Rape Culture Goes Digital

Photo by Chapendra via Flickr.com
Photo by Chapendra via Flickr.com

By Ashley-Michelle Papon

Could this past summer been any worse for women? It seemed like the answer was no, but leave it to the scum-sucking bottom feeders over at 4Chan to prove even the most cynical among us wrong. Dozens of young Hollywood’s shiniest members have had their privacy violated in the most pathetic, disgusting, and vile way. Thanks to some adept hacking, hundreds of images are flooding the interwebs, purported to be the nude bodies belonging to the best and brightest Tinseltown has to offer.

Perhaps the most famous face of this debacle—alternately called Celebgate or The Fappening—is Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence. Lawrence’s inclusion is noteworthy because she’s the first young, A-list celebrity to also be a darling of Feminists circles, despite having to accept she is often in the halfway point of being part of the solution while simultaneously propping up the problems connected to the complicated relationship between media and body image. Part of what makes her appealing is that Lawrence seems to genuinely like herself, and makes no apologies for who she is. That radical acceptance extends to her body. As with the rest of her, the real Katniss Everdeen owns it, celebrates it, and cherishes it.

Which makes what the parasites of 4Chan have done in their execution of Celebgate that much more disturbing. By breaking into the personal computers, cellphones, and tablets belonging to the celebrities involved, stealing these images—in some instances, completely doctoring—and then circulating them, these hackers haven’t just committed theft. They have accessed the bodies of real women (and allegedly, one man) without consent. Through these acts, they have become offenders and victimizers, willing participants in the rape culture. As Lena Dunham tweeted hours after Celebgate broke, “Remember, when you look at these pictures you are violating these women again and again.”

This particular shade of the rape culture is everywhere. By most accounts, the phenomenon of stealing unauthorized nude images and posting them online is called revenge porn, most often done by vengeful male lovers eager to punish their female ex. Sometimes, the photographs featured are actually doctored images, but almost all are uploaded to user-driven sites with key identifying information, such as name and address, in order to maximize the humiliation of the intended target.

Earlier this year, the visibility of revenge porn was raised significantly with the case of Hunter Moore. Moore amassed considerable fame and wealth as the mastermind behind the site Is Anyone Up?, a space devoted entirely to showcasing revenge porn. Moore’s eventual downfall was engineered by Charlotte Laws, whose daughter was featured on the site in 2011. For two years, Laws sought to put an end to Moore’s empire of stolen and doctored photos that were ruining lives, an empire built on the crime she calls “cyber rape,” a most appropriate term when the discussion turns to consent about the display of bodies. For her troubles, Laws received death threats. Many of Moore’s supporters were particularly critical of Laws’ appearance on Dr. Drew’s show, where she first used the term “cyber rape” to describe both Moore’s actions and the impact on the victims.

Yet it appears that Laws was on to something. In her article for Jezebel exploring her battle with the most hated man on the Internet, Laws shares the stories of several women victimized by Is Anyone Up?, all of whom demonstrated symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a condition which often manifests in the wake of an episode of sexual violence. One highly-touted study found approximately one third of rape victims develop PTSD. While the intensity of the symptoms varied, each reported feelings of violation.

The response to matters of nude bodies appearing online without consent seems like pretty familiar territory, too. Victim blame abounds, with the subjects often enduring criticism for having the photos taken in the first place (here’s looking at you, Clay Aiken) turbocharged by the plainspoken wisdom that the Internet is a hotbed of cheap shoe outlets, cat memes, but most especially, predators, meaning that anyone who stores anything valuable in the digital netherworld is “asking for it.” Dunham rightfully complains this response to Celebgate is “the ‘she was wearing a short skirt’ of the web” defense. The treatment by investigating officials isn’t much better; Laws’ piece at Jezebel recounts:

“Kayla and I went to the Los Angeles Police Department, where we hoped to find sympathy and an ‘eager to help’ attitude. We found neither. A female detective from the cyber-crimes division was more interested in condescending stares and judgmental remarks than taking a report. ‘Why would you take a picture like this if you didn’t want it on the Internet?’ the detective blasted Kayla.”

Those words harken back to my own experience as a survivor of sexual violence, particularly because the man who raped me when I was 18, I had met through the Internet. While this is a fairly common occurrence now, it was significantly less common in 2003. As a long-time user of the most primitive forms of social media, it did not occur to me to be ashamed of this particular element of my story until the investigating detective derisively told me to pray that they would not uncover any evidence of sexual activity in my history, and then asked me what I expected would happen by agreeing to meet up with someone I didn’t even know. A few months later, a self-described Feminist on the fringe of my friend circle assessed that I had put myself in an incredibly stupid situation—by extension, implying I had brought the rape upon myself. To say there was a virtual anthem of agreement and approval by my primary circle of friends at the time would be a gross understatement.

