The recent nude photo scandal on Married At First Sight Australia has caused a huge controversy across the ditch, so what can local audiences take from it in Aotearoa?
This month on Married at First Sight Australia, the show was rocked by the latest in a string of controversies. But where previous scandals this season have involved grimy contestant affairs, a groom putting his feet on the coffee table and another doing an ill-timed shoey, this one pierced through the reality show walls and into the real world.
After contestant Olivia Frazer circulated an intimate photo from fellow bride Domenica Calarco’s OnlyFans account without her consent, the show became an unlikely platform for a complex conversation about image-based abuse. Although she claimed to have just been “passing it on”, a well-documented grudge held against Calarco by Frazer suggested there were sinister motivations behind sharing the image, a fact which audiences quickly picked up on.
When grilled by the show’s relationship experts as to her reasons for sharing the image, which was publicly available but sensitive in nature, Frazer simply shrugged “I don’t know”. Although unfazed by her OnlyFans being exposed, Calarco was clearly hurt by the way it was shared behind her back, saying through tears at the weekly commitment ceremony that she felt there had been “malicious intent to hurt her.” In a private interview, Frazer unblinkingly told the camera: “She deserves it”.
Last week, things got even more real. The New South Wales police confirmed that a complaint had been made to officers “about the alleged distribution of an image without consent that occurred in late 2021,” a police spokesperson said. “Inquiries are continuing and no further information is available at this stage.” Elsewhere, a petition for the E-Safety Commissioner to take action against Frazer gathered 123,932 signatures.
Sean Lyons, Netsafe’s online safety operations centre manager, says that the petition is a “natural reaction” when someone appears to be suffering harm on a very public platform like reality television. He also finds it encouraging. “I think it’s great that a number of people will get together to express that this isn’t OK,” he says. “It’s really important, when these things do happen in public, that they are taken seriously and they are looked at and investigated.”
The outcomes in Australia for both Frazer and the MAFS production remain to be seen. Lyons says Netsafe, if put in a similar position here, would be taking the matter very seriously. The first thing that would be examined, he says, is how the content was used, rather than what the content contained. “We’d really be looking at the intent behind the sharing of that information – was this done in some way to harm an individual, to cause shame or embarrassment?”
The television element could also exponentially increase the level of harm caused, he says. “When these things play out in public, people are more inclined to try and contact the person involved, or make their own posts sharing and talking about it,” he says. In recent years, there have been multiple comparable examples locally, including Anna Saxton’s sex tape revelation on MAFS NZ and the exposure of an MKRNZ contestant’s porn background in the media.
“We’ve seen through history that reality shows like this, where you take someone who is not a celebrity and then you thrust them into the public eye, there certainly is a responsibility for the show to support the emotional wellbeing of the individual,” says Lyons. “It needs to be ensured that people on these shows understand the potential for what could happen online if their name and their image is suddenly a tradable commodity.”
But even if this hadn’t happened on television, Lyons says the negative impact of this kind of photo sharing would remain. “If was only those eight people who ever saw the content, that alone is still important. If those people are significant to you, or you are worried about how they will look at you, treat you, talk to you, or think of you as a result of that sharing, that can frankly be as harmful as a post that was shared with a million people.”
The malicious sharing of sensitive images is “not uncommon” in New Zealand says Lyon, and has been on a “worrying” rise in recent years. “We commonly see these things after relationship breakdowns, when individuals may at times use the images or use the threat of their possession to manipulate their ex-partner.” On OnlyFans, where creators monetise their intimate images and share them with an audience, Lyons says the same harm assessment still applies.
“Where the intent is to directly and deliberately harm people, it doesn’t matter if it is OnlyFans or not, it is not something that any of us should have to put up with.”
Another of the MAFS AU contestants, Tamara Djordjevic, repeatedly uttered an unhelpful sentiment that Netsafe have encountered before – “if you post something like that, you have to face it.” Lyons says it doesn’t matter whether the content is private or art or music or adult. “It matters about somebody’s rights to be able to produce material and function online without someone taking that out of their control.”
Although the storyline created a deeply uncomfortable situation on Married at First Sight Australia, Lyons hopes it can be used to raise awareness of the nuances of image-based abuse for New Zealand audiences. “Our hope is that nobody would have to experience this kind of situation but, given this has happened, it would also be a real loss if nothing came of it,” he says.
“If what people see from this is that the internet can be a place where people can participate safely, without fear of harm, then perhaps that is the silver lining that comes from this particularly ugly cloud.”