Photo of J-Law via Wikipedia user Stemoc
If ever the word “fap” stood a chance of entering the dictionary, this was it. The leak of over 100 nude pictures of actresses this week, known as “The Fappening,” has exposed the world’s most famous bodies and triggered a media firestorm.
The popular view among feminists has been to encourage others to avoid the pictures entirely. But this argument is self-defeating: by mentioning the pictures and watching their own articles get retweeted, journalists still draw their readers into a “scandal.” Which isn’t to say that writers should ignore the story, it’s just ludicrous to expect readers not to follow it up and find the images. Hadley Freeman, in an otherwise agreeable piece, says that she has “never understood the appeal in looking at naked photos of people who I don’t know and who certainly have no interest in me.” Dear Hadley Freeman, I love you, but the rest of us sometimes watch porn.
Such arguments imply that looking at an image will plant the seed of misogynist evil, Videodrome-style, inside a viewer’s head. Unless the leak was a combined effort by one hundred celebrities’ ex-boyfriends, it has nothing to do with “revenge porn.” Nor is it, ultimately, a grotesque act of theft, "thought crime," or body-shaming to look at the pictures. We can’t feasibly expect everyone to ignore clickbait, though the news that McKayla Maroney’s images depict her while underage is a horribly grim twist to the affair, rendering the images child pornography, and definitely not OK to be shared.
Pornography is exactly what this incident is about, though perhaps in less obvious ways. Though the images show only female targets, it’s less of a gender issue than one of voyeurism and celebrity culture. In most of these pictures, the nudity itself isn’t what's especially remarkable: Olivia Munn and Christina Hendricks were subject to previous leaks, Kim Kardashian built a career on her sex tape, and Rihanna wore a see-through dress on the red carpet back in June. We live in a post-Miley world of songs about Iggy Azalea’s pussy and Nicki Minaj’s ass. A world GoneWild. A world where nudity is mainstream.
A list of things potentially more pornographic than J-Law on a sofa might include:
– Islamic State beheading videos
– Britney Spears’ shaved head
– Rob Ford on crack
– Rihanna’s swollen face after being attacked by Chris Brown
– Joan Rivers’ live-tweeted life support
All of the above are disturbing, and all received mainstream media coverage. The issue with The Fappening is definitely one of consent—that, of course, is what separates anything in the uploader's cache from Rihanna's see-through dress; Rihanna chose to present herself in that way, the victims of the Fappening absolutely did not. But our appetite for pornographic trespass is no longer for accidentally bared skin, but accidentally bared humanity. We want to know the setting the woman is in, the story behind each shot. This makes the denials or the humbled explanations on chat shows after a photo leak part of the process of getting off. We don’t care about seeing a celebrity naked—we just want to see them suffer.
I think Olivia Munn’s originally leaked pictures, which surfaced in 2012, remain more revealing than anything in more recent leaks. In them, text overlays a series of otherwise mundane shots, graphically detailing Munn’s fantasies. Anyone who has ever attempted sex talk over Facebook chat will be familiar with the recycling of formulaic terms heard in porn, mawkishly guessing what the other person wants to hear, and how mortifying an experience it would be if those clumsy but personal fantasies were exposed.
Similarly, it’s the DIY imperfection of images like Kate Upton and Justin Verlander looking over their shoulders into a bathroom mirror that are memorable, not for the bared skin but for how adorably goofy they look. This is where the internet stops wanting your body and begins to eat away at your soul: ultimately, we look to invade the lives of our celebrities. What will succeed the sex tape—the death tape? The celebrities-going-to-the-toilet tape? The giving-birth-live-on-E! network special?
Nudity is no longer intimate enough: what we want to see, most of all, is failure. And this is where the trolls get off: because they view the leaks as confirmation that the women in these pictures are stupid. “The Fappening” confirms their tenet that men, not pretty girls, are what makes the world—or at least the internet—go around. It confirms that they know more about technology, and privacy, and basic iCloud maintenance. It reassures them that the web is a patriarchal place, that the biggest risks in online life apply not to them but to nubile young women, who, granted the power of sex appeal, risk losing it all when that sex appeal is publicly distributed. You’d have to wonder if these men – who you can find in your nearest Fappening-related comments section – get off more on lecturing women about online security than they do on the actual pictures.
Some women, too, are complicit. The “If My iPhone Got Hacked” Twitter hashtag is an info-orgy of Mean Girls-style faux self-deprecation: following suit from Anna Kendrick’s tweet that her phone “would just be food and photos of other people’s dogs anyway,” Twitter users—a large number of them female—are smugly listing the brunch shots and blurry pictures of housepets that fill their phones, the implication being that these boring collections make them somehow morally superior and "unfappable." If not outright slut-shaming, it’s certainly slut-shading, and subtly othering the victims.
Jessica Valenti tweeted that “People are titillated by leaked nude photos BECAUSE it is nonconsensual.” Which is true, but what many overlook is that the risk involved in taking these pictures might be exactly what their subjects enjoyed in the first place—not the risk that they'd be shared with the world, obviously, but the risk involved in sharing such intimate snapshots with one other individual. This is absolutely not intended as victim-blaming, but one of the oddly reassuring takeaways from this has got to be that celebrities really are like us: they pull unconvincing selfie faces, they emulate (badly) the poses they see in porn in cheesy pictures meant for their partners. They feel entitled to all the rituals of a normal relationship.
Because this is normal relationship behavior. It's one of those generational things that older readers might not fathom, but for anyone who has grown up in the eye of a smartphone lens it seems natural. We all take pictures of ourselves, some of them pornographic, and will continue to do so as long as humans fap and smartphones are available on contract. The "pics or it didn’t happen" rule has filtered into the fabric of everyday relationships, and surveys show that the majority of us are at ease with the idea of sexting. One Vox piece aptly noted that telling young people not to take these pictures is another form of abstinence education. They’re going to happen, and it’s up to us to teach responsibility rather than condemnation.
The unpleasant truth is that every child after the late 80s was born with human SEO, along with a duty to maintain it. We willingly pose and download and blindly click through terms and conditions, feeding the surveillance society we live in. We’re used to being sold out and repeatedly failed by our technology: why not just admit defeat and give our bodies to the internet? Already our past selves are littered all over it: our surly LiveJournal accounts we’ve forgotten the password to, those drunk photos from Freshers Week, that clothing malfunction on a beach trip... Which brings me to my final point: by the time the Snapchat generation comes of age, all of us will be naked on the internet. We might as well get used to it now. I’m not saying it’s fair or remotely ethical that photos are leaked, or hacked, or posted by angry ex-boyfriends. But by accepting the inevitable we can begin to regain some control.
Follow Roisin Kiberd on Twitter