Jennifer Lawrence
Jennifer Lawrence

While my experience didn’t involve nude photos, my assault did take place at the crossroads of sexual exploration and new technology. Even if I had created the account with the express purpose of celebrating my suddenly single status with a rotation of new lovers, it would not have meant that my rapist was entitled to access my body. The same logic applies to the victims of Celebgate. In her first public statement since Celebgate, Lawrence labeled the experience a sex crime, and gave the critical public a schooling on the issue of consent:

“It’s my body, and it should be my choice, and the fact that it is not my choice is absolutely disgusting,” she says. “Anybody who looked at those pictures, you’re perpetuating a sexual offense. You should cower with shame. Even people who I know and love say, ‘Oh, yeah, I looked at the pictures.’ I don’t want to get mad, but at the same time I’m thinking, I didn’t tell you that you could look at my naked body.”

Lawrence is challenging the world to understand that no combination of circumstances, including celebrity or the very existence of nude photos grants anyone the right—to borrow the term from Laws—to cyber rape you.

Those who have had their images doctored are not immune from the effects of the revenge porn or cyber rape phenomenon, either. For example, a recent federal court decision out of my hometown of Olathe, Kansas had a federal jury siding with a woman by the name of Ashley Patton who had been named an adult film actress by Danny Terreros and Afentra Bandokoudis, two hosts of a popular radio show. The broadcast opened by urging listeners to “out” local talent. Patton was identified by an anonymous text message. This, combined with a Google search result for an actress with a completely different name was enough proof for the duo to label her a porn star. They broadcast Patton’s name on air, then posted her information on their website. In response, Patton sued. Reporting back to work on Monday following the verdict, Bandokoudis apparently quipped she was “thrilled” to still have a job that she loves. It’s unlikely she has given any thought to how her actions have denied Patton the same opportunity.

Patton’s case provides us the necessary lens to understand that the emotional damage inflicted on the Celebgate victims is the same, regardless of whether the images depict the bodies they allegedly belong to. The victimization comes via the invasion of privacy and the circulation of sexualized images those users have no right to share in the first place. Even when people can acknowledge something wrong has been done—like falsely identifying a promising law student as a porn star or having stolen images shared online without the subject’s consent—that doesn’t exempt them from contributing to the rape culture. I only need to mine my own experiences to remember that.

Recently, an old friend celebrated the theft of a woman’s Google Glass during a bar fight, gleefully posting on Facebook that she couldn’t wait for the woman’s nude photographs to be shared online. After numerous call-outs, she would only agree that it was “more like sexual harassment.” It should not be difficult to understand that sexual harassment is a type of sexual violence, and that wishing for someone to experience such a violation goes against everything Feminism stands for. As someone who has been grievously injured by sexual violence, including sexual harassment, I do not want anyone in my circle who minimizes those experiences, especially if they label themselves a Feminist.

Rihanna & Jill Scott
Rihanna & Jill Scott

Which brings us back to the other celebrities at the heart of Celebgate. Those photos have been stolen—and, in the cases where the victims were women of color, all but ignored. The lack of outrage connected with the equally wrong exposure of Jill Scott and Rihanna (to name just a few) reveals that even in the annals of Feminism, only white victimhood will be recognized. As David J. Leonard writes over at the Root, the focus on the whitest of young Hollywood’s up and coming sends the message that “black women are undeserving of protection; that when their privacy is criminally violated, it isn’t such a scandal.” However, there is a scandal here, and there is not anything that will make that right for the victimized parties. The subsequent feedback from the Internet reads equal part indictment of revenge porn and mocking attempts to dismiss the severity of what has taken place (especially by the peaches of 4Chan, hoping to capitalize on famous women by exploiting everyday women and attempting to fundraise for prostate cancer in the most subtly unfunny joke ever about masturbating to celebrity photos). Like Scarlett Johanssen before her, representatives for Lawrence have confirmed the FBI is involved, and the celebrities may receive some reprieve due to the fact that California is also coming on strong against revenge porn bids.

While that may help bring some closure to the most recent victims, we, the people of the public, have a bigger responsibility on our hands: we have to stop participating in the willful victimization of these celebrities. Each time we view their photos, or suggest that the photos have no right to exist in the first place, we are complacent in the victimization these people are subjected to. We are propping up the rape culture, and simply put, this shit has got to stop.

Feature photo by Chapendra via Flickr.com under a Creative Commons license.