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We Need To Hold Media Accountable When Nude Celebrity Photos Are Posted

The language we're using when discussing the stolen celebrity photos is actually making things a lot worse.
September 3, 2014, 4:07pm

Image via screengrab

It is really very easy to forget that celebrities are human beings. They birth children and morph right into their bikini bodies in a matter of weeks. Their hair is always flawless. They maintain the utmost poise even when their clothing is literally just strapped over their nipples with double-sided tape.

Celebrities are widely regarded as superhuman idols built for worship, hatred, or a vapid combination of the two. And women’s bodies are routinely marketed as goods to be enjoyed by the public at large. Mash these viewpoints together and you get the perved-out pedestal actresses that people find themselves stuck spinning around on. The very idea of privacy for an actress is a joke, and to prove this (as I’m sure you’ve seen or heard by now) nude photos of a number of famous women were stolen and posted Sunday on 4chan, Reddit, and basically anywhere else on the internet where naked pictures are published.

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As we consider the horrendous nature and implications of what happened to Jennifer Lawrence, Kate Upton, and others, it is our responsibility to also consider the language used by media in the aftermath. Media outlets have made four crucial mistakes when it comes to the language they use to describe what happened over the weekend. The names of the women are splashed all over every headline. The word “hacker” is used to describe the person or persons who stole and posted the photos. The word “leaked” is also used to describe their actions. And many outlets were quick to blame holes in Apple’s security for the massive privacy breach.

When sex crimes happen IRL, we keep the name of the survivor secret for obvious reasons: safety and protection from public scrutiny and embarrassment, among others. Why, then, is it okay to spread the names of those experiencing virtual sex crimes all over the internet? What will using the names so prominently do other than re-victimize? I understand that big names like Lawrence and Upton help draw attention to the magnitude of the crime. It’s hard to get people to care about a nameless, faceless celebrity. But we as journalists need to be more responsible about it and think twice about which aspects of a story constitute public interest. Headlines like “Jennifer Lawrence’s Leaked Nude Photos Remind Us How Crappy The Internet Can Be For Women” are simply begging people to google “Jennifer Lawrence leaked nude photos” without having read the story. Outlets aren’t posting the photos this time around, and that’s good to see. But these headlines are blatant SEO plays shrouded in self-righteousness.

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Let’s be clear: The person or persons who stole the photos is a sex offender, not a hacker. Hackers aim to make all information open and free. Hackers do not, by definition, steal another person’s intimate and very private photographs and flaunt the results to the entire planet. By calling the perpetrator a hacker, we gloss over the issue at hand. We focus none of our attention on the sex crime, and all of our attention on the perpetrator’s intelligence—and the naked bodies of the celebrities in question.

Further, the word “leak” makes the whole affair sound like a hapless accident. It implies it’s somehow the fault of the naked person whose photos were stolen, as though the photos were a publicity stunt. And blaming Apple is, again, ignoring the crime—although, calling awareness to such a major security flaw is, at the end of the day, a good thing.

Even still, the fact that our society wants to actively ignore crimes against women is nothing new, but casting around to blame anyone but the perpetrators is next level.

We need to care about this because actresses are just women. Because of their desire to pursue their art, they are already forced to give up such basic joys as not being chased by paparazzi in public, or not being photographed by various peeping toms whilst in a bikini on vacation. As Roxane Gay says, anyone who dares to threaten the status quo is in danger of this kind of crime. But they shouldn’t dare to have sex lives, which is funny because the same people who are saying this are the ones looking at the pictures of their sex lives. How ironic! The logistics just do not hold up, and the hypocrisy in the criticism of Lawrence is grotesque.

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Many of us (ahem, Ricky Gervais) behave as though others should meet with certain punishment for venturing to have a private sex life. This is a ludicrous argument. We do our banking, register for classes, communicate with colleagues, make friends, go shopping, and learn online—in so many ways, our lives have transferred to the virtual realm, and sex is no different.

As noted Toronto feminist advocate and social media expert Steph Guthrie points out to the CBC:

“We all feel that we are entitled to access to celebrities, to their bodies, to their private lives. And I think to some extent, that’s always been the case. But certainly nowadays, in the culture that we have—the 24-hour monitoring, TMZ, being able to follow celebrities on Twitter—people feel an even greater right to be able to access that celebrity’s private life. And unfortunately, for some people, that seems to include images that they’ve shared [which are] being stolen without their consent.”

It is not on celebrities to avoid having a cyber sex life. It is not on celebrities to keep their sex life off of their computer, out of the cloud, or out of their inbox. They’re not servants of the church, they’re entertainers. It is up to us as individuals to not deem ourselves entitled to the naked bodies of others. When some individuals fuck that up royally, it is on the rest of us to uphold basic human decency by not seeking out the photos, not masturbating to them, and not blaming the celebrities who are no doubt humiliated enough.

Jennifer Lawrence and the others who have been exploited are objectively desirable, sure. But that doesn’t make them our property. They are entertainers. They deserve to go home at night and have a private sex life. There are tons of gorgeous women who choose to appear naked on the internet, who like being sexually desirable to the masses, and who get compensated appropriately for doing so. This consensual virtual sexuality is called pornography. Try it.

@sarratch