Seeking.com, journalistic integrity, and stigmatisation - a student's encounter with Edinburgh Live
Writing: Lydia Willcocks
Illustration: Abigail Featherstone
Disclaimer: the article in question is still up, and still features the photos of several women without their consent. Efforts have been made to contact them, but it is impossible without a subscription. We are intentionally not signposting the piece in the interest of their safety. Please reach out to Edinburgh Live, tell them that their behaviour is unacceptable, and get the article taken down! And please get in touch if you have any info about the others whose photos are included so that we can let them know.
Edinburgh Live, a local online news site, has come under fire from an Edinburgh Uni student after the website unethically featured her image in an article about an online sugar daddy dating service, Seeking.com and refused to take down the article despite her safety concerns.
Edinburgh Live ran a story describing the proliferation of Edinburgh students who have turned to this website with the objective of seeking older, wealthy men to help fund their degrees, act as mentors, and pay for essentials. The article used several screenshots taken from Seeking.com, but the writer did not reach out to the people whose images were used, whether for an interview or even to ask for permission.
One of the young women whose image was used in the article, without her knowledge, was alerted to this fact by an acquaintance sending her a text, asking if the picture was of her. Her picture showed recognizable piercings and, on one image, the lower half of her face, and was being used as the article’s thumbnail on Facebook. Images of other girls’ profiles were featured in the article, with a similar disregard for their privacy and protection. Interestingly, the one photo of a man included in the article was completely blurred.
The student reached out to Edinburgh Live’s press office immediately, where she was put in touch with the writer of the article. She was successful in having the Facebook post that featured her image taken down, but she was met with opposition and judgement when she requested to have the article removed.
The writer, over text, claimed that because Seeking.com is a public website, the images that were uploaded to the site are public as well – ‘given the context I didn’t think you would have chosen to put it on that particular site if it had recognisable elements.’ She explained that she sought to address the predatory and problematic element of sugar daddy arrangements in her article and the power imbalance that is intrinsic to the relationships. Ultimately, the writer claimed that she and the news site had ‘gone beyond what many titles would do in terms of changing the image and removing the Facebook post’ and recommended that the student seek out the Advice Place for help with funding her studies.
The Edinburgh Uni student rightly found this response condescending and unprofessional. She explained how the article puts her and the other girls featured in a vulnerable and dangerous position: ‘to take these photos and personal details out of the relative safe space of their intended profiles and place them at the top of a clickbait article, in a social climate that stigmatises this behaviour, knowingly puts people at risk of harassment and abuse,’ she wrote.
The student encountered a dogged response from the news site that was condescending in tone. There was an underlying element of shame, as the student was blamed for having uploaded the image and being on the website. The images are not broadcast on the Seeking.com website, but are only available once an account has been made. While the website is public, there was a clear disregard for the women in question and their privacy with the inadequate and half-hearted attempt to anonymise their images. Further, the article was fraught with assumptions and two-dimensional generalizations, with no attempt to give the women featured a voice or include their perspective.
The extensive use of screenshots was not used to address the power imbalances of the sugar daddy-sugar baby relationship, but as a vehicle of public shame. A young woman’s privacy was compromised and instead of deep journalistic embarrassment, she was affronted with a response that reeked of blame and belittling. More work needs to be done to fully address the stigmatisation of sex work in general and respect the vulnerability of young women who first and foremost deserve protection and privacy.