It’s one of the big stories of the day: this weekend, a hacker released nude photos of Jennifer Lawrence, along with several other female celebrities, onto the internet. While the celebrities themselves have fired back, stating that the images were doctored or false, or decrying the fact that someone dug them up and posted them, the reality is that some of this is just damage control. It’s obvious that whomever posted these photos likely wanted to cause a scandal…but that, right there, is half the problem. In the words of Forbes.com writer Scott Mendelson, it’s not a scandal: it’s a sex crime. And it’s an absolute outrage.
The hacking has been called a “major breach of privacy”, both by representatives of Jennifer Lawrence and by media outlets covering the story. And it absolutely is that: sometimes, in response to celebrity outrage on the issue of privacy, we see responses along the lines of “they chose to live in the public eye”, but the right to privacy isn’t dependent on one’s career choice. That just simply is not how rights work. So yes, this was definitively a breach of these women’s privacy, but it goes beyond that. This is hardly the first time that female celebrities have been targeted through the leaking of nude photos-~-decades ago, Marilyn Monroe was subject to the leaking of nude photos, and in 2007, Vanessa Hudgens was also the target of a nude photo “scandal”. In 2004, a leaked sex tape brought Paris Hilton the negative attention of a media frenzy, and a similar incident occurred with Kim Kardashian in 2007.
Every time this happens, society looks to the victims to see how they will react. People go to view the leaked photos or videos to see what they really contain, or perhaps just because they think they’ll enjoy seeing them. But the reality of the situation is that when individuals consume these leaked images, they contribute to and perpetuate a system that normalizes and accepts the abuse of women, in part because they are famous, and in part because of how we view female bodies.
Part of the problem is that we as a society need to stop treating women like they are not entitled to any sense of sexuality. In 2007, in the wake of the photo leak that nearly destroyed her career, Vanessa Hudgens-~-who became famous through the High School Musical franchise-~-was treated like a sinful child, shamed by Disney Channel, and ultimately had to apologize for the mere existence of the photos that she took in private for private purposes. The idea that sex is “dirty”, and that individuals whose products are marketed towards young people need to be “pure” and never associated with anything that parents might not love, restricts the ability of individuals to conduct their lives in a way that suits their needs and desires. While it might be one thing if Disney Channel had reprimanded Hudgens for showing up on the red carpet in lingerie, to extend the expectation that an individual should keep their appearance clean from the public sphere to their private life is sexist, unfounded, and inexcusable. Its only true purpose is to punish women when they cross over the artificial boundary from Madonna to whore, when they stray away from the publicly-acceptable appearance of women as pure and asexual, and into the apparently uncomfortable reality that many people are sexual beings.
But the story right now isn’t Vanessa Hudgens and what happened to her back in 2007-~-it’s what’s going on right now, and the fact that it is still going on right now. In his article on Forbes.com, Mendelson writes that: “Ms. Lawrence and the other victims have absolutely nothing to apologize for in terms of the contents of the photos or the nature in which they were leaked. The story itself should not be addressed as if it were a scandal, but rather what it is: A sex crime involving theft of personal property and the exploitation of the female body.” He hits the nail right on the head. It doesn’t matter whether one thinks it’s wise to take and/or transmit nude photos electronically. It’s not the responsibility of women like those targeted in this incident to never take provocative photos so that they can never be stolen. The person or people who should be ashamed, who should be held accountable, are the hackers who stole these individuals’ private information and distributed it for the world to see.
Van Badlam, writing for the Guardian, speaks to this issue as well, stating that “It’s not merely tawdry that the private sexual conversations of partners are now being disseminated like memes. Sharing these images is not the same as making a joke including characters such as Doge, Grumpy Catand Sad Keanu. It’s an act of sexual violation, and it deserves the same social and legal punishment as meted out to stalkers and other sexual predators.” She goes on to discuss the idea that prosecution may not be limited to the hackers, once they are caught, but to those who view and distribute the photos as well. The reality of the situation is that to look at this photos is as if one were a so-called “Peeping Tom”, someone who trespassed on private property and intimate moments for one’s own enjoyment, and just as we consider those activities illegal, we need to treat the dissemination and viewing of these photo as being just as violative.
Celebrities may offer up their public image to us, but that doesn’t mean that they are willing to share their most intimate moments with the public. Pictures of Jennifer Lawrence on the red carpet and pictures of her in her bedroom are two entirely different situations, and we as a society need to come to understand that women’s bodies are not just objects for public consumption, and that fame does not negate an individuals’ right to safety and privacy.