It’s almost touching, really, to remember the era in which we could be scandalized by a single celebrity nude. In the 2000s, a simple photo of Britney Spears getting out of a cab without panties, or a tape of Paris Hilton having sex in front of a night-vision camera, or even a ripped-open Janet Jackson outfit at the Superbowl, could bring pop culture to a screeching halt, as every pundit within five miles of a TV studio and/or keyboard clocked in to wring their hands about the young ladies today, and all the scandalous things they got up to. Such as, for example, having breasts, or vaginas, which we might occasionally see. Those young ladies! Always causing a fuss!
Well: Time marches on. And since we have not, as yet, figured out how to transcend the flesh and become glowing orbs of pure cosmic energy, women still tend to possess human genitalia. Which they still, sometimes, put on film. Yet this week’s Great 4Chan Photo Leak — which purports to include stolen nude photos of over 50 female celebrities, including Jennifer Lawrence, Kate Upton, Ariana Grande, and pretty much everyone else you have or haven’t heard of — makes the nude photo scandals of previous years look almost quaint. Instead of a leak, we get a deluge. Instead of targeting a single woman and shaming her for having a sex life, or just a human body that can be sexualized, we’re now shaming the general concept of “female celebrity.” Or, really, the concept of “female.”
First things first: Stealing the photos, or posting them anywhere on the Internet, is entirely non-consensual. It is an act of sexual assault. Personally, I’d put intentionally looking at the photos in that same category. (And yes, sadly, I have to say “intentionally,” because women who have condemned stealing or sharing the photos on social media are themselves being assaulted by Internet denizens forcing the photos into their feeds.) This is true whether the photos are real or fake, whether they are posted for sexual gratification or “news value,” whether you look at them out of sexual desire or spite or curiosity. Ariana Grande says her photos are fake, Jennifer Lawrence says hers are real. Porn sites will almost certainly post the photos as porn, Perez Hilton posted them as “entertainment news.” Doesn’t matter. You don’t get to have a sexual interaction with another human being against her will. You do not get to strip someone or watch her have sex against her will. You may only do those things with people who want to do them, such as lovers or paid, consenting porn performers, who are making the choice to do those things with or for you. If you force someone to serve as a porn performer, knowing it to be against her will, you are sexually assaulting that person. So don’t.
Secondly, and just as important: If you ignore these useful guidelines, and go ahead and sexually assault someone, it’s not her fault. It’s yours. Yes, she took the photos. This isn’t a horrible, foolish life choice: It’s an extremely common form of foreplay. Like all consensual sex, it tends to take place between people who find each other attractive and trust each other to a reasonable extent, and is meant to stay between those two people. The choice to have consensual sex with one person never automatically equates to consent for sex with anyone else: Your neighbor has sex with her husband, but that doesn’t mean you’re entitled to sex with your neighbor. Mary Elizabeth Winstead took some sexy photos for her husband, but that doesn’t mean you’re entitled to look at Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s sexy photos. If you Googled, and you clicked “post,” you bear the responsibility.
It shouldn’t be difficult to understand any of these points, and it shouldn’t be “extreme” or radical to make them. What clouds the issue is the fact that we live in a culture that is so confused and angry about female sexuality that many of us honestly cannot tell the difference between being sexual and being forcibly sexualized, or between wanting to have sex with a woman and wanting to punish, humiliate and hurt her.
We still live in the wreck of the Victorian era, and its Cult of True Womanhood. A True Woman — which pretty much no-one ever managed to be; you had to be rich and white just to qualify, and the criteria got more exclusive from that point forward — was the moral and sexual gatekeeper of the world, single-handedly responsible for keeping public life from deteriorating into one big, violent orgy.
Men, in this philosophy, were capable brutes: Strong, yes, and therefore the only gender suited for demanding pursuits such as intellectual work or the running of nations, but also moral degenerates, less naturally sympathetic to Christ’s gospel, and possessed of an uncontrollable lust. Women, meanwhile, were too weak to work, and not too bright, but their very fragility made them more naturally religious. Also, crucially, True Women didn’t enjoy sex. So women were useless for pretty much everything, it turned out, except for improving the behavior of men: It was their responsibility to withhold sex, teach men Christian virtue, and inspire a protective instinct in the naturally predatory male through copious displays of incompetence. By providing moral uplift and strategically refusing sexual pleasure, True Women got men to marry them, at which point they served as in-home educators on morality, and — out of pure compassion, one assumes — provided a sexual outlet that kept their husbands from fucking everything in sight.
