[EXCLUSIVE] Joanna Joseph Faced 11 Years Of Sexual Harassment In Malaysia Because Of One Mistake At Age 13
The world can be a scary place and the internet doesn’t make it any easier. They say that once something is on the interwebs, the likelihood of it ever being taken down is slim. And Joanna Joseph’s story of living through that nightmare depicts how cruel people can be. Joanna is no stranger to the modelling and pageant industry and has been open about her journey with weight loss and self-acceptance. She’s coming forward once again to share how a mistake she made as a 13-year-old has haunted her for 11 years. In an IGTV video, she talks about being the victim of harassment – both online and in real life. Based on statistics from the Royal Malaysian Police (PDRM), between 2013 and 2017, there were a total of 1,218 reported sexual harassment cases – 79 per cent involved victims who were women while 21 per cent involved male victims.
Her reason for coming forward, despite it meaning that she would have to relive the past again, is both harrowing and alarming.
I’ve been battling with the leak of my nude picture for about 11 years now, and every year I hear something new. However, this year, someone posted that picture along with my number on a porn group in Telegram. It triggered the trauma I’ve felt in the past…
1. What happened?
Growing up, I did not have many friends. Whenever one of my attempts to do so succeeded even a little, I would do anything to keep them. I was so afraid I’d lose them and go back to being alone again. I wanted to feel like I belonged somewhere. So, despite all the negative criticism, I just bit my tongue and continued my toxic relationship with them. They’d always made me feel like I was not good enough. They would call me ugly, they would call me fat; they would say that I’d never find happiness and that I would never be loved. They put a lot of negativity in my head and these thoughts stuck in my head (how could they not when they’re all you hear day in and day out?) and 13 year old me was forced to believe that I was always going to be lonely.
I found solace in Facebook. I opened up an account under my name and added “Bieber” at the end as I was a fan of his. I found people who had the same interests that I had. In school, because I could not relate to the conversations around me, I couldn’t fit in and was axed out. But on Facebook, it was different. And it was on Facebook that I met (virtually) an 18-year-old from Johor. He and I would talk every day as we had so much in common. Then, after a while, he told me he liked me. The 13-year-old me that was constantly told that I was not worthy of love simply because of how I looked – was really happy. But when I tried to share this news with my “friends” they said,
“He has not seen you in real life. If he did, he would see how fat and ugly you are”.
I talked to him about this and he insisted that he liked me for my personality and all my flaws, that it’s not always about one’s outward appearance. Despite it taking me a few days to agree to it, we were soon a couple. I’d never met him in person but we’d call and text every day. Soon it came time for him to go for national service. That’s when he changed completely. Our conversations would take a turn for the worst. He started talking to me really sexually. I didn’t know what I was doing – I was just a kid. Then one day, he asked me for nude photos. He said that if I really, genuinely trusted and loved him, I would send him a nude picture of myself. I was horrified. He would ask over and over and when I refused he would say,
“You’re so fat, you’re so ugly. Me accepting you and me being in this relationship with you is a huge deal. You’re never going to get someone like me who is going to accept you for who you are. This shows how much you trust me and love me – you don’t even want to send me your picture!”
13 year old me was lost and blinded by love for the first person who showed that he cared. So while a part of me knew that I shouldn’t do it, the part of me that loved him didn’t want to lose him. My failed attempts at normal conversation – he’d constantly veer it towards nudes – left me emotionally and mentally drained. One day I got fed up and gave in. I told him that I would send him a semi-nude photo but that he had to delete it right after. I told him that I was doing it because I loved him.
And that was how the one mistake that, to this day continues to ruin my whole life, came to be.
Because of the words “love”, “trust” and how naive I was (and I blame myself entirely), I sent him the picture. I wish I had someone to stop me from doing it. But something else to remember is that the minute you give in, you’re giving the other person power to ask you for a repeat of the action (as well as ammo for them to blackmail you into it). As time progressed, he started asking for more and the more he asked, the more uncomfortable I got. I got so mentally stressed that I asked my “friends” what I should do about arguments with my boyfriend. They told me that I should cut myself. Once my boyfriend found out that I was hurting myself, he broke up with me. To him, I was an ugly person and cutting myself made me uglier; he didn’t want to be with someone like that.
