amount of hate that comes her way, Coral says.
“In this country, people get angry when women decide for themselves how they want to live and assert themselves, that’s why they threaten us with violence,” Coral believes. “This video almost cost me my life. Now, it gives me incentive to keep living.”
Coral has broken off contact with most of her old friends from Huauchinango and she hates going there because of all the bad memories it dredges up. She does, though, speak regularly with her family and says she misses her grandmother the most at the moment, since she hasn’t been able to visit her recently due to the pandemic. “Sometimes, I think that my family doesn’t truly understand what it is I am doing,” she says. “But I know they are proud of me.”
The Ley Olimpia legal reforms have already produced initial legal proceedings and guilty verdicts have been passed down in at least four states. In June 2020, for example, a 24-year-old was sentenced to three years in prison and required to pay a fine – in addition to having to pay damages to the victim. He had been selling naked photos over social media of students at his university.
For Olimpia Coral, though, the legal reforms are more than just a collection of laws, they amount to a movement that is both making digital violence visible and aims to change views of women and their intimacy. It is also a personal triumph – because even those who long thought Coral was crazy have been forced to see that she was right all along.
This piece is part of the Global Societies series. The project runs for three years and is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
The Global Societies series involves journalists reporting from Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe about injustices in a globalized world, societal challenges and sustainable development. The features, analyses, photo essays, videos and podcasts, which originally appeared in DER SPIEGEL’s Foreign Desk section, will also appear in the Global Societies section of SPIEGEL International. The project is initially planned to run for three years and receives financial support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) is funding the project for a period of three years at a total cost of around €2.3 million.
No. The foundation exerts no influence whatsoever on the stories and other elements that appear in the series.
Yes. Large European media outlets like the Guardian and El País have similar sections on their websites — called “Global Development” and “Planeta Futuro,” respectively — that are likewise funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
In recent years, DER SPIEGEL has complete two projects with the support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the European Journalism Centre (EJC): “Expedition BeyondTomorrow,” about global sustainability goals, and the journalist refugee project “The New Arrivals,” which resulted in several award-winning multimedia features on the issues of migrants and refugees.