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Getting Naked Online

Many gay men put naked photos of themselves online to get sex and attention. But, we ask, could our horny presence online be damaging our work and private lives?

Marcky knows what he wants this afternoon. He locks his bedroom door and pulls off his T-shirt, jeans and pants. He checks his reflection – not bad. Pointing his camera at the mirror he takes one, two, three shots. The last one will do. He adds the photo to his dating site profile and within minutes thousands of men are considering taking a trip to Marcky’s place.

Gay dating websites such as Gaydar and Manhunt are heaving with photos of naked or semi-naked men. In a bid to stand out from the tens of thousands of users online at any time, many guys are willing to post pictures of themselves stripped down, turned on or spread out.

“I like to have sex a lot,” says 28-year-old Gaydar user Dan, from Cape Town. “Naked pictures make men horny. If I make someone horny using my pictures I have more chance of getting sex. Simple!”

Social networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace and Bebo either limit or ban online nudity, yet their popularity has also proved irresistible to gay men searching for sex or romance. But what happens to our naked or semi-naked photos once we’ve got what we came for? Could our horny online activity spill into our everyday lives, damaging our careers and undermining our privacy?

Online privacy became a hot topic in March, when UK internet providers BT, Virgin and Talk Talk agreed to trial an online advertising tool developed by US firm Phorm. The tool tracks users’ online surfing habits in order to target them with appropriate advertising. The news prompted 1,000 people to sign a Downing Street petition saying the system breached customer privacy. But it has become routine for journalists to race onto dating and networking sites for insight into people whose lives suddenly become news, from teen murder victims to X Factor winners.

Henry and Freddie Conway, who were given lucrative research jobs by their father Derek despite little evidence that they actually did any work, had their Facebook profiles scrutinised recently. Reporters found that Henry enjoyed “hotting it up cowboy style” at London bars and clubs while Freddie had a taste for foreign trips.

Employers can also take an interest in our internet profiles. Early last year year British Transport Police (BTP) inspector Chris Dreyfus was promoted to chief inspector of Bedfordshire Police, only to have the offer withdrawn due to the contents of his Facebook page. Mr. Dreyfus had previously been disciplined for inviting men on the site to “bite, grope, lick or spank him” and joking about wearing leather shorts and a dog collar. BTP felt it brought the force into disrepute.

Of more than 600 UK employers questioned by business network Viadeo last year, one in five admitted using the internet to search for personal information about job applicants. Of those, 59% said what they found had influenced their decision. “It’s wise to be cautious and assume that employers are checking social networking and dating sites,” says Steve Huxham, chair of employers’ forum The Recruitment Society. We can only wonder what happens in South Africa.

Employers may want to confirm that the applicant’s CV is accurate, for example, something they perhaps cannot do from references alone. But they may also want to check that a person’s general behaviour is appropriate for their professional role. With their atmosphere of openness and exhibitionism, dating and networking sites offer a rich mine of information. “Such checks are more likely to be carried out if the job is a senior position or a role where you have a lot of contact with clients or the public,” says Mr Huxham.

It is not illegal for employers to check the photos and details you publish on your profiles. “These sites are public access so they are available to anyone with a web connection,” says employment lawyer Caris Martin of employment specialist firm CM Murray. However, it is illegal for an employer to use any information they gain to discriminate against you on the grounds of your sexual orientation, religion, age, marital status, race, disability or gender. If an employer discovered you had a Manhunt profile, for example, they could not deny you a job purely because you are gay.

But employers can discriminate against you in ways that are not illegal, and these include making judgements about your behaviour. For example, an employer may feel that a person’s willingness to publish nude shots of himself on the worldwide web would make him less likely to be a discreet and responsible employee.

The employee could challenge this judgement through a grievance procedure, possibly leading to an employment tribunal, but it would not be easy. Even if an employer has illegally discriminated against you, it can be difficult to prove, says Ms Martin. “They might just say that you didn’t get the job because you weren’t good enough in your interview.” While no laws prevent employers digging around in our internet profiles, Mr Huxham believes they should set their own ethical limits. “Employers should realise that things that happen socially should be separate from work, unless they impinge on work-related activity,” he says.

Jay knows what he wants tonight. He sits naked on the bed and uses his webcam to photograph himself getting hard. He adds the picture to his dating site profile and within hours an employer no longer considers Jay to be the man for the job.

Site operators know their members are concerned about which of the 1.3 billion web users can view their personal photos and profiles, so they offer numerous privacy settings. Members might make a select few ‘private’ photos available only to a select few ‘friends’ on the site, for example. Choosing your online “friends” carefully is a simple way to prevent general visitors, such as employers, from seeing your pics. Facebook recently added a further privacy option that enables you to prevent specific ‘friends’ from seeing certain photos.

And despite the proliferation of nude profile images, the larger dating sites are careful not to encourage members to post naked shots of themselves. “We have created a space on the internet for people to find like-minded individuals,” says Gaydar UK’s sales and marketing director Trevor Martin. “How they choose to do that is entirely up to them.”

MySpace bans nude photos while Bebo prohibits ‘indecent’ material and Facebook removes anything ‘obscene’ or ‘vulgar’. Teams of support staff on each site examine all members’ photos to check they comply with their terms. If a photo depicts any illegal activity, such as drug use or sex with a minor, they inform the police or relevant authorities.

It is worth taking a close look at the terms and conditions of each site before joining. For example, if you suffer any financial damage – such as losing your job – as a result of posting photos or material online, the site operator bears no responsibility. You strip at your own risk.

By signing up you give site operators the right to use and publish your profile material, including your photos, in any way they see fit. “We actually have never used it but we have thought about using member photos in advertising campaigns,” says Manhunt’s senior marketing manager Michael MacDonald. Manhunt and Gaydar said they would obtain the member’s permission before doing so. Government-backed charity Get Safe Online offers advice on protecting your privacy on networking and dating sites. It recommends using a pseudonym where possible, a move favoured by dating site regulars who want to prevent friends and family accidentally discovering their genitals and their love of rimming. Many members also omit their heads from their profile pics, although this adds the danger of being propositioned for sex by a mate who doesn’t recognise your bare body.

“Don’t publish pictures that might embarrass you later,” the charity adds. “If you wouldn’t say it to your boss or grandmother, don’t say it online.” Solid advice, but likely to be ignored by Gaydar or Manhunt members chasing a quick shag.

By signing up to a dating or networking site, you permit your photos and profile information to be incorporated into the site’s central database. All site operators promise to remove photos from their database when a member deletes them from his profile. However, operators admit they cannot disable the function that allows other members to save your photos onto their computers. Bad news if your bitter ex-boyfriend wants to copy and share your explicit ‘private’ pics with the world. Along with the possibility of identity theft, this is a risk taken by all of us who put personal material on the internet.

Everyone is free to get naked online. But to cut the chance of your hot moment coming back to haunt you, read the small print and learn how to protect yourself before pulling down your pants. Then you’ll be better able to keep your sex life private and your employer out of your bedroom.