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Celebrity Nude Photos and Sexual Assault: Some Thoughts

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September 4, 2014

 

In the wake of the latest controversy around celebrity images, a number of commenters have gone online to insist that even viewing them is tantamount to sexual assault. I was irked by this assumption, and glad to find that Time’s Charlotte Alter has a piece that echoes most of my own reservations.  To quote her:



While the theft and humiliating distribution of these photos is an enormous violation of personal privacy and sexual autonomy, it is not the same thing as a physical sexual assault. It is is not the same as being raped, or forced to perform oral sex, or molested as a child, or beaten. It’s not a question of “more or less awful,” because both scenarios are horrific examples of how women are treated in our society. But they’re different, and it’s especially important to be precise when we’re talking about violence.

 

Alter’s piece is refreshing amidst the din of voices jumping on the sexual assault bandwagon.  As she puts it towards the end, “If everything is sexual assault, then nothing really is.”

 

But I also have to disagree with Alter that the solution here is to push through “revenge porn” legislation. Specifically, this is aimed at those who distribute intimate photos they acquired through their relationships with people as a way of getting revenge on their exes.  Presumably, such legislation would apply to images disseminated for any reason whatsoever.  In Arizona, “The action could land a perpetrator behind bars for a year and a half. The sentencing would be more severe if the individual depicted in the image is recognizable,” according to this report.  



Putting someone in prison for a year and a half seems overblown, and I’m concerned about the meaning of “more severe.”  I’m guessing, given the drift of such matters, that perpetrators will inevitably be placed on sex offender registries, the disastrous consequences of which I’ve written about, as have many before me, including James D’Entremont, French Wall, Bill Andriette, Roger Lancaster, and Debbie Nathan.  In short, sex offender registries are horrendous inventions of the carceral state, they make no distinctions between, for instance, violent rape and underage mutually consenting sexual acts, and they place “offenders” in what often amounts to lifetimes of exile from society.  

Trust me: I’m in favour of seeking legal restitution for sexual harm.  But I’m entirely unclear as to how posting images is like sexual assault, which is what supporters of the legislation are claiming (a fact that Alter seems to have missed).  

 

There are other, equally thorny issues at play here, in the case of the celebrity images.  I’m struck by the extent to which there appears to be a culture of protectiveness around these women, even as I agree that they have in fact had their privacy violated.  The actor Ricky Gervais has been slammed for suggesting that perhaps celebrities ought not to place their images online in the first place; he has since removed the original tweet.  

 

I understand the outrage around his and others’ remarks (and I also think Gervais, at least, has a point about having made a joke, something we’re entirely unable to recognise in the US): there is a way in which that amounts to a degree of victim-blaming.  But I’m struck by how swiftly “we” (and so, far, admittedly, this “we” is mostly a band of loud, angry voices on Twitter) have managed to transform the murkiness of contemporary celebrity culture into something so pure that we need to protect the fair maidens who, apparently, dot its landscape.



Which is to say: What does it mean for us to so fiendishly devour video footage of Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian having their brains fucked out, in what were so blatantly and obviously successful attempts to turn themselves into massively profitable brands and simultaneously now insist that some celebrities, including Kardashian, apparently, have faced nothing less than sexual assault?  Or, put it another way, if the images were only of the likes of Hilton and Kardashian, would we be outraged or bored?



I’m entering into murky territory here, but I do think it’s worth being more than curious about this collective outrage around people like Jennifer Lawrence, who is now making her falling at the Oscars routine an annual one,  and who clearly works hard at her bad-girl-in-a-great-dress-giving-the-finger-to-the-press image.  No one should have their privacy violated, but here’s my central point: Would the images of Lawrence and others even have been seen as worthy of monetisation if we weren’t already knee deep in the shit of celebrity culture, where people we will never know and who probably don’t give a damn about most of us are now placed as our best friends?  Sure, their privacy was violated but perhaps we might do a better job of examining our own fetishisation of those who are well-known, and often merely well-known for being well-known.  Perhaps, then, we wouldn’t have to endure the sheer hypocrisy of a gossipmonger like Perez Hilton now claiming to have somehow reformed himself (his blog currently features a GQ spread of nude photos of...Kim Kardashian).

 

I don’t write this as a puritan. I mean, please, I do my share of pursuing celebrity gossip, but there are limits and I think there’s a difference between a tasting of the lives projected as ideal in all their fakery, and gobbling down the whole mess as if it were the only thing available. Put it this way: We don’t consume celebrities as the occasional snacks that liven and make our days more fun; we devour them as if they are the only meals we can ever have.

 

I will also postulate that race matters here as well.  Somehow, Jennifer Lawrence’s presumably beautiful white body is the subject of great anger and outrage.  I can’t help wonder what the response would have been if the majority of celebrities who faced this invasion had been black or brown.  At the heart of all this manufactured outrage lies barely suppressed anger at the projected violation of white women.  There, I said it.

 

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Next Entry: Part Two of my Hypocrite Reader interview.

 


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