A dangerous romance: A love story becomes a sexual assault

Mariam Avanesyan, Aram Kirakosyan,

Text by Mariam Avanesyan
Photos by Aram Kirakosyan

She was 25, living at home, struggling to find her place in her tiny village. 
He was on Facebook, ready to listen to her needs, her wants, her fears.  She spent hours, days, weeks, months with him.  They spoke of dreams, they exchanged photographs. He was the perfect boyfriend. She felt like she was destined to be with him… until the blackmail began.

This story is true. It happened to a young woman in Armenia in 2017. The woman, who we will call Armine, spoke with Chai Khana on the condition that we not publish her real name or where she lives.

Even now, two years later, she fears she will be exposed and fears she will be forced to relive the shame of the blackmail all over again.

Armine, who has not even told her parents of her ordeal, fears they will be disappointed in her. She fears what her neighbors would say.

She would like to forget it ever happened, to forget the sickly realization she felt when she first realized he didn't love her.

To forget the stomach-turning anxiety she felt when he threatened to send her parents  the nude photos she had made for him.

But even more than that, Armine says, she fears that other girls could experience what she went through. So she is sharing her story.

Armine met him on Facebook. A stranger sent a friendship request and she accepted it. "At first I was interested in him then maybe I fall in love and didn’t understand what happened," she says.

For six months, their online romance blossomed. The only cloud was he always found an excuse not to meet. He always had a reason for why they could not get together, so eventually she stopped asking. Then he asked for money, promising to repay her.

"I transferred the money to his account. After a while, he again asked and I sent it again. After the money transactions, we started sending photos. When I sent selfies, the man sent dark photos and I could hardly see his face," she recalls.

At some point, he asked for a nude photo. First, she refused. But eventually she agreed. " I don’t know why I made that mistake. After a few days, he demanded more money. When I refused, he threatened to send the nude photos to my parents.”

Things quickly escalated from there.

Out of fear he would follow through with his threat, and her parents would find out about the photos, she agreed. For some months she did more photos. "He demanded new nude photos and even said how to shoot them. He kept on saying that would send my photos to my parents if I hadn’t make new ones," she recalls.

But she had already had enough. She had sent him a total of just under $150 and the photos. She was ready to go to the police, even though she still feared telling her parents because she was scared they would stop talking to her if they found out.

Instead, she called the hotline for the Yerevan-based Sexual Assault Crisis Center.

"'I found them on Facebook, and decided to write them because at that moment I was in a hopeless situation, and I had no one to support me. I have never spoken about it to anyone; I can't even imagine what will happen to my parents if they learn of it. I'm afraid they will stop speaking to me," she says.

Anna Hovhannisyan, a lawyer at the Sexual Assault Crisis Center, says Armine’s fear is common. “Women don’t speak about abuse because they fear their family’s reaction,” she says.

Hovhannisyan notes that there is a culture of silence in Armenia around sexual crimes. “The silence of victims contributes to the increase of these cases. The offender goes unpunished and sexual abuse becomes a habit.”

Even when women appeal to the police for help, few abusers are caught and punished. That appears to be particularly true in cases of cyber crimes against women, including blackmail and extortion. Cybercrimes against women are on the rise around the world, according to a report by the European Institute of Gender Equality. One in ten women have experienced some form of cyber violence by the age of 15, the report notes, citing data from the World Health Organization.

There are no statistics about how many women have been subjected to these crimes in Armenia, according to social media and information security analyst Samvel Martirosyan.

But he notes that women -- and men as well as children -- are vulnerable to cybercrime due to an overall lack of education about the danger. “'The only subject in school teaches pupils how to use computer and  the Internet. That level of education dates back to 2005-2007,” he says.

“ Anything else -- like how to control their accounts or the role their social pages [have on their lives] -- they learn out of school and mainly on their own.”

Cybercrimes are on the rise in Armenia in general, Armenian police said in 2018. While most crimes detected involved identity theft, there were also reports of organized attacks against women.

In Armine’s case, the center was able to help her start a police investigation without her parents finding out. The investigation did not go far, however. The computer trail led to Nubarashen prison, where all the inmates share a single computer. The police did not try to trace the money transfers. No one has been punished for exploiting Armine and blackmailing her.

Today, she still lives in fear of exposure. "More than anything I fear my parents' reaction and then the opinion of my family – the faces of the people in our village, and the idea that our community will not accept me anymore after rumors and nasty stories about my morality were passed around the province."

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