Rape Culture in Celebrity Photo Theft

This photo Jennifer Lawrence has consented to you seeing

A few days ago a hacker (or team of hackers) successfully stole nude photos of approximately 100 celebrity women. Those photos were quickly spread all over the Internet and the person(s) responsible have yet to be caught. This is a large-scale sex crime. There should be no sugarcoating of that fact. Unfortunately, as often the case with sex crimes, many are blaming the victims or in only a slight variation, blame their choice of technology. Let’s examine the basic lines of thought that pop up:

Shouldn’t Take Nudes

This is the argument that is closest to the usual rape culture approach. It isn’t the rapist’s fault, it is her’s because she drank too much, had a low-cut shirt, had tight pants, danced with him, was out after midnight, and so many other variations. It’s partly based on assuming men are mindless sex robots, which I take offense to. We do not have to rape a woman if she does any or all of the things above. We do not have to steal her pictures just because she has taken them. We do not have to look at them just because somebody put them on the Internet. We have the freedom to be better than that.

They have the right to do whatever they want with their consenting partner or even just to do it for fun by themselves (whether that is the case for many people, I don’t know).

If a stranger broke through the window of a house while a couple was having sex and sat down to watch, we wouldn’t typically think it appropriate to join him for the show. We can generally agree that sex and nudity are good things when all of the involved parties are adults consenting to what is going on. When that consent is removed, that is a sex crime. These photo thefts are no different than sex trafficking women for a strip club and we usually wouldn’t think to blame the woman just because she once took off her clothes to get in the shower.

Shouldn’t Use iCloud

This one has come mostly from my fellow BlackBerry fanboys (not the fangirls, notably) on my Twitter feed. I get it. We like to take shots at the superpower tech rival and point out that in the area of security BlackBerry is far superior. It’s true that iCloud should re-examine some of their security protocols and there should be a bit of media scrutiny to encourage them to do better. But it should never be at the expense of victims. It’s one thing to tell Apple they need to provide better security with iCloud, even to encourage people to use technologies better in that area if that is a concern for them. It’s another thing to say that the victims basically deserved it for using that technology, which unfortunately I have seen many doing. Was it the most secure choice? Of course not. But does that make it their fault? Of course not.

Let’s return to the analogy of a physical home break-in. Our hypothetical robber was able to get in fairly quickly thanks to a standard house lock instead of a much more intense security system. Is it the victim’s fault for using a technology that is less than the best? No. It is the thief’s fault for choosing to break in. If you want to have a better security system to limit the damage in the event that somebody tries to break in, you can definitely do that, but even if the door was completely unlocked it would still be the thief’s fault for walking in without consent and leaving with your property.

Shouldn’t Be a Celebrity

The next basic argument is that celebrities don’t have normal human rights. Of course it isn’t worded quite that way, but it is usually pretty close, along the lines of “when they choose to be famous, they choose to give up all their privacy.” That just isn’t true. They didn’t choose to give up all of their privacy. They did choose to give up some anonymity, for sure, knowing they’ll be identified in public and often followed by media. They did not, however, say that every photo they ever take is now public property or that every part of their body is public property.

I have a Twitter account, a Facebook account, a Google+ account, a LinkedIn account, a blog, and a whole bunch more. I definitely willingly signed away certain elements of privacy when I joined each. Specifically, whatever I post to each is shared with whoever I give access to in each. They are not shared publicly unless I say to share them publicly and the only things that go on them are what I choose to put them on them. I have control over what to share where to who. If we extended the logic applied to celebrities to me, we would also have to say that every element of my life is now completely public. If somebody snuck in my house and took a picture of me naked or raped me, is it my fault for having created a Twitter account?

In other words, this argument seems to be entirely predicated on saying that consenting to one thing to the public is the same as consenting everything to the public, which is kinda stupid once you think about it.

A lot of this argument seems to really be based on the underlying belief that women are not really fully human and celebrity women even less so. Women’s bodies are primarily seen as for a man’s enjoyment. Even if in general we do still see them as people worthy of respect, it’s still a step below a man’s right to obtain pleasure from her body. When she’s a celebrity, it is even worse.

That desire to claim women as our own seems even easier when she has already provided us entertainment in many ways, but we are again ignoring the important concept of consent. Her consenting to make us laugh or cry or be afraid is not the same as consenting to give up every part of her body for our pleasure. If she wants that kept private, it is despicable to take that away.

“Scandals” and “Leaks”

This is a more subtle approach than the full-out arguments above. It comes in how words are chosen. The two big ones I’ve seen have been “scandal” and “leak.” Let’s be clear that neither is appropriate for this situation.

A scandal is doing something wrong and getting caught. These women have done nothing wrong. Taking a nude photo of yourself is not illegal. I’m not sure anyone would even argue it is unethical when between consenting adults. So what did they get caught doing? Being attractive and famous women. That’s it. This isn’t a scandal. It’s a sex crime.

A leak is when somebody who has access to something that is supposed to be private chooses to make it public. To reference the BlackBerry fan community again, we see operating system leaks come out every once in a while. Those are generally coming from somebody within BlackBerry who manages to anonymously share something they aren’t supposed to. That is unethical, yes, although in the case of OS leaks I’m not sure how much BB really cares since it basically gets them beta testers.

Those leaks are not analogous to this crime. A better match would be somebody hacking into BlackBerry servers and stealing the most private company data: not just a new product, but also employee salaries, names, birthdates, addresses, that time that employee accidentally saved a private photo to his work space on his phone instead of his personal space (hard to do with a BlackBerry, but not the point), etc. That would not be a leak. That would be a massive theft. That is exactly what happened to these women.

