In March, one of British journalist Ash Sarkar’s Twitter followers informed her there were “hatewank” videos featuring images of her on a porn website. One of the videos was titled “racist hatewank for Ash Sarkar” and it had been uploaded onto xHamster.
It was during a time when there was a particular uptick in racist online harassment targeting Sarkar, who’s a prominent political journalist and broadcaster in the UK. As a Muslim woman, she is frequently subjected to racist, misogynistic, and highly sexualised abuse. “The racist hatewank was literally a guy masturbating to images of me,” Sarkar told me over the phone. “After I’d read this tweet that it was out there, my partner was the one who looked it up to confirm that it was all there.” Sarkar discovered that photographs of her wearing bikinis had been taken from her personal Instagram account and featured in this video.
You might not have heard of “hatewank pornography” before now, but a quick and inadvisable Google search will throw up scores of videos of men masturbating over photos of women in the public eye — often high-profile women of colour. In the videos, the person masturbating ejaculates on the image of the woman. Some videos are titled “racist hatewank,” “racial hatewank,” or “degrading hatewank.” In my research, I discovered hatewank videos targeting journalists and TV presenters including BBC presenter Naga Munchetty, political editor of BBC News Laura Kuenssberg, TV presenter Holly Willoughby, and TV and radio presenter Kirsty Young. The videos also targeted public figures including Duchess of Sussex Meghan Markle, UK Home Secretary Priti Patel, actor Maisie Williams, musician Ariana Grande, and actor Gal Gadot.
Sarkar’s partner looked into how to get the video taken down and discovered that she could flag a copyright infringement with xHamster because the images were taken from her personal Instagram. “I sent them an email and, to their credit, very quickly, they took it down,” Sarkar said.
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This wasn’t the first time images from Sarkar’s Instagram had been used in this way. Last year, she’d discovered that someone had created online galleries of “creepshots” of her — photos and screenshots that focus, in particular, on the cleavage and legs of women who are on television. Sarkar told me she’s been aware for some time there was a corner of the internet that had a way of looking at women’s bodies in a way that went beyond the simple “I fancy this famous person.” She described these galleries as creepy and dehumanising in the way the photos zoomed right into women’s cleavage, and assessed the sagginess or roundness of their breasts. “You’re just like, this isn’t what I signed up for,” she told me. “But I never really gave it a great deal of thought.”
The hatewank video managed to surpass the degradation that the creepshots galleries had tried to achieve. “It had even become somehow more disgusting and degrading than the cleavage shots because this was all about a way of expressing hatred and expressing disdain for someone,” said Sarkar. “It has more in common with wanting to demean and degrade rather than an enjoyment of somebody’s appearance or anything else.”
“A manifestation of impotent rage”
Professor Clarissa Smith from Sunderland University — who specialises in research on sexually explicit media and pornography — told me hatewank porn is “a quite extreme form of trolling, amplifying expressions of dislike for an individual (often a celebrity, though of course not just limited to the famous).” Hatewank videos form part of a broader category of “tribute” videos, Smith said.
Tribute videos — also known as “cum tribute” videos — are similar in format to hatewank content. They feature someone masturbating over an image of someone famous and end with them ejaculating on the photo. Tribute videos, more broadly, are intended to “flatter the person who has ‘inspired’ the wanking session,” Smith told me, whereas the intent behind hatewank videos is to insult the subject of the video. “The hatewank is a kind of spectacle, a manifestation of impotent rage,” said Smith. “Its sensation relies on the idea that someone is so enraged by another that they would want to ejaculate on them and there’s a quite complex range of affective bodily responses being invoked here for viewers — of being ‘shocked’ and ‘horrified’ that someone is being ‘defiled’ in this way.” In these videos, the act of ejaculating on the photo serves to demean and degrade. “Semen is a bodily fluid and when ‘in the wrong place’ is considered disgusting so you can see how the hatewank functions as an expression of putting someone down,” said Smith.
“Visually, tribute videos — whether of the celebratory or hateful kind — really only work if there is the ejaculation shot so, of course, gender has a role,” explained Smith. But she caveats that not all videos feature women “on the receiving end of the wank or the tribute” — “there are plenty of videos which feature male recipients and a whole genre of inanimate objects in receipt of the ‘tribute.'” Smith does, however, think women are more likely to feature in these types of video.
These videos belong to a longstanding “tradition of raging against women” who are outspoken and opinionated. “There are long histories of the use of sex, sexual innuendo, and insults to silence women and some of these videos take their place in that form of bringing women down,” said Smith. “There are connections to the ways in which the fastest means of insulting a woman is to suggest she isn’t chaste, that she is a slut. And the intersections with race and class are certainly there too.”
In hatewank videos, racism and misogyny unite to sexualise the subject as a means of silencing and degrading them. “The majority of the racist abuse that I get online has a microscopic attention to my body,” said Sarkar. “Lots of it is about whether or not I have facial hair, hairy legs, hairy arms or anything else. And then there’s the stuff speculating on the colour of my genitals and anus.” Sarkar added that Diane Abbott, the UK’s longest-serving Black female MP, has been subjected to racist, sexualised abuse that aims to “position her as non-feminine, animalistic, and disgusting.”
“And that’s not something which is new for Black women and women of colour throughout history.” Sarkar said the internet has amplified “the way in which Black and Brown women’s bodies are traduced and denigrated in mainstream culture”.
So, what legal chance have you got?
While Sarkar succeeded in using copyright infringement as a means of getting the content removed from xHamster, one law firm told me there are very few legal avenues that lead to the removal of such content. “Women in public life who are the target of hatewank pornography — either of their own images or deepfakes— will find that their legal options are limited, and often ineffective,” said Emily McFadden from the . “This is due to its nature, its accessibility, the perpetrators’ anonymity online, and that perpetrators often post images/videos on multiple sites. Practically, it’s almost impossible to completely remove media once it’s been posted online.
“The police can investigate and prosecute those who disclose private sexual photographs and films with intent to cause distress,” added McFadden. “However, in order to be considered a ‘private sexual photo’ and therefore an offence, an image or film has to be capturing something ‘not ordinarily seen in public.’ Therefore, if for example, footage of a woman being interviewed has been tampered with to make it appear sexually provocative, the offence does not apply.”
McFadden added that some actions may be covered by malicious or false communications offences, depending on the circumstances. “If the victim created the image or footage themselves and posted it on social media only for it to have been re-purposed as ‘hatewank’ pornography, they may also be able to use copyright laws to have the edited sexualised media removed from the hosting site,” said McFadden. “Legal action may be possible for civil and criminal cases to be brought against perpetrators for harassment if the posting of these images has been part of a ‘course of conduct.'”
Asked if she has any advice for someone on the receiving end of this type of harassment, Sarkar offered some wise words. “The really, really important thing is to have people around you who really, really love you, who would also perhaps be the ones to take it upon themselves to look at it,” she said. “That was something that was really helpful that my boyfriend did.”