This past Sunday, a large number of intimate photographs and videos of various celebrities was posted on image board and Internet cesspool 4chan. The files, which were acquired by one anonymous hacker and originally offered in exchange for Bitcoin (an Internet currency I won’t even pretend to understand), quickly moved through sites such as Imgur, Tumblr, and Reddit, and were collected in large torrent parcels to be downloaded at the whim of Internet browsers. Many of the celebrities hacked, including Kate Upton, Jennifer Lawrence, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead, have confirmed the authenticity of the photos and have taken legal action. On Tuesday, Apple issued a statement saying that the hack was the result of a “targeted attack on user names, passwords, and security questions.” The hack, in the way of Internet minimization and grotesquerie, has been dubbed “The Fappening” by some, a retch-inducing title that is being used in much of the major news coverage of the breach.
Anyone who has spent a decent amount of time on the Internet could have predicted how the conversation about this issue would move forward:
On the one hand, you have the moralists, so righteously outraged that there are people who point cameras at themselves while naked, and so certain that the theft and proliferation of the images is some sort of fair punishment.
In the middle camp, you have those who are most interested in talking about this hack in technical terms, as a question of Internet privacy.
Finally, you have those who have moved to defend the victims of this violation, many of them celebrities themselves. On the whole, there’s a varied discourse at work. There’s a great deal of appropriate outrage. As I have seen, however, many people are missing one crucial point: this incident cannot be discussed as only a matter of security or privacy. Certainly, we can all hope that companies like Apple use this as a motivation to strengthen security protocols. But that is not the point. Rather, the theft of these photos, the ugly comments made about the victims, the fact that many are still looking at these pictures on image boards and porn sites (Reddit even decided to create an entire subsection dedicated to sharing them), all revolve around notions of sexual violence, sexual entitlement, and the idea of what it means to have autonomy in the world.
Before I dive into these issues, I want to throw out a quick qualifier. Yes, it is true that not all of the photos leaked were of women (I recently heard that Jude Law is one of the victims). That being said, since many of the problems this incident exposes are experienced most frequently and violently against women, I will not be discussing the men whose property was distributed. That is not out of any lack of sympathy, but rather out of an understanding that the files being trafficked the most are of female celebrities, that the ugliest blame will be laid upon female celebrities, and that, as a violative trend, the theft of intimate personal media is consistently directed most ferociously against women, whether in the case of high profile leaks or “every-day” revenge porn.
Let’s first look at the victim blaming. I don’t have the fortitude or the patience to wade through Reddit and 4chan comments to pull out specific examples. They are there. And, in most cases, they read something like this: “I have a hard time feeling bad for these people. I mean, why are they taking these photos in the first place? Why don’t they have them protected better? If I took nude photos of myself, I would store them in a hard drive, in a safe with fourteen locks, buried three hundred feet underground, and equipped with an automatic self-destruct. What’s empathy?”
Comments like this, which appear in spades after reports of any sort of sexual violence, are in many ways the foundation of the attitude that allows things like this to happen. There is no excuse to lay blame on the women whose private photos have now become the property of every horny Internet browser with space in their downloads folder. There is never an excuse or a reason or an invitation for this sort of violation. If nude photos fell out of someone’s wallet onto the sidewalk, it would still not be her fault that they were distributed. Victim blaming is simply a clumsy redirect, an attempt to channel the public gaze away from widespread moral failing towards something more “palatable”: the ability to attack someone else. Victim blaming is an individual’s attempt to deny that he is part of a system designed to attack and marginalize by claiming that the object of their scorn just simply didn’t play the game correctly. Pay no attention to the man desecrating someone’s right to safety and personal autonomy behind the curtain.
Second, it’s important that we understand what this hack says about sexual entitlement, because it says a great fucking deal. The fact that these files were stolen, the fact that they are still being shared and viewed, and the fact that such a large number of people have taken it upon themselves to question the motivations of those taking photos for their own personal enjoyment (or that of a partner), all lead us back to the dangerous and disturbing fact that there are many men in the world who believe they have a right to see these photos. In the same way that other types of sexual violence are founded in a sense of deserving something, of having the right to exercise a sort of power, to view or share these photos is an act of implicit, if not explicit, entitlement. It’s a way of saying that because something could potentially be available to you, you get to have it. It’s a way of saying that because there is a body that you find sexually appealing, you get to see it, regardless of what the person wants or needs. To view or share these photos is to take something from these victims all over again. It’s to assert yourself cruelly and dangerously. It’s to disregard what your actions and motivations mean in service of whatever pleasure you think you can leach off these personal files.
Both the victim blaming and the sexual entitlement combine to solidify this hack as an act of sexual violence. It is no different than non-consensual voyeurism. It is a malicious and disgusting violation. Often, when we encounter the term sexual violence, the first example that comes to mind is rape or molestation, the most visceral and aggressive instances of the term. This is a dangerous and misguided way to view sexual violence, and it is in part what allows individuals to do what this hacker did on Sunday while preserving their own senses of entitlement and security. Sexual violence is the exertion of unwanted and non-consensual sexual power or action over an individual. In all forms, it is an attack on autonomy and security, and a blatant devaluing of the needs, wants, and basic human rights of the victim.
This hack is a glaring example of this phenomenon, in both obvious and subtle ways. Not only do these parcels of photos possibly contain child pornography (Olympic gymnast McKayla Maroney has come forward saying that the photos leaked of her were taken before her eighteenth birthday), but every single item in them is an assault on the right of these individuals to be able to maintain and dictate their sexual autonomy and privacy. Every single file is an attempt to tear ownership of the individual’s body away from the individual, to make that a public commodity that hosts of people believe they can take and use at their leisure.
On Monday, Lena Dunham took to Twitter to sum the issue up, beautifully: “Seriously, do not forget that the person who stole these pictures and leaked them is not a hacker: they’re a sex offender.”
Darer is a member of the class of 2016.