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One thing brought up by this theft of celebrity nudes is the question of why we take naked photos in the first place. I don’t mean that in the victim-blaming sense of “that’s so dumb, why would you ever take a naked photo because obviously everyone will see it.” Although I do think it’s remarkable that naked photo leaks and thefts have seemingly done little to deter this impulse; clearly, taking naked photos is an important part of many people’s sexuality. We’ve taken, and allowed other people to take, naked photos of ourselves since long before the age of the smartphone or the portentous “cloud.” For as long as photography has existed, so too have nude photographs. But why?
In part, it can feel like a truer way of seeing yourself, says Madeleine Castellanos, a psychiatrist specializing in sexuality. “There is a universal curiosity to be able to see ourselves as other people see us,” she says. “By taking a picture, we can get a more objective and removed view that, at least in our mind, might come closer to what another person sees when they look at us.” She adds, “In the same spirit of seeing ourselves as other people do, taking pictures of yourself also helps feed this urge to constantly compare yourself to others to see if you are as attractive or sexy.” With the explosion of online porn, there is just so much more to compare yourself to.
The cultural critic John Berger once wrote, “To be naked is to be oneself. To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognized for oneself.” Ian Kerner, a New York sex therapist, says of this line, “He was speaking of societal objectification of the body, but when we take a nude photo of ourselves and share it with a lover we are recognized for oneself sexually and that’s extremely powerful and arousing. The power of exhibitionism lies in being seen and being appreciated and to experience this recognition at a sexual level is intensely stimulating.” But when these photos are shared in a less intimate way — and certainly in a non-consensual context — “the more one is nude in the sense that Berger meant,” Kerner argues.
There’s also an element of submission in sharing a naked selfie, he says. “To be able to share a sexy photo with a partner can be an expression of the safety and security in a relationship, which makes them all the more arousing,” he explains. If only it was as simple as having a trustworthy partner. Kerner adds that “nude photos can be a kind of sexy secret between two partners, a token and totem of the intimacy between two people.” When you share a nudie pic in the context of a relationship, it’s both a pledge and leap of faith that nothing will go wrong in the relationship. No cheating, no lies, no betrayals, no heartbreak — nothing that could fracture trust or inspire revenge. A naked photo is a virtual promise ring.
Of course, on the most basic level, naked photos are about sexual performance, even when they’re intended for an audience of one. ”When working with patients on their fantasies, exhibitionism is high on the list, and taking or sending photos is a fairly normalized, and culturally accepted, version of exhibitionism,” he says. “It’s a way of dipping a toe into the shallow end of sexual adventurousness.”
Kerner makes another point that might be especially relevant in the case of female celebrities’ nudes: “We live in an age of sexual objectification, and taking a sexy selfie or allowing a partner to do so is a way of taking control of the objectification process and feeling sexually empowered, or enjoying that objectification through the eyes of an intimate partner.” A naked selfie might be a powerful way for a female star, whose career is built around her physique and sex appeal, to reclaim her body — which just makes the recent photo thefts that much more of an insult.