The sour case of the Italian shaming-induced suicide of an exhibitionist

Tiziana Cantone

I admit that, when the news flash appeared on my screen, I couldn’t immediately realize its significance. ‘Tiziana Cantone killed herself’, it said, but given how the newsfeeds are but an endless and anesthetizing barrage of assorted deaths and tragedies my gut reaction was, like many others’, cynically blasé: «I’m sorry for her, but who the hell was she?»

That name however joggled something in my mind, and only by associating the euphemisms contained in the full news text with last year’s events I finally understood what had happened. The 31-years old woman had become famous in my home country last April, when a bunch of her porn videos appeared online. Some of them looked rather professional, but one in particular was so accidentally hilarious that it had become viral.
The smartphone-shot clip saw her busy giving oral sex in a parked car. She was so enthusiastic that a couple of passerbys even complained about the display, but the highlight came when – in the midst of a slew of insults toward her unknowingly cuckolded boyfriend – she raised her gaze and breathlessly stated: «Are you making a video? Good!” Actually, she said ‘bravoh!’ – a more praising Italian equivalent made very funny-sounding by that final exhalation which attached so many breathy ‘H’s to the end of the word. The phrase had immediately become a meme, used in pictures, stand-up routines and even in parody songs and on t-shirts. All of them with her full name accompanying the words, courtesy of some jerks who had quickly dug up her personal data. Pretty much everyone had a jolly laugh, and moved on while the meme occasionally resurfaced.

What actually happened after that unexpected moment of celebrity is surfacing only now, with the articles which are being published in these hours containing quotes from unsettling legal documents. Turned into the target of hypocritical jokes from all over the country, Tiziana had to flee her job in her parents’ shop near Napoli and had resettled 500 kilometers away, in Tuscany. There she appealed to what the Italian law calls ‘right to oblivion’, the deleting of any online copy of her video and mention of her infamous name. So infamous, in fact, that she had also tried to legally change it in order not to be associated anymore to that embarrassing performance.
The answer was characteristically slow, though. The first confirmations of deletion by a bunch of search engines and social networks had apparently came in just a couple of weeks ago, but by that time the stress had already become too much. Exhausted by the online persecution and the prospect of a shaky future, a few days ago the woman had tried to threw herself out of a window. Yesterday her second suicide attempt was only discovered when it was too late.

The reactions from the so-called “keyboard lions” have been predictably immediate and fiercely violent. I refuse to link to them, but many commented “she had asked for it”; others even rejoyced at the news of the death of an “immoral female”; somebody invoked the right to make any behavior public without being judged; kooks offered their convoluted conspiracy theories; and above all countless perfect parents, laudable people and spotless citizens are rabidly demanding exemplary punishments, tortures and execution for all the world’s “sluts”. It is curious how all of these moralists are perfectly familiar with that video’s contents.

Leaving the business of useless rants to these exquisite nobodies, what struck me in this sad episode is how it happened right in the middle of an international debate about online exhibitionism. Just a few weeks ago, the British newspaper The guardian wondered abou the effect of the pervasivity of sexy selfies among the youth: are they still improper if everybody takes them, or have they lost any scandal value? The theory is that today a human resources manager discovering the fetish photos of a job candidate online would probably get a bad impression, but in one generation time they could be a meaningless item, just like going to the beach wearing the same bikini that would have our ancestors fainting.
In the same days Pamela Anderson, ex Playboy playmate who got rich by bouncing her tits on Baywatch and thanks to a legendary sex tape, was booming against pornography claiming that women must not use their sex appeal to empower them. The American porn star Asa Akira had instead just confessed to Vice her dilemma: she’d want to become a mother, but she’s afraid to ruin her kid’s life with her “anal queen” fame. In short, managing your private pictures in the Internet era is more complicated than it looks, and a common worry. It’s not a coincidence that porn expert Violet Blue’s best seller is a girls’ guide about this.

As the abstract discussion continues, you can’t even forget its more concrete forms. On the one hand we have the strict legal push against the revenge porn phenomenon, that is the publication of private photos and videos for the purpose of humiliating or downright blackmailing people. A large part of the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom are on the forefront of the fight against this practice, closely followed by the rest of the world. The public support is so huge it allowed a 14-years old girl to sue a giant like Facebook on a fuzzy “lack of vigilance” ground and be set win.
At the same time however the phenomenon of online extreme exhibitionism is on the rise too, with several persons publishing not only their nude and porn pictures, but even their personal information corroborated by their actual IDs. Their motivation is undoubtedly erotic, but for many of them it is also a political act, to denounce hypocrisy and the surveillance business and how it destroyed the very concept of privacy.

It is clear how, in such a complex historical and cultural situation, so faceted and depending on technologies which are still too new to fully understand their consequences, it is impossible to completely frame the issue. It would be nice to have a simple recipe to solve the problem of online exposure – volountary or not. For me, born well in the previous century, it is natural to think «you must never save on digital media any material that might one day embarrass you», but I cans see how it places a heavy limit on human creativity, not to mention how such a solution clashes with my belief that you should never be ashamed of your sexuality.
«Who cares what the people think» is a similarly dumb motto: sexophobia and discrimination may hit in the most unexpected ways, as I discovered myself when I became the casus belli for a crazy parliamentary interrogation aimed to ban scientific education about non-normative sexualities. If I don’t like appearing in pictures is also because I grew tired of threats (and in a couple of cases, of physical aggressions) from fanatics, so I sure won’t be the one to encourage people to take risks for futile ideals.
I suppose the right answer sits somewhere in the middle and it is different for each one of us, depending on the context we live in and considering how we might live in the future.

Back to the news, nobody even knows how Tiziana’s story really went. Was that infamous viral video really published by mistake, or was it an exhibitionism game that got out of hand? Somebody wrote that the other videos suggested a tentative debut in porn and a late change of mind. The only certainty is that no innocuous erotic romp should be paid such a high price.

Among so many unknowns about the woman, the videos, the phenomenon in general and the future of digital communication, there is actually one more sure thing. Something we have complete control over and we always had.
I’m talking about simple, mundane manners. Or, should this sound too quaint for you, about the most basic respect for our fellow human beings. However you look at it, undoubtably there was no reason at all to transform a silly blunder into unending psychological torture for its protagonist.

I am not referring to the jokes among friends or the links we shared with them. Those were almost inevitable behaviors in the Global Village, and it would be hypocritical to deny that. They are however very different from the stalking Tiziana reportedly suffered in her hometown, with constant insults thrown at her and her innocent family. Or, limiting ourselves to the online world, from the half a million webpages Google says are dedicated to the ‘bravoh’ catchphrase; from the 146,000 videos containing that phrase in their title; from the juvenile parodies and the merciless clickbaiting tenacity that continued even when the news of the desperate run of the woman had been widely reported.
Picking on someone who got caught literally with their pants down and begs to be left alone, harass somebody for their sexual preferences, react with such viciousness and lack of respect to a bit of harmless exhibitionism isn’t “fun”. It’s bullying. No excuse can justify it.

While we wait for the world to evolve and learn to deal with the existence of sexuality, maybe we could all think about this and start our own evolution.

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