Leaking Nudes

The leaking of celebrity nudes was a part of the larger trend in 2014: reminding women of our place and using technology and the sexism in tech to do so.

by Lesli-Ann Lewis on December 9th, 2014

Content warning: Discussion of cyber sexual assault, child sexual abuse, bullying.

It wasn’t long after I had finished extolling the role of tech in America’s latest sexual revolution that the first series of celebrity nudes leaked. Soon after Jennifer Lawrence’s private pictures and parts were showing up unexpectedly in our social feeds, the floodgates opened up. Big name after big name celebrity was on the internet, nude and entangled in the largest celebrity privacy violation this generation has seen.

In September, I wrote:

“There is another sexual revolution happening, and technology has facilitated it. The previously taboo, everything from hook ups to queer sex and kink, have become more accessible. From the safety of semi- and sometimes complete anonymity, those of sexually marginalized groups have taken the internet as their space to educate, explore and engage… [But] as with any revolution, there is pushback and while these platforms amplify the voices of the sexually (and otherwise) marginalized, they also give a platform to those who would shame us for our sexuality.”

Suddenly, that final disclaimer seemed weak, meager. What we see happening in online spaces is less “pushback” and more a counter-revolution of its own… and its most dangerous weapons are the very apps and sites women and girls use to explore and express their sexuality.

Leaks As a Weapon

One hundred female celebrities. Activists, artists, mothers, wives, young girls, all targeted, exposed; and then worse, shamed by the public for becoming victims of hackers we haven’t given a second thought to, most of whom will never experience any consequences for their actions. Treating the women like deviants, the photos as consumable content, and terrifying crimes as harmless, the incident was named “The Fappening.”

One of the defining moments for tech in 2014, these attacks underscored four things:

1) We, as a society, refuse to understand that leaking nudes isn’t a harmless, innocuous thing. It’s a facet of violent misogyny. It’s sexual abuse and it is dangerous.

2) It’s not just about these celebrities or temporarily embarrassing women. It is about shaming and policing the sexuality of women. It is about silencing and controlling women.

3) The sexism in tech that is driving women out of the field is also responsible for shoddy privacy fixes and lackadaisical responses to online attacks

4) Our response to women’s sexuality is what weaponizes the nude photographs of women

The use of words like “weapon” and “dangerous” isn’t about using terms of engagement and war for sensationalism. It is apt. One only has to look at the growing trend of rapists recording their crimes and threatening to post them online to keep victims silent. One only has to look at the popularity of the hashtag #jadapose, spawned on Twitter after a nude photo of a 16-year-old rape victim was posted.

The leaking of nude photographs, no matter how they are acquired, operates in much the same way as rape. It’s a tool of the violently misogynistic to disempower and to maintain a hierarchy where women do not even have ownership of themselves. Its goal is to silence, harm and warn.

The flash of a camera in the mirror.

Photo CC-BY Nitish Kumar, filtered.

Gabrielle Union hit the nail on the head when she described the leaking of nudes as a new form of sexual abuse. The medium is new, the sentiment is not. Leaking the private photos of women, even female celebrities whose bodies we seem to feel even more entitled to, to people the photographs were not intended for, is the very textbook example of ignoring a woman’s consent as to when and with whom she shares her body. It is the very textbook definition of rape culture. Leaking nudes is symptomatic of the hatred of empowered female sexuality, of consent, and it is emblematic of a culture that still resents women’s agency.

When the victims aren’t wealthy women with legal resources and a platform, it serves to expose the victim to even more harassment and danger. Amanda Todd, a teen who committed suicide after vicious cyber sexual assault and bullying, serves as a horrific example of this. Amanda Todd’s harassment began after a pedophile acquired a photo of her and used it to threaten and blackmail her, eventually spreading the image online and to her school and classmates. After years of the relentless abuse that followed — both on and offline — Amanda killed herself at age 15. While the onus of Amanda’s death falls squarely on those who tortured her, search her name and see “relevant” searches include blog posts and videos describing Todd’s suicide as “what was coming to her” — in death, still maligning her for a mere topless photograph.

Years later, the chat rooms that proved unsafe for the exploration of this teen have given way to social sites with new features and increasingly, the same problems.

The Town Center

Social media has become a place where women and minorities can be heard, where we can organize and where we can cultivate the space and large followings that are so often simply given to our White and male counterparts. But with increased visibility, social media has also become the place we are metaphorically dragged to the town center to be made an example of.

When a second round of photo leaks took place, Meagan Good was among them. People quickly took to Twitter and Instagram to tell actress Meagan Good, a married woman whose leaked photos included an intimate video call with her husband, claiming she had embarrassed her husband (a preacher) and Christians everywhere. Single celebrities received possibly the worst of it. Rihanna, who famously spoke out about intimate partner violence after her own experience, received a disgusting mix of domestic violence jokes, body shaming and slut shaming. Hundreds of Twitter users retweeted and shared her photos with captions like “now we know why Chris beat her” and “look at how she’s posing, she deserves her ass whooped more often.”

