A generation of girls is now being sexually corrupted by the web
Insecure and desperate for male attention, Becky was just 15 when she began meeting strangers for sex via the internet. Sadly, her story is becoming all too common…
00:02 GMT, 19 April 2012
Low self-esteem: When she was a teenager, Becky became addicted to having sex with strangers she met online to boost her confidence
Alone in a hotel room with a man she’d met only half-an-hour earlier, Becky Stevens knew it was too late to back out. For six months, the 15-year-old had been chatting online to ‘Stuart’ after meeting him on an internet dating site.
As part of their virtual courtship, Stuart — who claimed to be 24 — lavished her with compliments and asked her to send increasingly provocative photos of herself. Desperate for his approval, she complied.
Now that he had paid Becky’s train fare to travel 200 miles to meet him, it was clear he expected her to have sex with him. And even though she didn’t want to, she still went ahead.
Becky says: ‘We’d been chatting for a
few months and sent sexual messages to each other a few times so,
although it seems so stupid now, real sex seemed like the obvious next
step. But my first thought when I saw him was: “Oh God, he looks nothing
like his picture.” He wasn’t attractive and looked more like 40. But,
still, we went straight to the hotel and had sex. I recall feeling
nervous, but it was over quickly.
‘Afterwards, he paid for the room and we said goodbye at the station. We never saw each other again. I cried on the train going home, because I felt so disgusted with myself. My mum thought I was over at my friend’s house the whole time.’
It would be easy to assume that such a degrading experience would put Becky off internet ‘dating’ for ever. But as an overweight, insecure teenager, she was desperate for the empty compliments that were showered on her in return for sexual favours — and the encounter was to mark the start of a five-year addiction to having sex with men she met on the internet.
'I felt degraded but, at the same time, I was hooked on the excitement and craved attention'
Becky’s story is all the more alarming as she is not only from a loving home, but also a good student who achieved As and Bs at GCSEs. At night, she was trawling up to seven different dating sites, exchanging explicit messages and allowing herself to be filmed stripping and carrying out sex acts — what is known as ‘cybersex’. Like many parents, her family was unaware how she was spending her time online.
Despite the obvious dangers, between the ages of 15 and 20 Becky met 40 men — strangers, ranging from teenagers to married men in their late 40s — for sex in often risky situations.
Becky, who lives near Exeter with her widowed mother, a childminder, says: ‘We’d check into cheap hotels, or they’d drive me somewhere and we’d have sex in the car. The men were always in charge, they’d obviously been watching a lot of porn and would ask me to replicate things they’d seen in videos.
‘The sex was awful, they never asked me if I enjoyed it — and I never saw them again. I felt degraded but, at the same time, I was hooked on the excitement and craved attention.’
During her assignations, Becky’s mother thought she was staying with friends. While she has since confessed about her secret life, they have found it too awkward to discuss it in depth.
But Becky is now choosing to speak out because, when she eventually told her friends about the mistakes she had made, it transpired that she was far from the only one who had become involved with strangers over the internet. Now she wants to help expose the appalling reality of the online traps awaiting teenage girls.
Online dating dangers: Girls could be fooled into meeting men who have lied about their age and appearance and groomed them for sex (posed by model)
Earlier this month, a 14-year-old boy from Gloucestershire was arrested after posting a porn film on Facebook featuring himself and a girl of the same age. Police warned that such incidents were a growing national problem. Indeed, a recent study by the University of Plymouth found that there is a generation of young women whose attitude to sex is being corrupted through new technology.
Researchers at the university found that one in ten 16 to 24-year-olds have used the internet to set up one-night stands with strangers. Half of those surveyed have carried out explicit sexual behaviour over a webcam, while 40 per cent of 11 to 18-year-olds questioned admitted knowing friends who engage in ‘sexting’ — sending explicit messages or photos between mobile phones.
So, what is driving a generation of teenage girls to exploit themselves in such a disturbing and degrading fashion
Becky’s own descent into this terrifying world began at the age of 15, when her boyfriend, to whom she lost her virginity, dumped her and made cruel taunts about her size 16 figure. She took refuge in anonymous chat rooms, controlling her image with flattering photographs.
'For many young people, these days, their first sexual experience will be online'
For a girl with little self-belief it was an easy way to boost her confidence and, with her limited relationship experience, she mistook prurient sexual interest for love. ‘I’d come home from school, log on to the internet and my online boyfriends would ask how I was,’ she explained.
‘The fact that all these men found me attractive was a major confidence boost. I loved the attention they lavished on me when they tried to woo me. It was utterly addictive.’
When the Mail went on to two of the most popular free dating websites, Plenty of Fish and OK Cupid, their true nature quickly became clear. When we posted pictures of a respectably dressed Daily Mail writer under a false name, the profile attracted more than 70 messages within an hour from men wishing to indulge in sex — cyber or real.
Worryingly, while the sites are intended for over 18s, neither conducted verifiable age checks. With the online porn and dating industries exploding — the latter is worth 2.5 billion worldwide — experts are increasingly worried that extreme, and often risky, sexual behaviour among young people is being normalised by the internet. To add to concerns, mobile ‘dating apps’ are being created which allow people to locate strangers in a specific geographical area for ‘hook-ups’.
The University of Plymouth study was published just days after an inquest earlier this year heard that bullied teenager Simone Grice, 15, of Illogan, Cornwall, killed herself by leaping off a motorway viaduct after trying to bolster her self-esteem by meeting older men online. She is believed to have jumped after one person tried to sever contact with her, because she was under-age.