Months later, I got a text from an unknown number. They said that they had a phone and on that phone was a folder with my nude picture and my contact on it. The person threatened to send the folder with the picture to everyone.
The feeling that I got at that moment… I don’t know what it was… But my hands became so cold and I started to sweat. I felt like I was going to pass out.
On that day, my phone was flooded with calls from random numbers. The worst part? My mum was sent an MMS with the image and my number on it. Luckily, I got to it before she did but from that point on, I was in fear of every message she received. This person didn’t give up either. She sent it over and over to people on the daily. I took matters into my own hands and I went to my dad. He reassured me that people make mistakes and that it was going to be okay.
Just when I thought it was over, I got a friend request on Facebook. It was someone who had made a profile with my name and my nude as the profile picture. Suddenly, everyone knew about my mistake. But, no one asked why it was there or how it came to be.
They didn’t take the time to ask me what happened; instead, they were quick to judge and I was called all sorts of degrading names because of that one picture – that one mistake. Suddenly, I had guys coming up to me and asking me how much a night with me would cost. All of this hurtful questions and there was nothing I could do.
I was told to get a police report done but I was so afraid and scared that it would get worse if I went to the police. I decided to stay quiet.
And that was one of the worst things I could have done because I did not get justice for myself.
Year after year, the picture would resurface. And the more that I accomplished as I lost weight and worked on my career, the more often people would bring it up. It happened so long ago and as I tried to put it behind it, other people kept reminding me of it. I was so angry because I was just trying to mend my mistakes and build a new life for myself. And this one incident in school, the day before my SPM exams, burns clearly in my memory.
I got a call from my friend who said that my name was spraypainted on a wall in the school. She sent me a picture of it and… my heart broke. They had the spraypainted the nastiest words on a wall facing the outside of the school – anyone could see it. Boys from other schools came by to take pictures of it and, again, the pictures made their way onto social media as people laughed at me.
I got a call from my school and my teachers blamed me for it. My dad went in the very next day to yell at some of the teachers but their response was “There’s only one Joanna in this school and everyone knows it’s for her. If she didn’t make this mistake, then this wouldn’t have happened”. But they had children of their own and when my dad asked what they would do if it were their child involved instead they shut up.
I wanted to change my life so badly but people would not let me move on, they made me relive my mistake every day. To try to stop it, I attempted suicide. There were days where I just didn’t want to wake up; I would overdose on pills. Every morning that I woke up, I would wake up so angry that I would have to go through the day and I had to feel all the pain and I had to see all the hate. But as years passed by, I told myself,
“Joanna, this is a mistake you made when you were really young. And it’s because you did not have the proper company with you; you did not have proper friends to hold you back and stop you from doing this. All you wanted was for someone to fall in love with you and show you that you were beautiful. It was a mistake and it’s about time you learnt something from it.”
2. How has modelling helped?
Until today people label me a slut. I hear so many rumours about myself but choosing to model was one of the best choices I’ve made.
