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The Blame Game Surrounding the Stolen Celebrity Nude Photos

celebrity leaked nudes, jennifer lawrence

Art Credit: Marta Spendowska

There are few things as depressing in life as a naked selfie. First, there’s the self-conscious and lonely nature of almost any solo selfie. There’s that temptation to compare oneself with others and scrutinize their looks in the photo. And now, thanks to the stolen celebrity nude pics that have taken the Internet by storm this week, there’s also the ugliness of theft, the depth of embarrassment, and the idiocy of Internet comments to add to the depressingness of it all.

In the days since the stolen nude pics of Jennifer Lawrence and others were hacked from their iPhones and disseminated online, a multi-layered cultural conversation has ensued. The public responses fall mainly into three categories. I call them the “shame on you” deflection, the “own it” phenomenon, and “the fappening” fallout. And honestly, they're all just as depressing as the situation itself.

“Shame on you” was among the first public responses. Those girls shouldn’t have taken the photos in the first place. If they hadn’t taken them, they wouldn’t be online. Sure, I get it. But many have—rightly—claimed that this emphasis takes focus away from the real violator (the hacker) and violators (viewers).

Lena Dunham tweeted as much, comparing it to rape culture:

“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."

I applaud Dunham’s feminist reminder that we should beware of the tendency to blame the women when people violate them. But it’s strange hearing this from Dunham whose HBO show Girls contributes to the media culture of sexual voyeurism that nurtures public demand for photos like these. Well, nobody’s perfect.

Then there’s the “own it” response that many Twitter users have noted after seeing Lawrence’s photos online. Hey, sucks this happened, but you look good, so own it! This thinking is troubling as well, as it suggests that after one is violated they should act like it’s no big deal, even embrace it after the fact.

Lawrence might have laughed off flubs like tripping up the stairs at the Academy Awards in the past, but laughing it off when people disseminate naked photos of you against your will is quite another thing. To “own it” really means to buckle under social pressure and desperately seek the feeling of being in control. It’s an understandable temptation since it feels horrible to not be in control, but faking it doesn’t help. I’ve known more than one woman who has attempted to “own it” after receiving an unwanted sexual advance from a man, and it’s heart-breaking.

Lastly, there’s the unfortunate term “the fappening.” At least that’s how the photo leak has been nicknamed, referring to what countless viewers do upon searching for these photos online: fapping (for the uninitiated, that's masturbating). But the sad reality is this is the largest public response to the leaked photos—not participating in the above cultural conversations at all; just quietly taking advantage of the stolen photos for a moment of personal pleasure. The idea is it’s already out there, so what harm is it for me to look?

The harm is that it perpetuates the thinking that you somehow deserve to sexually access women, whether they consent or not. In a subtle and ugly way, it affects you theviewer. It furthers the slipping of our culture into thinking that it doesn’t matter how a pornographic picture was obtained for someone to gain pleasure from it—whether the woman had personal photos leaked, was abused in revenge porn by an ex-boyfriend, or was being sex-trafficked. As James Poniewozik at TIME Magazine writes, it’s a loss of decency.

A Case Against the Nude Selfie

It may be easiest to put the blame on one party, but as always things are more complex than that. In my view, there are unethical actions across the board, if we’re being honest. And by ethics here, I’m talking the most elementary moral code of “If you would be embarrassed for someone to find out, maybe you shouldn’t do it.” The photo takers are very likely now regretting they took the photos. The viewers of these photos would likely regret if others knew they searched for them. And the hackers and distributors will very likely regret if they’re found by the FBI.

I think it's clear that the hackers and everyone viewing the images are in the wrong. You're violating these women's privacy and using them sexually against their will. But is saying “you shouldn’t take nude photos” always and necessarily a statement that blames women? I don’t think so.

Since the hacking incident, articles at places like Forbeshave recommended people disable iCloud if they want to ensure their privacy. Would anyone suggest recommendations such as these are blaming the women for having iCloud enabled? Obviously not. The point is safeguards are worth considering and worth taking. Disable iCloud on your iPhone. Use a Polaroid camera instead. Maybe consider not taking nude photos to begin with. Choose your own precaution, but let’s not act like the latter is off limits.

It’s just like safeguarding one’s social security number or bank information. We all know we shouldn’t send such information via email because it could be stolen. Does that reduce the blameworthiness of the hackers who would steal it? No. But do we learn to not type credit-card numbers in emails after we’ve been burned by fraud? Yes.

Similarly, it’s not unheard of for a woman who has been abused somehow in past relationships to be more careful about sharing herself in the future with someone she doesn’t trust. This isn’t women-blaming. It’s called living and learning.

If we consider the morality of each’s intention, the hackers have done the greatest crime for purposefully violating the women’s privacy, and the viewers are secondarily at fault for intentionally seeking the stolen images and furthering demand for the hackers’ crimes. The women are least at fault since they didn’t intend to publish the photos. Heck, they might have even taken the photos on an impulse and then deleted them immediately; it didn’t stop the hackers from being able to access them among deleted files.

But that’s the thing: taking a nude photo generally does have a moral dimension. It’s risky, and that’s why people who take them often delete them. We’re missing something if we gloss over this.

There’s a natural risk as soon as we take our naked bodies, with all our intangible vulnerabilities, and put it on paper or on a screen. It takes an irreplaceable, multidimensional human being and compresses her to 326 pixels per inch. The fullness of the person doesn’t translate.

It doesn’t matter whether the image is shared with the world, someone close to us, or just ourselves, because the problem is not just that others can potentially use the image to exploit and objectify us. There's something potentially greater at risk. That we zero in on perceived imperfections. That we judge ourselves by beauty standards we see in the media. That we feel the need to alter our look to appeal to someone else. That we cheapen something that’s priceless.

Certainly we’re right to be most outraged with the fappers and hackers objectifying women. But is there not more insidious harm when we objectify ourselves? If social security numbers are valuable and private and meant to be safeguarded, how much more ought we safeguard our beautiful selves?

In our hearts, I think we know: we deserve better, from others, and from ourselves.