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It’s Not Just Strangers On The Internet Who Steal And Abuse Personal Images Of Women

Once, a friend of mine told me he’d seen me naked. I’d never slept with him, or even showered at his house. I’m not a model. I don’t pose naked for art projects. My naked body is a carefully guarded thing. My friend had seen me naked because my boyfriend had been passing around photos he’d taken of me lying in his bed.

It shouldn’t make a moral difference to know whether I’d posed for these photos in a spaghettid mess of black leather and pulled what Lena Dunham calls the “I am pretty young to be so into sex” face, but as it happens, I was asleep.  I was asleep and naked because it was a hot night and I trusted my boyfriend with access to my body. That’s what it means to be intimate with someone. You trust them with access to your body. As it turns out, I shouldn’t have, and I broke up with him a few weeks later. But for all I know he still passes around those photos.

No doubt you know by now that yesterday a leak came through on 4chan, and you now have the power to look at picture of a famous 22-year-old woman with semen on her back that she didn’t give you permission to see. You can look at it, and nobody will get you in trouble. She probably won’t ever know. You can be a faceless, nameless, unregisterable intrusion onto her privacy that will be undetectable because of the swelling masses of other people doing exactly the same thing. Understandably, not everybody was happy to have this power, and the internet howled down 4chan for posting the leak. This was a rare moment of online humanity fuelled, I suspect, by the universal fear that it could happen to any one of us.

But in the narrative about hackers and privacy yesterday, I think we lost sight of the fact that far more women are likely to be violated in the way that I was than by an adolescent hacker on 4chan. Don’t get me wrong; there are good points to be made here about protecting your digital privacy. The sites that offered phone security tips and questioned how secure the cloud is answered a public freakout with level-headedness and clarity, two terms I was not expecting to use to describe a story that began with “Jennifer Lawrence” and “nudes” in the same sentence.

But the hacker-from-the-darkness story is the digitised version of the stranger-in-the-bushes rape narrative. It’s petrifying, it sells lots of copy, and it’s nowhere near representative. By focusing on it to the exclusion of all else we risk ignoring the more substantial threats that don’t conform to a familiar narrative. When we direct a firehose of attention at pseudonymous men who leak nudes from the shadows of forums under sleazified pseudonyms, we’re in danger of ignoring the real and predictable threat from the people we love and trust most.

True, monsters exist, and sometimes they come out to play. The attacks on these women did come from an unknown hacker who is, as we speak, soliciting donations in exchange for releasing a video of one woman which is “way too short” (and a peripheral personal plea to the folks at PayPal: if you can short-circuit donations to Assange, surely you can shut off this leech’s blood supply). But even a cursory glance at the statistics tells us that far more women are likely to be violated by someone they know than by a malicious stranger.

This is true across almost all forms of sexual violation, but it is especially true of the non-consensual publication of sexual photographs; a Cyber Civil Rights Initiative investigation found that almost a quarter of surveyed people had had sexually explicit photos of themselves published or passed on without their permission. More than two-thirds said it had been posted by an ex, and almost a quarter said it was posted by a friend.

It took me a while to understand how you could find yourself in a relationship with someone who’d do that. One of the things that was so peculiar to me about my incident was that I couldn’t imagine my then-boyfriend finding any salacious joy in his mate’s faces as he showed them my naked sleeping form. He’d always seemed preoccupied – furiously, pathologically preoccupied – with keeping the image of my naked body out of as many male minds as possible. He hated the people who’d actually seen it, and we had house-razing fights if he thought I was making people imagine it.

It wasn’t until I had to make sense of him passing around a picture of the very thing he was so maniacally obsessed with concealing that I understood that his jealousy had nothing at all to do with my body and everything to do with his power. It couldn’t matter to him if other people knew the curve of my waist or the scar on my thigh. What mattered to him was that when other people saw my body, they understood it was his. He held the screen it was displayed on. If they wanted it, they’d have to ask him. All the interactions that ended with another person seeing my body went via him, not me. He held the distribution rights to my body. He was the gatekeeper of my sexual power.

That’s the only way it makes sense that he could pass around a photo of me naked at the same time as he could break into a face-contorting twitch when I wore high heels. This is an exercise in control, and make no mistake, a gendered one. And those sorts of micro-pathologies play out between devoted and open couples as often as they play out between celebrities and strangers with internet connections.