While the trend of leaking nudes didn’t start in 2014, there was a very specific message sent by the hacker(s) and the public as each new celebrity nude leaked. It’s a message that has been sent to too many women and girls, but has been amplified by the status of these victims. Money, status, security detail and a slew of staffers/an entourage could not change the one fact: that these celebrities are women and so, vulnerable in the way all women are in rape culture. The leaking of celebrity nudes was a part of the larger trend in 2014 of reminding women of our place and using technology and the sexism in tech to do so. Leaking nudes is one of the ways patriarchy seeks to shame and control women, even beyond just cautioning women not to take nude photographs.

It’s because of this culture that discussions on whether Apple’s iCloud was compromised fell by the wayside in favor of “these women should have known better/ protected their phones more.” Apple fanned flames by insinuating the leaks were a result of poor password choice – user error – but later, in October, touted new security features of the iPhone 6. Technology companies – from social sites to apps – are not, by any measure, blameless. The fact is we see an unwillingness to act and improve security features and user protections because of the mindset that victims are more culpable than hackers themselves. More interested in controlling women and maintaining a status quo, we have quite literally watched tech companies resist improving their products and sites. Twitter’s broken reporting system for online abuse is just one example. Sexism in the tech sector has lead to a lackadaisical response, a refusal to even update or improve software and code for better user experience.

Weaponizing Sexuality

A woman walking down a train platform, the camera angle as if someone is following her.

Photo CC-BY Transformer18, filtered.

Examining the online sexual revolution closer, it seems the phenomenon is happening not because of the tech industry, but despite its clearly misogynistic atmosphere. In a male-dominated industry, known for hiring by “culture fit”, it matters that the earliest version of Facebook was designed to rank the looks of female students on campus. It matters that the CEO of Snapchat sounds like a dangerously drunk frat boy when he talks about women. It means we do and will have companies unwilling to address issues with their internal culture and with their product, even if it means hamstringing the development of the product. Even if it means they are no longer keeping up with how their customers/audience are using and responding to their various products.

Since being acquired by Yahoo!, Tumblr has prevented tags related to sexual orientation (ie: lesbian), sex and BDSM from trending and has made getting rid of abusive, or unwanted followers near impossible. Facebook’s numerous failures — allowing rape videos to stay in posts for weeks after complaints, dismissing reports of abuse and violations of its user guidelines — have been well-documented. When Twitter tried to get rid of its block function, users cried out: have Twitter developers ever used Twitter? If the answer is “yes,” then surely they’re using it much differently than women and other targeted minorities.

In spite of the ways misogyny in tech impacts the quality of its products and user experiences, we are finding ways to make them useful in our endless pursuit of sex, self and companionship. But as startup CEOs and developers turn a blind eye, these useful tools of sexual exploration also become weapons.

This all matters even more if Bytes for All, an agency that once sued the Pakistani government for online censorship is to be believed. Earlier this year, the organization asserted that technology isn’t assisting in exposing or reflecting the sexual abuse of women, but increasing it.

In the least horrific cases, this is running women out of their chosen careers and off certain platforms. In far more appalling cases, it has allowed the rape photos of an underage teen to trend, profiles and threads of leaked photographs to gain traction, and Twitter pages like “ExposedThots”, a page once devoted to leaking nudes, videos and texts of sexually active women and underage girls, to gain thousands of users.

As culpable as the SnapChats of the world are, it is also how we react to the sexuality of women and girls that allows their weaponization. Fear of “exposure” is what allowed the boyfriend of a 14 year-old girl to force her into repeated gang rapes. When he secretly recorded their consensual activities and threatened to post them online if she didn’t do as he demanded, he did so with the full knowledge that she alone would suffer, that she alone would be punished by us. Half a world away, she represents girls here who have not had the ability or support to come forward. Her story is what could have become of Jada, whose sexual assault photos were meant to keep her silent, ashamed and vulnerable. Half a world away and her story still brings to mind Amanda Todd, who was around the same age when she began to become aware of herself and sexuality and was slowly tortured for it on the very same mediums she used to explore.

How we reacted to the leaked photographs of a married female celebrity engaging in consensual sex with her husband sends a very clear message to all girls and women: the only sex a “good” woman is allowed is secretive, shame-filled and coerced. Our reaction to the criminal act of leaking nudes also sends a message to abusers as well: their crimes are far more moral than female sexuality of any kind.

The ridiculous national conversation that has ensued, the begrudging response- and outright non-response- from the tech industry, the public shaming of victims: these all foster an environment where violent misogynists can take to the internet to remind women of their womanhood and as such, their vulnerability. The “Fappening”, as we disgustingly dubbed it, fell in line in with other trends we’ve seen in tech this year, like doxxing “Twitter feminists.” It was a part of a larger “revolution” to return us to a past where women were not equal and consent wasn’t necessary. Ironically, this movement is using the very technology, the very spaces we’ve created to propel us towards a more equal future. Ironically, it is the very people who claim progress as their motivation, a liberated mindset as their mantle, who have facilitated a regressive counter-revolution.