Culture

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

"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."

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.