Culture & Society

IT’S NOT A SCANDAL, IT’S A SEX CRIME

responses to the celebrity nude photo hack

By KATIE O’BRIEN

When more than one hundred celebrities had explicit photos stolen from their iCloud accounts and circulated all over the web in September’s disgustingly-named “The Fappening,” news outlets like CNN called it a “scandal.” Jennifer Lawrence, the media’s chosen face of the event, had the perfect response to the flagrant violation of her and the other victims’ privacy: “It’s not a scandal, it’s a sex crime,” she told Vanity Fair.

In a column in The Guardian, Jessica Valenti called Lawrence’s response to the hack “a righteous, hell-yes moment for our feminist times” and “the end of the ‘shamed starlet.’” She pointed out that in 2007, when nude photos of Vanessa Hudgens were published, Hudgens was compelled to issue an ashamed apology to her fans, saying, “I am embarrassed over this situation and regret having ever taken these photos.” A Disney Channel spokesperson also commented, “Vanessa has apologized for what was obviously a lapse in judgment. We hope she’s learned a valuable lesson.” While Disney was obviously trying to protect itself from bad PR and scandalized parents banning the channel due to “bad role-models,” there was no mention of the fact that Hudgens obviously never meant for the pictures to be in the public eye, and that she was the victim of a huge violation of her privacy. Valenti goes on to say that Scarlett Johansson resisted this “shamed starlet” narrative in 2011 when a hacker stole her photos from her email address with her response: “I know my best angles. They were sent to my husband. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s not like I was shooting a porno. Although there’s nothing wrong with that either.”

Katie O'Brien / Zooming Out Editor

Katie O’Brien / Zooming Out Editor

But Lawrence’s response was as biting and unapologetic as can be: “It’s my body and it should be my choice” was splashed across the cover of Vanity Fair. “Anybody who looked at those photos, you’re perpetuating a sexual offense. You should cower with shame.” Apparently, her shaming had its intended effect: Some of the perpetrators expressed their remorse on 4chan and Reddit, admitting they were “assholes” and “pervert[s] who did a bad thing.” While I agree with Valenti that Lawrence’s response was totally spot-on and really satisfying, a feminist “hell yeah” moment that shows a progressive trend, and while mainstream media outlets were, for the most part, overwhelmingly supportive of the victims of the hack, a visit to the comments section of any article about the hacking proves to be extremely demoralizing. User ‘Jim,’ interchangeable with a whole score of random people spewing their opinions all over the Internet, commented on an ABC article, “Only an imbecile takes photos of him or herself naked, saves them to the cloud and then calls it a sex crime when they get hacked and shared. That’s just plain stupid [sic].” This reaction reveals the same blaming-the-victim mentality that is so strongly tied to rape culture. The mentality that the women who had their photos stolen and circulated have no one but themselves to blame is exactly the same type of gendered rhetoric that plagues rape victims. As Lena Dunham put it, “The ‘don’t take naked pics if you don’t want them online’ argument is the ‘she was wearing a short skirt’ of the web. Ugh.” As many have pointed out, when someone’s credit card information is leaked or stolen, we don’t shake our heads and say they should know better than to use their credit card at a store.

In further parallel to rape culture, the hack also seemed to cause some confusion as to the nature of consent — shortly thereafter, Jennifer Lawrence received criticism for her revealing poses in Vanity Fair. Business writer Bruce Kasanoff wrote a Linkedin article entitled “Why Jennifer Lawrence’s Breasts Confuse Me,” which questioned why Lawrence would pose half-dressed in Vanity Fair while complaining about her naked photos being spread across the web, concluding that she was being hypocritical and sending mixed signals. The article has since been deleted after receiving widespread criticism for equating voluntarily posing for a professional magazine photo-shoot with having intimate photos only ever meant for one other person’s eyes stolen from a private, password-protected account and spread like wildfire.

It’s also important to remember that while “The Fappening” received a ton of publicity, every day, non-celebrity women have their photos published online as “revenge porn” — sexually explicit photos published online without the subject’s consent, often by a vengeful ex and accompanied by personal information. But the everyday victims of revenge porn, who are mostly women, do not have the same clout as celebrities to do something about it — the FBI certainly does not regularly involve themselves in such cases. And Reddit took down /r/TheFappening due to bad publicity and the threat of legal action, but /r/photoplunder, a subreddit apparently dedicated to posting pictures of naked women without consent, is still there for all to see.

At the very least, the hack has hopefully brought attention to the broader issue. Posting explicit photos of people without their consent online is a pervasive problem. It can cause emotional distress, sexual shame, trust issues, and personal and professional consequences. And it is, like Lawrence said, a sexual offense, and should be treated as such. Legally, revenge porn inhabits somewhat of a grey area in that in the majority of states, it’s not technically illegal — you can cite copyright law or harassment to try to get it removed, but these cases usually slip through the cracks. Since 2013, 12 states have expressly outlawed revenge porn, and similar bills were introduced in many other states but either failed to pass or are still pending. But the recent drive toward action shows that this issue is getting more recognition as the devastating crime it is. This month, Luke King became the first person in Britain to be jailed for circulating revenge porn after he made an explicit picture of his ex-girlfriend his profile picture on WhatsApp. He will spend 12 weeks in prison according to the guidelines of pre-existing laws, and a new law in the works in Britain would allow people who share revenge porn in any way, whether online or physical, to be jailed for up to two years.

So while “The Fappening” provided a spotlight on the issue of revenge porn in a way that will hopefully spur some changes that make it easier for victims to get their photos taken down and bring the perpetrators to justice in the future, it was also a great reminder of the blatant sexism in which the whole issue is rooted. While it’s not true that only women are victims of revenge porn — Dylan Sprouse and Josh Hutcherson had explicit photos circulated online — it is true that there are not the same personal repercussions, scandalized reactions, and media frenzy around instances such as these. Rachel Kramer Bussel wrote in Time, “Male nudity simply doesn’t cause the same moral panic that female nudity does.”

Both the hacking of celebrities’ accounts to steal and distribute private photos and the publishing of photos sent in confidence to vengeful ex-partners are acts intended to publicly shame women and malign female sexual agency. I’m not saying that anyone who looks at photos published in this manner does so intending to violate another human, but after the hack, there was a widespread double-edged response of “Well, I know it’s wrong, but I’m still going to look at them,” which just isn’t okay. This mentality creates a market for stolen property and sexual exploitation and perpetuates an attitude toward female bodies and sexuality as public domain. Revenge porn needs to be illegal, and we need to stop looking at it.

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