Feminist writer Jessica Valenti offers to explain why seeking out hacked celebrity photos is wrong but manages to completely botch the explanation.
In a piece titled “What’s wrong with checking out leaked nude photos of celebrities” Valenti argues that those who look at stolen photos are, in effect, continuing the violation of privacy. That’s a reasonable argument in so much as the photos were not released by the celebrities but stolen from their private cloud networks. Apart from this act of theft, none of the photos would be available.
But Valenti isn’t content to argue that seeking out the photos makes one a party to theft. She insists the photos have gone viral because of an element of humiliation which she compares to “revenge porn.”
If Jennifer Lawrence was to pose naked on the cover of Playboy,
for example, I’m sure it would be a best-selling issue. But it wouldn’t
have the same scandalous, viral appeal as private images stolen from
her phone. Because if she shared nude images consensually, then people
wouldn’t get to revel in her humiliation. And that’s really the point,
isn’t it? To take a female celebrity down a notch? (We have a term for
when this is done to non-celebrity women: “revenge porn.”)
No one knows who hacked the accounts and released the photos in question so it’s impossible to say what the person’s motive was. Maybe they wanted to see female celebrities taken down a notch as Valenti suggests or maybe they just wanted attention on 4chan for their mad hacking skillz.
Whatever the case, it’s going too far to assume that all of the people seeking the photos are in it for the frisson of humiliation. As Valenti admits, Playboy could sell a lot of magazines if Lawrence of one of the other actresses agreed to pose nude. It’s safe to assume the interest in the photos would exists apart from any issues of provenance.
In fact, as a thought experiment you can take the magazine out of the equation entirely. If, for some reason, Lawrence or Upton, decided to release a group of nude selfies on the internet would Google note a surge in search traffic? You bet it would. So while the desire to humiliate Lawrence and others may exist out there (every crazy thing exists somewhere on the web), it probably pales in comparison to the regular old desire motivating most people.
For the record, I’m not trying to blame the victim or excuse the thief. The theft and invasion of privacy is wrong. The person responsible should be punished. And, no, I don’t think Lawrence, Upton or any of the other victims did anything wrong. I’ll even grant that Valenti may have a point when she says seeking out the photos perpetuates the initial theft. After all, if someone steals and distributes a major film online, everyone who downloads it is taking part in the theft to some, legally actionable, degree.
That said, Valenti goes too far when she suggests the interest in nude selfies of famously beautiful women is about “revenge porn” or a desire for humiliation. In this case, the motivation is probably much simpler than that.