Professor Andrew Phippen, who led the research, believes such early exposure to sex as a soulless transaction — where pictures of body parts are traded over the internet like currency — distorts young women’s views of sex and relationships.
Toxic technology: The development of the internet and web cams means young people are easily exposed to cyber sex (posed by model)
For Jonathan Baggaley, head of education at the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, the biggest danger for young girls is the increasing use of webcams, which are now fitted to even the most basic computers. He says: ‘For many young people, these days, their first sexual experience will be online.
‘It’s now very easy for a flirty conversation over a dating website to be turned into a webcam conversation that can lead them to being persuaded to do more and more online. A natural and important part of growing up is taking risks. But exercising these risks online can have serious consequences. Young people can easily go on sites where they can connect with strangers — sometimes six or seven at one time.’
Verity, 16, an A-level student from Cheshire, has been using MySpace, MSN Messenger and online chat rooms to meet men for two years. She admits it’s become a round-the-clock preoccupation as she’s constantly inundated with messages. Like Becky, while she gets little attention from boys at school, in cyberspace there’s no shortage of admirers. Despite her young age, she has slept with five men ranging in age from 18 to 31, and had cybersex with many more.
Verity says: ‘Once you start, it’s easy to get hooked on the attention. I log on to these sites every hour to see who’s messaged me. With a mobile phone and laptop, there’s nothing to stop me talking to guys when I’m in class. The first words people usually ask are: “Do you have pictures”, by which they mean a shot of your face and ones of you topless.’
'I wish I’d known earlier that sex wasn’t
a way to get love. My advice to other young girls is just not to have
any online sexual encounters with men'
When a boy called Mark, from a neighbouring school, contacted Verity through Facebook last year, she was flattered. What happened next illustrates how distorted her view of sex has become. ‘He told me how beautiful I was and, after we’d flirted over webcam, we met up,’ she recalls. ‘We went for a walk, but it started to rain so he suggested going back to his house as his parents were out.
‘But then I felt a huge pressure to live up to the sexy online persona I’d created, so I didn’t tell him I was a virgin when we slept together. In chat rooms, I say I’m more experienced than I am. Mark and I met up for a few months, until I saw messages on his computer from other girls and realised I was far from the only one.’
She says she has learned the hard way that sex in a loving relationship does far more for her self-esteem than cheap encounters. But it’s not just naive young girls desperate to shore up their self-confidence who are drawn into ‘dating’ websites. Older, supposedly more confident girls use them, too.
Sarah Bond, a pretty 20-year-old drama student at Portsmouth University, says: ‘I joined OK Cupid because it was real trend at uni. I’d get 60 messages on my email from guys saying: “Hey Babe” and “How are You” It’s like being in a virtual nightclub. Even though you don’t fancy some of the guys, you still like the attention.’
Although her friend Sarah Packer, also a 21-year-old student, does not go on dating sites, she says sending revealing pictures to potential suitors these days is simply an expected part of flirting — ‘just part of the tease’. She says: ‘It’s a way of being cheeky and grabbing guys’ attention. It’s now built into the culture. As a generation, we are so connected to technology, we don’t notice it any more.’
She worries that while dating sites have security walls so they don’t come up in internet searches, there’s nothing to stop the men she sends photos to uploading them to sites and ‘tagging’ her name to them, for all to see.
They are not images she would want a prospective employer to see, but men these days often feel that without a naked photograph of their girlfriend on their phone it’s not a proper relationship — and a picture on a phone can soon be one that’s visible worldwide on the net. And what of the men who now have so many opportunities to exploit this sexual playground
According to Professor Phippen, girls often make the mistake of thinking that being sexually forward on the web gives them the upper hand. But, in his view, it is still very much a man’s world.
52 per cent of single British men and 48 per cent of unattached women have used the internet to find a date in the past 12 months
‘Really, it’s the lads who are in power. When we surveyed the men, we found there’s not a lot of respect going on in the way they describe girls. We are seeing that girls are more likely to be victims than boys.’
Professor Phippen is also deeply concerned that those indulging in this disturbing world are getting younger and younger, to the point where 11-year-olds will have cybersex and think it’s a normal part of their sexual development.
‘Younger children will start to do it because they see older children doing so, and it’s difficult to control that,’ he says. 'Technology means young people will soon be able to send videos directly from their mobile phones. This is not an issue that will go away.’
When Becky — now 24 — went away to university to study the media at 18, the unrestricted freedom to be online proved too tempting and she became a virtual recluse. ‘I had no real friends at university,’ she says. ‘The only social interaction I had was with men online.’
Falling into a deep depression, she gave up her degree, moved back home and now works as a shop assistant. She finally gave up her internet liaisons at 20, after she developed a romance with a male friend.
‘When we got together, I told him my whole history and promised to change for him. We were a couple for two years and, while we’ve since split up, we’ve remained good friends. It taught me about the importance of respect in a relationship. I grew up a lot and realised I didn’t want to go back to using dating websites.’
Becky adds: ‘For the past six months I’ve been in a stable relationship with a man I met through mutual friends. If I had my time again, I’d change it all. I’m ashamed about what I did, and it makes me feel very sad. I wish I’d known earlier that sex wasn’t a way to get love. My advice to other young girls is just not to have any online sexual encounters with men. Once you start, it’s very hard to stop.’
It’s a sentiment a generation of young women would do well to heed.
Some names in this article have been changed.