I did it. I am embarrassed to admit it, but I did: I searched for the celebrity nudes stolen by a hacker over the weekend. It was an almost unconscious reaction, like pulling away when touching something hot — only the opposite. There are celebrity nudes? Rush toward them.
It wasn’t sexual; I wasn’t looking to get turned on. I just wanted to know. What were these photos? How “bad” were they? As a woman in the world, I am all too aware of the perpetual possibility of being shamed or violated myself. It’s hard not to take such newsmaking events — regardless of whether they happen to a celebrity — as a warning. Besides, unless I searched for the images, I wouldn’t know whether they showed Ariana Grande delicately wrapped in a bed sheet or spinning sequined nipple tassels while juggling baby monkeys. My curiosity and concern, I told myself, shouted down the other voices in my head — the ones saying that these photos were stolen, that it was a violation of their privacy, that these women were being victim-blamed and slut-shamed for having taken these private photos in the first place. Sisterly solidarity, right? No — basic humanity.
I did it anyway.
“Oh, she’s so gorgeous!” I said out loud, when I came across the stolen images of Jennifer Lawrence. As though complimenting a woman while violating her privacy makes the thing any better. Her poses were all so familiar, seemingly the result of the directions of a man behind the camera, not to mention decades of indoctrination about what sexy looks like. Arched back, parted lips. Suddenly I was seeing myself in the photos — my younger, carefree self that posed for similar shots for now long-gone partners. The photos were relatable, but even still — or perhaps because of it — I kept looking. Lawrence’s body became the body of all women — me, my friends, the women at the gym and professional naked women alike. We all shared this dangerous condition of being female. This paradoxical plight of having bodies that are both worshiped and derided; desirable and dispensable; remarkable and interchangeable.
I don’t think I’d realized until then just how inured I’d become to the female body — and, frankly, violations against it. The very foundation of the Internet is built upon the endless availability of partially clothed or naked women — many willing, some not. I’m not just talking about what is traditionally considered porn — take the creepshots, the upskirts, the ex-girlfriend photos and sex tapes, the revenge porn. When it comes to women, sex and the Internet, there are so many “gotchas” and so much resentment. The violation of women’s consent is a favorite genre of titillation online and off; the thrill is in seeing what they don’t want you to see — or getting them to do what they don’t want to do. Some of this is overtly staged — particularly in the faux reality porn that is so popular these days — and so it becomes easy to excuse even real violations as harmless make-believe.
It’s also just too easy to forget that what happens online is real. We’re granted so much anonymity and privacy — unless, of course, you’re a woman on the Internet — that it’s difficult not to become lesser people online.
When you’ve explored the darkest corners of the Web — whether driven by strictly, ahem, personal interests, or like I have for my job as a sex writer — women’s naked bodies become somewhat unremarkable. This might be a good thing if it meant a more enlightened attitude toward nudity and sexuality, but it is just the opposite. Nudity is so ubiquitous online that it requires something more to spice it up, and often that’s a notable lack of consent. It’s the believable ex-girlfriend snapshot, the leaked sex tape that thrives online.
You see enough of that stuff and looking at stolen nudes of Jennifer Lawrence doesn’t seem like such a big deal — but it is. As Scott Mendelson wrote on Forbes.com, “It is a crime that has turned the entire online community into potential peeping Toms with little-to-no accountability for the consumers of said stolen property/invasion of privacy,” he wrote. “It is a crime of theft with the intent to exploit its victims as punishment for the unpardonable sin of being female.” It’s also a crime that turns plenty of women like myself into their own oppressors.