Stronger passwords will never be enough: On "safety," policing women's choices and doing violence's work

Leaked photos of nude stars have ignited a new version of the same old victim-blaming. Here's why it never stops

Published September 2, 2014 4:15PM (EDT)

Model Kate Upton attends the 2013 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue launch party at Crimson on Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2013 in New York.(Photo by Brad Barket/Invision/AP)     (Brad Barket)
Model Kate Upton attends the 2013 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue launch party at Crimson on Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2013 in New York.(Photo by Brad Barket/Invision/AP) (Brad Barket)

This weekend, someone (or some group of someones) broke into the iCloud accounts of a number of women, stole photos from these women and then posted them online. These women happen to be famous, so a lot of the headlines have been about Jennifer Lawrence and Kate Upton, but their status really doesn't matter all that much. They weren't targeted simply because they were celebrities, they were targeted because they were women with names the public knew and bodies men felt entitled to see. The stolen nude photos were meant to titillate the millions of anonymous strangers who would consume them, and shame the women who took them. Both of these things have already happened, are still happening right now.

The predictable response to the theft of these images has been a lot of finger wagging about whether women should take nude photos. There are tips about strengthening passwords, admonitions about the Internet being forever. But the passwords could never be strong enough, and all of the other "precautions" women are supposed to take so that they can exist in the world will always somehow fall short. Because the rules are just different for us. There will always be a way to twist these stories of violation into something about women's complicity in whatever degradation or violence has been foisted upon us. It feels exhausting and repetitive to write those words. More exhausting, perhaps, is to think them with such regularity and know that it's true.

Last week, there was news that a nail polish was being developed that, we were told, could detect the presence of date rape drugs in drinks. Talking about it with a girlfriend, we nearly blurted out in unison, "They will use this to blame women for being raped." The next morning, I found that the critique was common among other feminists on Twitter. Putting aside the fact that this nail polish probably wouldn't work, and that its existence presumes all women want to wear nail polish or that most rape victims present femme or that women can universally dip their fingers into the narrow necks of bottles or the jagged lips of cans of cheap beer or that the nail polish can't do anything about alcohol that -- often drugless -- has still been weaponized by a rapist, and you have another product in a long stream of products and ideas that once again puts the onus of stopping sexual assault squarely on women's shoulders.

And when women are raped anyway, because we have yet to address the root issue of violent sexual entitlement and the dehumanizing misogyny that holds women as deserving of all manner of violence, we will read about why we are being naive by not painting our nails and dipping our fingers. These writers or television commentators will tell us that they aren't blaming the victims, but -- because there is always a "but" -- there's some shared responsibility when women simply won't smarten up about the world we live in.

The world we live in being one in which a female politician can write a book that includes a passage about the harassment she endured from her male colleagues and, despite this and other forms of violence against women being routine as the rising and setting sun, have her credibility and the veracity of her claims questioned by mainstream political journalists. Male journalists whose jobs require them to closely follow backroom boys club politics actually doubted that New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, one of only 20 women in the Senate, a political body that has only ever included 34 women in its history, could experience that degree of overt sexism. Others weighed in by demanding that Gillibrand name her harassers, arguing that she was duty bound to share information that she did not elect to share for reasons that were likely both personal and political. It's a great tradition in the political memoir to talk some heavy shit about colleagues past and present, but the rules for Gillibrand were somehow different. She needed to name names if we were meant to believe her -- or have empathy for her.

Trends in technology and security or think pieces about women and alcohol or female politicians with books to promote will come and go. The names and the specifics of each story will shift, but the bedrock of humiliating and harming women will remain constant because that is the host that feeds the big sickness. As Dana Bolger recently wrote in a piece about the costs of blaming victims for being victimized, this policing of women's choices and movement through the world "does violence's work for it." It does violence's work and it is violence.

So, sure, change your passwords. Follow the news about what Apple may do to address whatever breach allowed for this theft to occur. Monitor as laws criminalizing this kind of activity progress, and then question what the consequences of those laws will be. Paint your nails and only walk home in groups. Aim for whatever the moving target of compliant femininity becomes and hope you'll be safe. I have done these things and will continue to. But I know, like most women know, that it will never be enough. Could never be enough. Not as long as we keep treating the symptoms while letting the sickness fester.

By Katie McDonough

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at

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