It’s been all over the news. Dozens of female celebrities, including Jennifer Lawrence and Kate Upton, were targeted in a large-scale leak of nude photographs, released by way of image boards like 4chan and proliferated across the internet to porn sites and gossip blogs, like Perez Hilton (who has since removed the photos altogether).
The sharing and proliferation of these images is a violation — of privacy, of image, of sexual self. As Mary Elizabeth Winstead pointed out in a Sept. 1 tweet, those photographs were likely taken as a consensual act of intimacy. They weren’t taken for creeps on the internet to degrade and commodify — and not one of the women targeted consented to having their intimate photos displayed.
Even worse is that this is hardly an isolated incident. These women aren’t the first celebrities to be violated like this; remember Miley Cyrus, who was made to apologize for the publishing of private sexual material while she was a minor, or Anne Hathaway, whose careful control over her image was undermined. The women involved in this leak represent, in fact, only a small fraction of women whose intimate photographs were shared without their consent.
This leak is undeniably connected to revenge porn. Illegal in most states, revenge porn is a sex crime; scorned lovers share sexually explicit photographs in a blatant violation of consent. But revenge porn’s consumers argue that the consent of the subject is irrelevant, because women who are victims of revenge porn committed the two cardinal female sins: They dared to participate in consensual sexual acts, and they then dared to deny a man intimacy. This is the same punitive logic applied to other sexual assaults: you deserve it for showing off your sexuality, or you deserve it for denying it to men.
And, as in Lawrence’s case, you have to prove ownership of your intimate self to keep it from being shared by strangers. Lawrence is currently fighting an uphill battle to have her photographs removed from a number of websites, primarily porn sites. Those websites that refuse to remove her photograph are exploiting a legal loophole: To force a website to remove content, one has to furnish evidence of copyright, and since some of the photographs of Lawrence were evidently taken by another person, she isn’t the copyright holder.
It’s as if the preservation of copyright were more important than Lawrence’s right to consent and her ability to control who is privy to her most intimate self — as if she does not own herself. It’s ridiculous, and it’s the same tactic used to control the intimate lives of women for centuries.
An “artist” who goes by the name XVALA plans to hold a gallery showing of Lawrence’s photos and other images of “of celebrities in their most vulnerable and private moments,” according to the gallery hosting the exhibit, Cory Allen Contemporary Art. The owner of the gallery claimed in the same press release that XVALA’s work has “helped strengthen” the debate over online privacy.
XVALA has previously exploited other private and personal photographs of celebrities, including Scarlett Johansson, in the name of “art.” In an interview with LA Weekly, XVALA claimed to be transforming the work by removing it from its context — but the leaked images have already been removed from their context. None of these images were intended for public consumption. None of them should be hanging in an art gallery. Continuing to share them shows blatant disrespect for the women depicted there; indeed, many of the celebrities involved have already stated publicly that they will be pursuing legal action against those who continue to share them.
Hanging these photographs in a gallery doesn’t make them art. It just reveals XVALA to be an uncaring, tone-deaf sham artist with no respect for anyone. XVALA, by sharing those photographs further, is just as bad as the person who posted them in the first place.
Isn’t enough enough? Shouldn’t we protect the victims of this heinous crime from further hurt? That they want the photographs removed should serve as proof enough that they are suffering. Isn’t the law supposed to step in when society cannot prevent unnecessary damage to its citizens? But the law, too, is failing: XVALA claims to have a lawyer, and seems confident that the law is on his side. Even today, the legality of a sex crime is debatable.
Make no mistake: These celebrities are all victims of a sex crime. This was large-scale revenge porn, meant to simultaneously punish dozens of women for the crimes of being desirable and successful in the public sphere.
Under patriarchy, female success, especially unapologetic female success, is unacceptable. Women must live in fear of patriarchal punishment, ranging from microaggressions like harassment to unrelenting and sometimes cloying degradation of consent to physical violence, like the 2014 Isla Vista killings. The goal of this punishment is always the degradation of female will to power, by means of which women may become more easily controlled.
The leak falls somewhere between degradation and physical violence; though the violation those involved have experienced was not physical in nature, losing control over sexual images can mean losing control of a piece of your personhood. Woman becomes passive body, cut to discrete and consumable pieces without consent — the photo no longer represents a person sharing an intimate part of a complex and valuable self, but an object to be fantasized about, criticized, and consumed.
It doesn’t stop there. Users of the website 4chan attempted to manipulate female users into sharing nude photographs of themselves — in solidarity, they claimed. By painting it as a movement for solidarity, they belied (however ineffectively) their true intentions. The attempt to access sexually explicit images of other women is in fact a manifestation of the will to objectify, an act of patriarchal punishment with a beguiling false attitude.
It follows that the leak of these photographs and the demand for more represent a greater initiative to consume the female body as passive sex object — a large-scale manifestation of patriarchal violence, meant to reify women on a grand scale and degrade their consent by stripping them of their control over their image and intimate selves.
This is a last-ditch effort on the part of the patriarchy. Although systems of oppression are still active, and although the Internet has been used as a tool to further those systems, the spread of information has made way for mass education about the ways in which the world is stacked against women and the innate injustice of it all. For the most part, mainstream media has been unflinchingly supportive of the victims of this leak. Even on Fox News’ Four4Four, the pundits described the incident as a manifestation of sexism, and one described the backlash as “slut-shaming.”
Five years ago, no such mainstream support would have existed; now, the general consensus is that anyone who consumed those photographs has, in one simple act, fully violated the consent of the women in them. The outpouring of sympathy is the light at the end of the tunnel.