Nude pictures of Jennifer Lawrence and several other young female celebrities were leaked on the internet today. That one sentence will elicit several responses. Some people will rush off to Google, to sate their curiosity. Some people will gleeful denounce her as a “slut” or think something to the effect of, “Well, she shouldn’t have taken them if she didn’t want people to see.” And only a very few people will feel sympathy for her, and recognize what distributing nude photographs without the subject’s express consent truly is: sexual assault.
The subject of nude selfies isn’t new. It’s been covered from so many angles, it’s practically a dodecahedron. Underaged girls sending their underaged boyfriends explicit photos of themselves have been accused of producing child pornography. Men sending unsolicited pictures of their genitals via text message has become so commonplace as to become the new normal. And if there’s a hot young actress or singer who hasn’t yet bared her body to our collective gaze through traditional media, there’s almost always discussion of how she’ll look “when her nudes leak.” We’ve become a society that feels entitled to the nudity of others; consent is not required, just as long as we get our fill of flesh.
The moment Lawrence’s private photos went on public display, social media erupted. Some Twitter users praised her body. Some criticized her figure. Neither seems an appropriate reaction to a gross invasion of privacy. Others bemoaned the low quality of the photos; this line of reasoning implies that if Lawrence was going to pose in the buff, she should have had the courtesy to provide us with the highest calibre revenge porn.
An overwhelming majority–mostly male–responded with images implying that they had ejaculated upon seeing the pictures, and jokes about uncontrollable masturbation. Confusing their personal sexual gratification for a genuine compliment seems to be the particular forte of heterosexual men. Some excitedly shared those images, but announced that they’d lost respect for the actress for taking the pictures they were so shamelessly enjoying.
Victim blaming runs thick in situations such as these. “If she didn’t want those pictures on the internet, she shouldn’t have taken them.” In other words, the price of these women’s private expressions of sexuality and joyous celebration of their bodies is public humiliation. Very little is said about the people stealing and releasing these photos, beyond the occasional words of gratitude to them for serving up what we are presumably owed.
“Don’t send nudes,” we tell our daughters, rather than telling our sons, “Don’t violate the privacy of a woman who trusted you enough to share herself with you in a playfully sexual context.” We don’t teach our children not to revel in revenge porn, we teach them to put boundaries on their sexual expression, to hide their bodies away, because that’s where the real shame is. Baring another human on a public stage for ridicule and critique is an excusable, even understandable, action.
We don’t tell our sons, “Don’t send people photos of your penis if they haven’t told you they’re okay with it.” It has become commonplace for men to send photos of their genitals in misguided attempts to woo potential partners, or to retaliate against some perceived wrong a woman has inflicted upon them. Why these men see romance and spite as two scenarios deserving of the same response is never examined. In fact, many men seem utterly baffled when their advances aren’t welcomed. “What do you mean you don’t want to see my penis? What are you, some kind of uptight feminist? Some kind of lesbian?”
Perhaps the most offensive aspect of our conflicting attitudes toward nudity and the importance of consent is that while women are derided for their own exploitation, the actions of a man forcing images of his genitals upon his victims are utterly erased when the tables are turned and his behavior is exposed.
As with all cases of sexual violence against women, we look so hard for ways to place responsibility on the victim, or to minimize the harm done to her. “It’s not rape rape,” people will argue. “It’s not like it hurt her.” Having aggressive male sexuality forced upon them is something women are expected to ignore, no matter how degraded they feel. Seeing their bodies thrown on the pyre of public scrutiny is something they deserve, their nude photos the scarlet letter that will brand them for the sin of having sexual urges or confidence in their bodies. “It serves her right, for treating a nice guy like dirt,” we say of revenge porn. “She was a bitch,” is accepted as reasonable justification for inflicting sexual harm.
Sharing photos of naked partners who did not consent to the release of their image, or sending explicit photos to people who did not consent to view them, is sexual violence. If a man walked up to a woman on the street and exposed himself, he would be arrested. If someone broke into another person’s house and took something that didn’t belong to them, it would be theft. A man who bragged about spying on a naked woman and masturbating while doing so may find himself on a public registry of sex offenders. Until we consider the violation of our digital privacy on par with the violation of our physical spaces, we perpetuate a cycle that encourages us to view female sexuality with scorn, and overt displays of sexual aggression from men as normal. There are only three appropriate responses to this problem: disgust at the perpetrators, unconditional support for the victims, and refusal to reward with praise and attention those who find entertainment in the exploitation and humiliation of women.