This kind of toxic control/display relationship to women’s bodies isn’t new, either, and the threat to women from men they trust with pictures of their naked form is not new or unique to a smartphone generation. In 1980, Hustler Magazine launched a section called ‘Beaver Hunt’, which posted pictures of nude women that their husbands and exes had – are you ready? – developed from a roll of film and mailed in. Thirty years later those same toxic and objectifying dynamics still exist in the smouldering wreckage of lots of romantic relationships, but now they play out in a world where two-thirds of teenagers have already taken a nude photo, and if you haven’t already, the phone’s on the bedside table when you change your mind.

Just after he stood before his wife’s killer in court, Tom Meagher wrote an insightful and lucid piece about the “dangers of the monster myth”. In it, he wrote that “by insulating myself with the intellectually evasive dismissal of violent men as psychotic or sociopathic aberrations, I self-comforted by avoiding the more terrifying concept that violent men are socialised by the ingrained sexism and entrenched masculinity that permeates everything”.

Having a picture of your semen-covered back distributed to hundreds of thousands of strangers is a terrible violation. It is nowhere approaching the violation suffered by Jill Meagher, but this is an opportunity to step away from the monster myth and start talking about the “entrenched masculinity that permeates everything” that’s at the root of the silent majority of these cases. Changing your passwords and quitting the cloud are digital versions of handbag-sized mace spray and bars on windows: they might well be effective against the sort of mythological monster-stranger who lurks in the night, attacking women he doesn’t speak to or know. But they don’t protect us from people inside the house.

Eleanor Gordon-Smith studies at the University of Sydney, debates internationally for Australia, and ate a scorpion one time. She edited the student magazine BULL in 2013.

Feature image via Jhaymesisviphotography, under a Creative Commons license on Flickr.

  • Dan Nolan

    Good stuff EGS. Thanks.

  • Caitlin Welsh

    This is so good and true. Pretending that people who post revenge porn (and commit rape and abuse their partners and send death threats to opinionated women) aren’t ordinary people but “monsters” absolves people who think of themselves as normal from having to examine themselves and their social circles for similar behaviours and thoughts or from having to acknowledge that someone they know and like might be capable of such things.

    If they were easy to spot, they’d be easy to stop. Tom Meagher nailed it – they are not aberrations or horned monsters. They’re quite ordinary.

  • Kaij

    I have a simple solution. I dont use cloud services for anything, and never will. I also block my face in the very few sexy pics Ive taken in the past. Plus I made sure these pics were PG13.

    Sure leaks are bad….but I cant feel sorry for stupid people that dont think these things through. Im not even a celebrity and I wouldnt take sex pics or videos. If I was a celeb Id definitely be even more cautious and prude about those things. And I would never upload anything online. I make sure anything I save is offline and that my PC is password protected.

    Lastly, I use unique and good passwords. I was baffled how these celebs got hacked because their passwords are of the 500 most commonly used passwords. All my passwords are unique to be my interests or experiences, and then I add numbers and symbols to the phrases I use while also rearranging order. So while my passwords look random to most, for me there is a system in deciphering them.

    Youll never see me use some crap like ThePrince01.

    So like I said, hackers are douchebags, but I have little sympathy for the naive and stupid. People need to stop connecting all of their personal information online and trusting Apple, Google, Facebook, etc. I dont use my real name with any such service, and I dont link them either. Too many people use their real name across these and other services, as well as linking them together. Thats just inviting someone to hack multiple accounts and ruin parts of your life.

    • Danger Mouse

      This reads exactly like “She was totally asking for it having a brute force vulnerable password and wearing a skirt”

      • Kaij

        Take it any way you wish. Adults need to wise the fvk up. I didnt see anyone coming to Anthony Weiner’s defense when he fvked up with regards to sexy pics on the internet.

        If you take sexy pics and willfully upload them online, be prepared for a fallout. Like I said, people who want to take those kinds of pics should not upload them online in any manner.

      • Kaij

        Also, its very over the top to compare this to rape. There’s personal responsibility involved when a person willingly records X-rated media of themselves and uploads it to the internet in any way.

