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Shame — not sex — is what feeds the trolls

When we treat sexuality as something to be ashamed of, we help hackers shame female celebrities

September 3, 2014 6:00AM ET

Earlier this week, more than a hundred celebrities — almost all of them female — found that their private, nude photos had been illicitly downloaded and leaked to the internet. Many of these celebrities — including Jennifer Lawrence and Kate Upton — had stored photos on Apple’s iCloud service, leading some to suspect that hackers had accessed the private photos by exploiting flaws in iCloud’s security.

It’s not the first time that this has happened, but it is the most notable instance of hackers violating the privacy of female celebrities in recent years. And in the wake of the affair, numerous commentators have offered opinions on what we should take from this large-scale violation of privacy. In The Guardian, Roxane Gay argued that the disproportionate targeting of female celebrities is a symptom of a misogynistic culture that views public humiliation and sexual degradation as the price of being famous and female. Over at Forbes, Scott Mendelson rejected the “scandal” nomenclature, saying that the hacking is, in fact, a sex crime, one we as a culture must combat by educating men not to assault.

As the former proprietor of Fleshbot, a website devoted to discussion of all sorts of adult content, I have, at various points, personally benefited from the leaked nude photos of various celebrities, both male and female. Over the years, leaked photos of Scarlett Johansson, Christina Hendricks, Rihanna and many others generated popular stories for Fleshbot, boosting traffic with page views in the six figures. All the photos profiled on Fleshbot were shot with the model’s consent, and when TV personality Erin Andrews was illicitly photographed in her hotel room, we declined to cover the story, viewing it a step too far.

I am skeptical that the breathless media outcry against this leak — or any of those that have come before — actually helps to reduce their future occurrence; if anything, it might actually make the situation worse. When we treat sexuality as something to be ashamed of, we provide hackers with the incentive to shame female celebrities by publicizing their sexuality. And the more we decry leaks like these as an especially disgusting violation of privacy, one far worse than the litany of paparazzi photos that fill the pages of supermarket tabloids, the more we reinforce the idea that sex — and, in particular, female sexuality — is a notably shameful thing. 

Disgusting violations

Logic dictates that if a leaked nude photo is dramatically worse than any other violation of privacy — say, snapshots of Brangelina's children, or Jessica Simpson’s plate of fried chicken — it must be because sex itself is shameful, to be kept permanently behind closed doors if enjoyed while female. And the more we reinforce the notion of female sexuality as shameful, the more we reinforce the idea that the best way to humiliate and take down a woman is by reminding the world that she’s a sexual being.

If we truly want to safeguard women from “revenge porn” and public shamings (not to mention salacious invasions of privacy that aren’t framed as shame or revenge) we need to do away with the notion that sexuality itself is in any way humiliating.

If we truly want to protect the privacy of female celebrities, we should stop treating their sexual violation as newsworthy events.

Celebrities should not “laugh off” their violation if it upsets them. But it is worth noting that public statements of outrage seem largely to fuel the cycle of abuse and harassment. Actress Mary Winstead’s statements on Twitter following the publication of her nude pictures served mainly to open her up to further assault, with Twitter users taking her distress as further opportunity to insult and objectify her. By contrast, those who ignored the story, or refused to express shame, appeared to fare a bit better.

Commentators have noted that male celebrities are far less likely to be the target of illicitly leaked nudes. But male celebrities are nonetheless targeted, and it is interesting to see the difference in coverage. When Kanye West’s crotch shot made it online in 2010, few considered it an assault or even of note. Similarly, an extended court case between Terry “Hulk Hogan” Bollea and Gawker Media has revealed that few feel sympathy for a pro-wrestler whose nonconsensually recorded sexploits wind up online. In a statement that might have been deemed slut shaming had Bollea been born a girl, a Florida judge ruled that because the wrestler had publicly discussed certain aspects of his sex life, he had waived the right to keep any of it private.

Are we more sympathetic to female hacking victims because they’ve suffered a more vicious crime? Or is our lack of concern for male victims the cause, and not the result, of their comparatively low risk of public humiliation?

It’s hard to know the true answer. But until we discover it, I do know this: If we truly want to protect the privacy of female celebrities, we should stop treating their sexual violation as newsworthy events. However noble our intentions, the more light we cast in the direction of these photos, the more we enshrine these private moments as matters of public concern. And at the end of the day, the only people truly benefiting from the media frenzy are those who work in media. If we stopped treating public proof of female celebrities’ sex lives as the ultimate violation, maybe we’d take away the incentive to use sex as a weapon against women. 

Lux Alptraum is a writer, sex educator, comedian and consultant.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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