View this post on Instagram
“Why do you have lose skin hanging on your body? Why do you have so many stretch marks?” are the commonly asked questions when it comes to my body. Never in a million years would I have thought of doing a shoot like this due to my body insecurity. But I’ve decided to push it away and address it instead of hiding. When I lost a lot of weight, I was the happiest person in the world. Loosing weight from a 104kgs to 53kgs wasn’t an easy task. But after my weightloss I noticed a lot of hanging skin on my tummy, my back, my arms and my legs. And the insecurity became a 1000 times worse because I felt that I looked horrible. I went to doctors to check on how to remove the skin but it was very pricey. My gym instructors told me that it would take a very long time to lose it and chances are it might be impossible. There were days where I would stand in front of the mirror, naked and look at my body bathed in self hate because of how it looked even after weight loss. In the modelling industry, models are expected to have a “perfect” body. I may have had the height and the face, but I didn’t have the “perfect body” according to their standards. I was thrown a lot of hate and questions because of it. Judges used to laugh at me and mock me when they saw my body in a bikini which is why I refrain from wearing a bikini until today. When it came to dating, I used to always fear on what men would think of my body if they saw it and that made me push a lot of people away. Intimate moments would always be in a pitch black place because I was afraid that I would be judged for my body. In most of my pictures, my excess skin would be hidden as it’s not really visible but you can always see hanging skin from my arms mostly. But there came a day where I told myself that I needed to embrace myself and my excess skin is beautiful and also a proof of my transformation story. A proof of my hard work. Every stretch mark on my body has a story and I should wear it with pride. I started becoming more open towards being okay with my excess skin being seen and these days I’m okay with doing shoots that reveal it as it is a part of me and it always will be a part of me ❤️
I learned how to be a lot more confident with myself and my self-esteem issues. I’ve done numerous shoots, even nude ones (with photographers and signed non-disclosure contracts) and that’s a whole different story. Nude photography and sending nudes are two different things. Back then I was forced to. These days, I do some nude conceptual ones so I can slowly learn how to appreciate my body and love all the stretch marks and excess skin.
3. Would introducing sex ed help?
I tried opening up about it once on Instagram when I collaborated with Psang.co (a condom company). We collaborated for World Aids Day and were going to openly talk about the importance of knowing how to protect yourself and your partner but everyone was so narrow-minded when it came down to even sharing the information. People don’t realise that kids are growing up really fast these days. Kids in primary school know what porn is and I’ve heard stories of them attempting to rape their female friends and whatnot in school simply out of curiosity because there wasn’t anyone to educate them. Parents frighten them so much by their aversion to the topic of sex that they would rather take matters into their own hands. It may be difficult to introduce this in school but if more people were to take to social media to discuss this in a wholesome, educational way, we can educate them that way. Kids find campaigns and stuff really boring but most of them are on social media all the time. They look up to certain figures and it’s amazing if these figures could talk about it.
4. Why have you chosen now to speak about it?
The only thing I can do is to educate people and to tell them not to make the same mistakes that I did.
The number of calls I’ve received from people who genuinely only want to harass and threaten me after my picture was shared on a Telegram group is crazy. I managed to gain access to that group and the number of videos and pictures that were in there… it’s horrifying. There were almost 16,000 men in the group. Can you believe it? These men send in their wife’s nudes, their girlfriends nudes, their ex’s nudes – and they don’t feel an ounce of remorse. They clearly state that the girls “deserved it”. Most of the girls looked really young.
The government needs to take strict legal action against people who create groups like these. I made the video hoping that it would give young people the avenue to reach out to me if they needed help and so many of them have. Going through something like this is traumatising, it’s going to haunt you for life. Talk to someone if you are a victim and make a police report. Get yourself a lawyer. If you need to talk to someone, I am here. I just want you to know that I’m here for you and I’m more than willing to help. It’s hard to read some of them because they talk about things they’ve never told anyone before, about being raped and more.
A survey from 2019 by YouGov Omnibus showed that of those who have faced sexual harassment, only half (53%) reported or told someone about the incident. And while women were more likely to report instances of harassment (57% vs. 44%) most would rather tell a friend (54%) or family (51%) than the police (15%). Embarrassment (54%) was the main reason people did not report what happened to them while others believed no one would do anything about the problem (38%) and feared backlash (26%).
If you find that you are being harassed, sexually or otherwise, please reach out to someone you trust or to the following organisations. They are ready to help (regardless of gender, age, religion or race):
1. Women’s Aid Organization – +6037957 5636
2. Malaysian Police – 999
3. All Women’s Action Society (AWAM) – +603 7877 0224
4. Sisters In Islam (Telenisa Helpline) – +603 7960 8802
5.Talian Kasih at 15999 or on WhatsApp at +6019 2615 999.