The already patronizing compliment of True Womanhood, of course, came with one very nasty hidden clause: If a man did happen to rape you, impregnate and abandon you, or beat you up, well, it was clear that your Womanhood was not True enough. Men were brutes, and therefore not responsible for behaving brutally; women (true women, anyway) were naturally able to keep men in line, so if a man stepped over the line with a woman, she was the one who’d failed.
Fast-forward to the 21st century, and though we’ve ditched the corsets and steam engines, we still haven’t gotten past the idea that it’s natural for men to objectify and assault any woman they can get their hands on, and that it’s women’s job to be “good” enough to keep it from happening. When the culture participates in wide-scale sexual assault via photo, we still respond by tut-tutting those women for taking the photos. A “good” woman wouldn’t be so foolish. A “good” woman wouldn’t enjoy sex enough to be that sexually vulnerable.
Meanwhile, in pop culture and entertainment journalism, we still separate women into “good” girls and “bad” girls, and the “badness” of those girls is still defined primarily by their willingness to enjoy sex. Neither kind of woman enjoys any degree of safety: Women that we’ve decreed “bad” — like Rihanna, from the 4Chan leaks; you could also look at the latter-day Miley Cyrus, or the latter-day Britney Spears — are called whores and idiots, and we feel entitled to any stolen sexual images of them because their bodies are public property. Having given up their claim to “virtue,” they’ve given up their claim to privacy or respect. But women we’ve decreed “good” — like Ariana Grande, from the 4Chan leaks; you could also look at the early Miley Cyrus, or the early Britney Spears — are, if possible, even more endangered. They’re granted temporary respect, but only at the cost of disavowing sexual desire. If a “bad girl’s” nude photos are posted online, she will be blamed for it, and it will temporarily intensify the public’s constant scorn and hatred. Dip two inches deep into the Internet, and you’ll find countless comments deeming Nicki Minaj, or Rihanna, or Miley Cyrus, a “whore.” But if a “good girl” has her nude photos posted — as happened to seemingly invulnerable Disney idol Vanessa Hudgens, in 2008 — it has a strong chance of destroying her career. Even if she survives, she’ll have fallen into the “bad girl” camp, and will be scorned all the harder for having fallen.
If women’s sexuality is always a moral flaw, always a problem, then it makes no real difference if a woman is willingly sexualizing herself, or being sexually assaulted; it doesn’t matter if she wants sex with one person, or if she’s being forcibly exposed to millions for sexual gratification. Either one deviates from the acceptable conditions for being a woman, and therefore one can be punished with the other. It is, as always, about power: I suspect a lot of the men downloading pictures of celebrities against their will want to be reassured that their male privilege still holds, that no matter how unexceptional they are, they’re still powerful enough to rape a celebrity.
But others are looking for a “good girl,” a True Woman, who never existed: A woman who’s sexually appealing and devoid of all sexual desire, who lives in neutral, always just pretty and good enough to make us like her, without ever experiencing the kind of desire that might get her to text a naked photo to the person she’s dating. A woman so pretty and so well-behaved that she can somehow convince the world not to hurt her.
Within days of the photo leaks, someone produced a meme of actress Emma Watson — one of the few young actresses to be spared from the leaks — looking appropriately smug. “That’s the secret, girls: I don’t take naked selfies,” the caption read.
Well: Maybe. Or maybe she hasn’t had her photos stolen yet. She almost certainly has sex, and — what’s worse — experiences sexual desire. There is no girl, anywhere, who’s “good” enough. Mass assaults like the 4Chan leaks exist to scare us civilians back into line, back into pretending that we can measure up. It’s only when we grow up, and come to terms with the fact that True Women don’t exist, that we’ll stop scapegoating women for men’s bad behavior, or for the existence of desire.