Italy's Tiziana: Tragedy of a woman destroyed by viral sex videos
- 13 February 2017
- From the section Europe
It probably took no more than a few seconds for Tiziana Cantone to begin the sequence of events that led to her suicide.
In April 2015, the 31-year-old from Mugnano, on the outskirts of Naples, sent a series of sex videos to five people via WhatsApp. The recipients included her boyfriend Sergio Di Palo, with whom she had an unstable relationship.
The videos showed her performing sex acts with a number of unidentified men.
"She was beautiful but fragile," remembers Teresa Petrosino, a friend for 15 years. "She was with the wrong people at the wrong time."
The videos were soon shared and uploaded to several adult websites. The physical actions on the tapes did not stand out. But a single sentence from Tiziana Cantone did.
"You're making a video?" she asked the man holding the camera. "Bravo!"
The words suggested an uninhibited young woman, who enjoyed being filmed during sex. By accident, the phrase gave viewers licence to watch the video without reservations: if she was so happy to be filmed, she wouldn't mind them watching.
But Italians did more than watch. Users soon turned her comment into a meme-worthy punchline. Her image appeared on t-shirts and parody websites.
No-one seemed to worry what the subject herself might think as she seemed so pleased about it.
But this was a profound misunderstanding.
"People confuse being an uninhibited person with wanting to go viral," says social commentator Selvaggia Lucarelli.
"You can film a video, share it with some people but there's a tacit agreement that you won't share it further."
Tiziana Cantone, a fragile woman, was horrified.
"She and I never actually spoke about the details of the video," says her friend Teresa. "I never saw them, and I never want to see them. You could tell she was suffering a lot. But she was strong."
Read more here: How Italians reacted to Tiziana's death
Ms Cantone decided to fight back. But there was no immediate way to get the videos taken down.
She took the case to court, arguing the tapes were uploaded to public sites without her consent. By this time, she was no longer able to live a normal life.
"She didn't want to go out as people would recognise her. She realised that the virtual world and the real world were the same thing," Teresa explains.
"She understood at some point that the situation would never be resolved; that a potential husband, her potential children could find those videos; that they would never disappear."
Tiziana Cantone retreated to her family home in a quiet street in Mugnano, a working-class suburb of Naples.
It took her mother, Maria Teresa Giglio, weeks to find the strength to tell reporters about her daughter's life.
"My daughter was a good girl but she was also vulnerable," she told the BBC. "She lacked a paternal figure, from birth. She never met her father. This affected her entire life."
Mother and daughter lived together. In happier times, Tiziana listened to Italian singers, read novels and played the piano. But after the intimate videos were shared online, she withdrew.
"Her life was ruined, in front of everyone," says her mother. "People made fun of her, parodies ended up on pornographic websites. She was called shameful names."
In September, a court in Naples ordered the intimate videos to be removed from several websites and search engines. But the court also ordered her to pay €20,000 (£17,200, $21,600) in legal costs.
It was all too much.
On 13 September 2016, Maria Teresa Giglio went to work at the local town hall. Her daughter stayed at home.
Ms Giglio received a phone call at work.
"My sister-in-law called me, and in a calm voice told me to come home; when I got here I saw the police, the ambulance, and I quickly understood," she says, breaking down.
"My sister-in-law tried to pick her up and save her. My neighbours didn't allow me to get out of my car. I almost fainted. They didn't want to let me into this house. I wasn't even able to see her for a last time.
"The day she died, my life ended."
One day later, Maria Teresa Giglio buried her daughter in a white coffin. The notice outside the funeral described her as a "sweet, beautiful, fragile angel".
Who posted the videos?
There is a sad paradox at the heart of Tiziana Cantone's death. By taking her own life, she drew even more attention to the videos she hoped everyone might forget.
Her mother has forced herself to watch the tapes.
"You can only imagine what it is like. I wanted to see details that would allow me to understand the truth. That was not my Tiziana," she says, convinced that her daughter was under the effect of drugs.
She believes that the distribution of the videos didn't happen by chance.
"It's as if this was a premeditated, criminal plan. They just wanted to show the face of this poor girl, with the intention of exposing her on the internet."
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In particular, Ms Giglio wants her daughter's former boyfriend, Mr Di Palo, to explain exactly what role he had in the sharing of the videos.
"He didn't help me to save her life. But maybe he can help me get to the truth. I'm desperate."
In November 2016, prosecutors questioned Mr Di Palo for 10 hours. They wanted to know whether anyone was guilty of inciting Tiziana's suicide. Mr Di Palo declined our request for an interview.
"We refrain from making comments, out of respect for poor Tiziana who suffered so much due to the enormous publicity that her case received," says Bruno Larosa, Mr Di Palo's lawyer. "We trust the courts and it should be noted that my client is not accused of anything."
Legacy of Tiziana's death
In the aftermath of Tiziana Cantone's suicide, the tone of Italy's debate about pornography and privacy has changed.
"I think this case did make a difference, quite drastically, to the way that Italian journalists talk about these cases of revenge porn," says social commentator Selvaggia Lucarelli.
"They used to have a very carefree approach, and her death changed it. In subsequent cases, one of them involving a celebrity, they were a lot more cautious."
But there is also a lesson for anyone who chooses to share intimate videos online.
"People think that their virtual life and their real life are parallel realities," warns Ms Lucarelli. "They're not. They coincide. The web is our life. So anything that you don't do in real life you shouldn't do online."
Tiziana's videos can no longer be found on the main search engines but they still exist.
Her mother wants Italy and the rest of the EU to agree a much faster way to get private material removed from the internet and make the big internet firms act responsibly.
"I speak on behalf of other mothers who may be suffering like me," she says.
Italy's privacy tsar, Antonello Soro, agrees things have to change but does not specify what the government might do.
"We need a quicker response mechanism from different online platforms, but it is also necessary to increase respect online," he said in a statement. "We need strong investment in digital education to promote a culture and sensibility that are adequate to the new online world."
For Tiziana's mother, life is now a fight to defend her daughter's name, and to prevent others from suffering the same fate.
"I hope that the name Tiziana Cantone, instead of standing for mockery, becomes a name that could save the lives of other women. I would like this to happen. To save other people."
Are you affected by this?
Telefono Amico is a confidential helpline for anyone struggling to cope; in Italy, dial 199 284284
In the UK:
Samaritans is available 24 hours a day providing a safe place to talk where calls are completely confidential
Phone: 116 123; email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Safeline provides free support and counselling for survivors of sexual abuse or rape
Phone: 0808 8005008
UK Safer Internet Centre provides safety tips and advice for children and young people stay safe online.