        To compare such a situation to what rape victims go through is fvking idiotic. And I wish people would stop trying to bring in rape arguments whenever anyone criticizes something a woman does. Id be telling anyone its stupid to willfully upload X-rated material on the internet.

        Doesnt matter if its uploaded to a cloud. People should know better. We are always told that once something is on the internet it is there forever. People need to wisen up.

        • Caitlin Welsh

          It’s a sliding scale of violation. This might not be as traumatic as a physical violation would be, but it is a violation and the emotional reaction is to be expected. Whether someone’s jerked off on your back on the train, put a hidden camera in your work bathroom, yelled “show us your tits!” from a passing car, penetrated you while you’re passed out, shared private photos of you with one person or with millions, it’s a violation. Some feel worse than others. Some leave deep scars and some are just part of going about in the world while having a female body and you learn to brush them off. But you can never, ever tell a woman (or a man) that they’re having the wrong reaction to such a violation of their body, because it’s not your body or your brain and you do not know how it feels to them or what other factors might contribute to trauma.

          And it is never, ever the victim’s fault. Ever. *You* need to wise up.

          • Kaij

            Did I say it was the victims fault that the hacker did what he did? No. I said that its the victims fault for not being smarter about the internet and Xrated material.

            We have all been told from day one that anything put on the web is there forever. Common sense is needed.

            And no, hacking of willfully uploaded cloud pics will NEVER be on the same scale as rape. Im close to a rape victim whos very sick of women like you always trying to throw around the rape angle in such discussions. Its rather minimizing of what actual rape victims deal with.

          • Caitlin Welsh

            Beg your pardon, but in no way did I suggest that having your private images broadcast is “on the same scale”, as in, of similar significance. I said they were on a *sliding scale* – that is, one is demonstrably worse than another, but they are related. It’s not “throwing around the rape angle”. This is one kind of violation. Rape is another.

            I’m sorry for what your friend went through and I’m sorry if they feel their trauma is minimised by people discussing how rape fits into a broader culture of sexual abuse, harassment, dehumanisation and shame – but hers or his is not the only valid response. Other rape survivors are sick of seeing elements of their trauma reflected in the damaging assumptions and victim blaming that happens around acts of violation. Like this one. (I sure hope you haven’t said anything like “Well, you should have been smarter” to your friend.)

            And it is victim blaming any time you suggest it’s the victim’s fault. Could the celebs involved have taken more precautions? Sure. (Never mind that most of the pics weren’t “willfully uploaded online” with the intention that other people could see them, but taken for private use, backed up to a private account in the cloud and then stolen.)

            But it is the fault of the people who stole the images. It is not the subjects’ fault. It’s not your friend’s fault s/he was attacked, no matter what s/he was doing at the time. If s/he was standing naked in the middle of Belanglo Forest at midnight and was then raped, it is *still only the fault of the person who decided to rape her/him*. Because if nobody decides to violate a person, that person doesn’t get violated. Tell you daughters to be safe, absolutely. But if the worst happens, condemn the violator, never the victim.

          • Kaij

            Here’s a good analysis of how people tend to respond to anything regarding adult women, common sense, and personal responsibility:

            “Hey idiot, don’t upload bank info to a cloud: common sense

            Hey idiot, don’t upload nude pics to a cloud: victim blaming”

            I see this with regard to numerous crimes committed. Yet people love to bring up victim blaming and rape anytime anyone dares say a woman be better prepared and use common sense in a myriad of situations.

            Ill repeat, its disgusting that people dare bring up sexual abuse with regard to what some idiot hacker did. Yes he was wrong, but its not victim blaming when I say people need to be smarter and not trust their personal and sensitive information to a damn internet service. Once its on the net, its there forever.

            Thats all I have left to say about this. Theft will never be on the same scale or sliding scale as rape. Victim blaming in rape is MUCH DIFFERENT than telling someone who threw pics up on the net, that they should be smarter about the internet.

    • Rob Newcombe

      Did you read the article before weighing in? Because it seems like you saw the headline and just decided to give us the stock “I’m not victim blaming but it’s definitely their fault” lecture. The reason I ask is that literally nothing you said comes close to being relevant to the main thrust of what EGS was saying.