The surprising public reaction to a sex tape scandal

Sex tape leaks led to protests against the authorities in GeorgiaImage copyright
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Sex tape leaks led to protests against the authorities in Georgia

After sex tapes featuring two Georgian politicians surfaced online, many people reacted not by shunning the public figures involved – but by protesting against the leaks and those thought to be responsible for them.

They were salacious revelations. In mid-March, two sex tapes featuring married female politicians surfaced on YouTube. The men they were apparently having sex with were not their husbands.

And along with the tapes came threats against four more people – three politicians and a journalist. Those behind the leaks threatened to release further videos on 31 March unless the four resign.

The reaction of the Georgian public was swift – but also surprising. Yes, many rushed to YouTube to watch the videos before they were taken down. But there was also a significant backlash against the leakers, the authorities who appear to have allowed the videos to get out, and the previous government.

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The revelations prompted demonstrations on the streets of the Georgian capital Tbilisi.

“Many people chanted ‘sex is not a crime’,” says the BBC’s Natia Abramia, a Georgian journalist based in London. “Lots of people on Facebook were saying that they were refusing to watch the videos.”

Georgia’s surprising reaction to the revelations can be traced to what many believe was the original source of the sex tapes. Prior to elections in 2012, the government, led by then-President Mikheil Saakashvili, was shaken by revelations that officials were conducting a covert surveillance operation against political opponents. Saakashvili ended up losing that election, and the coalition government that succeeded him, led by the Georgia Dream party, vowed to delete more than 180 hours of footage that had been collected.

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A Georgian opposition supporter shouts slogans during a protest rally against the sex tape leaks

But the recent leaks cast doubt on whether the current government has actually followed through on that pledge. Five people, including a former interior ministry official and a lawyer, have been arrested in connection with the leaks.

But while the investigation continues, the motivation of the leakers remains unclear. Ana Natsvlishvili of the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association, a human rights organisation based in Tbilisi, says there are a few competing theories. The leakers could be people within the ruling coalition who want to target their rivals, people from the previous government, or pro-Russian groups within Georgia who want to smear pro-Western politicians.

“None of the theories are watertight because if you look at all the people [targeted] there’s no single common thread,” Natsvlishvili says.

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Part of the response to the tapes, Natsvlishvili says, resulted from the fact that mostly women were targeted.

“There is a clear element of gender to this,” she told BBC Trending radio. “It’s considered more of a scandal if a woman is caught than if a man is, and whoever is releasing these videos is preying on that.”

Whoever they are, the leakers’ plan seems to have backfired. In addition to the public reaction, several politicians pre-emptively declared that they had been involved in extra-marital affairs, and while Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili was not among them, he did declare that “sex and a sex life are not shameful.” An (unmarried) female journalist targeted by the leakers declared on TV: “I have a wonderful boyfriend, I have sex and I plan to continue to live the way I live.”

Elections in the country are scheduled for October and if the initial outcry on social media is anything to go by, any impact the videos might have on voters will pale in comparison to the anger that they were leaked in the first place.

Reporting by Sam Judah and Natia Abramia

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