Beware Rape Culture

I’m guessing that most people are not going to look at the photos. Even less will distribute them. There are many other ways, though, that we make it sound as if we are ok with this kind of massive sex crime. Watch out for the kind of language in yourself and others that has been circulating. Call it out when you hear it. These are victims. We need to stop treating them like the criminals just because they are women.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.

  • So glad I found this post after having the misfortune of finding a blog post called “Nude Photos and Stupid Women.”

    Thank you for this post. It’s a message that needs to be said.

  • Carl Shobner

    A crime, yes, but I wouldn’t agree with calling it a “sex crime”. But I’m no lawyer… And it makes no difference the players involved. Property was stolen and privacy was invaded. Funny, I didn’t hear anyone crying for Donald Sterling…

    To your first point: There’s a double standard regarding the level of responsibility expected of men in comparison to women in the area of sexuality. If, by analogy, a man gets drunk and stumbles home through a rough neighborhood flashing his cash at all the gangsters, we roll our eyes and say (or at least think) serves him right. Like it or not, sex is currency and libido is a rough neighborhood. Women have to take their share of responsibility for protecting themselves, which includes not carelessly tempting men with their bodies. With equal rights come equal responsibilities. Having said that, rape is of course always a crime just as mugging is always a crime.

    • I’m going to assume this is a genuine comment and not trolling. Here’s my response:

      A sex crime is sexual behaviour that is against the law. Stealing and distributing private nude photos is sexual behaviour and it is against the law.

      Donald Sterling is a very different scenario. The only point of commonality is that he thought he was saying it in private. Beyond that, he was never indicted for any crime – as he shouldn’t have been since he didn’t commit any. He was “punished” by his employer for violating the terms of employment. I put “punished” in quotes because yes, he was forced to sell the team for a record-breaking amount. He still came away with a massive profit. Lastly and most importantly, it actually was his fault! He did say something that went against the terms of his employment. He was not a victim in any way.

      Ok, on to the main point: your analogy is flawed. A man getting drunk and stumbling around with a few thousand dollars in a poor and violent neighbourhood is not the same as having private photos. A man having $40 in his wallet that only he and his wife know about while in the nicest neighbourhoods is a better analogy. Maybe if we were talking about a woman walking around naked in the red light district would be more fair – it would never be her fault but it obviously isn’t the wisest decision. These women had a reasonable expectation of safety just like I do when I walk to work with my wallet and BlackBerry.

      Even in scenarios like a woman walking naked through a red light district, we still need to avoid language like “Women have to take their share of responsibility for protecting themselves, which includes not carelessly tempting men with their bodies.” That’s blaming the victim. As you yourself pointed out, it is never the victim’s fault. Could their privacy have been safer if they never took any photos ever, never had any friends or family or sexual partners? Yes, which we could say of all of us. We also could go one step further with our own security: alarm systems, guns, top of the line encryption software, etc., but that isn’t a particularly good way to live even if we all could afford it.

      When we find ways to blame the victim, even with the language you use here before concluding that of course it is always a crime against them, we continue to promote the idea that sex – and women in general – are currency. If we want to change that idea, we have to change the language that we are using that promotes it. Their privacy was violated. Thousands of men thought and think that these women exist for their pleasure and it is their fault for allowing them that pleasure. That is wrong and it is not the victim’s fault, ever.

  • Guest

    Trolling? No, just offering my honest opinion in an open forum. Thanks for giving me the benefit of the doubt and posting such a thoughtful reply.

    I was agreeing with you that it is a crime. For me, the category is less relevant (especially since I know so little about criminal law). It seems more like a property crime to me. The fact that it was sexy pictures might be more of a consideration during sentencing (victim impact) than in defining the crime itself. I’m not sure. But no actual physical assault took place. Charge the perps with whatever you would be charged with if you stole my personal journal (the tell-all one!) and published the contents online.

    In broad terms, I consider what happened to these women to be very similar to what happened to Sterling. Both had property stolen and their privacy invaded and both were humiliated publicly as a result. Private communications should be respected and protected, if not by law, then at least by an understanding based upon common interest. The fact that they increasingly are not, and that that’s accepted and that we all participate to some degree in the degrading spectacle should be alarming. And it is, it seems, for both you and me. But I think Sterling, even though I disagree with him, was certainly a victim and had a right to privacy in spite of his views.

    As to my analogy, it’s a bit far-fetched but it works. I guess I confused the issue by not explaining that it was in reference (out of context to the main article) to the idea in the first paragraph under the subtitle Shouldn’t Take Nudes. (As far as taking nudes and sending them to your partner, I’m all for it.) My point was simply that adult men and women are equally responsible to make wise choices. For a woman (like the drunk guy in my analogy) to get drunk, act provocatively and then accompany a strange man back to his place to just “make out” is not a wise move. Is she to blame if she gets raped? I would have to say that, from a moral standpoint, she does share to some extent in the blame. I know it’s not popularly acceptable, but I believe that when you don’t take responsibility for yourself, you have to accept some part ownership of the consequences of your failure to do so. (But that’s a very specific and probably unusual example. Otherwise – obviously? – I don’t blame rape victims for getting raped any more than I blame subway riders for getting mugged.)

    Anyway, that’s my writing quota for this month. I should probably stick to cartoons or something. It’s beer and cartoons for the rest of October.