Celebrity Photo-hacks: Intimate Details
of a Nation’s View of Women

by Celia Cummiskey

2014 saw one of the biggest celebrity photo leaks in recent history. When over two hundred pictures of female celebrities, unclothed or in various states of undress, were obtained through an Icloud hack and posted on Reddit, Jennifer Lawrence, Kirsten Dunst, Kate Upton, and Mckayla Maroney were some of the well-known victims. Unfortunately, this incident was not the first or last of these hacks to occur as celebrity photo leaks and “revenge porn” rapidly become a part of modern culture. Facilitating these types of sex crimes, the rise of social media, such as Snapchat, Twitter, and Reddit, has led to the easier access and nonconsensual distribution of consensually taken intimate photographs.

With digital presence becoming increasingly more important in the modern world, the fallout from these hacks is drastic for the women involved. Using this new form of technological communication to illegally spread intimate photographs spotlights issues of privacy. The idea that society grants this privilege to men while it grants unequivocal access to women’s bodies is reminiscent of a “purity culture,” which believes the existence of women’s sexuality is to be in service to men. The hypersexualization of women’s bodies combined with the misconception that women are not as sexual as men implies that women’s sexuality is used as a method of social control. It is a tool designed to keep women from gaining agency over their own sexual life and from accessing power in an increasingly technological world.

In order to discuss how the modern digital examples of photo hacking exemplify the male privilege of privacy and the entitlement over women’s bodies, it is important to examine the origin of these belief systems. Some ideas, including that women do not want sex as much or often as men, or that women view monogamy as a vehicle to shelter and comfort, are misconceptions. Women are just as sexual in nature as men. In Slates’ review of Daniel Bergner’s recent book What Do Women Want?, Slate quotes Bergner as saying:

“Women’s desire—its inherent range and innate power—is an underestimated and constrained force,” he concludes. In the last century, it was constrained by Freud’s theory that women have “a weaker sexual instinct” than men. Now, it’s constrained by modern evolutionary psychology that says that “women are rigged by their genes to seek the comfort of relationships.” Across culture, Bergner writes, “with scientific or God-given confidence, girls and women are told how they should feel.” (Hess)

Berger is pointing out that ultimately there is no difference in how men and women relate to sex. The external one is being enforced by the parameters of culture. Women are taught that their biology dictates a desire for sex only as a means to acquire relational security, not sexual pleasure. In contrast, most young men are told that their sexuality, as well as their sexual pleasure, is an integral part of life and that it is “manly” to be sexual. The socially constructed dichotomy between how men and women interact with sex fosters the belief that female sexuality does not truly belong to women.

This view of female sexuality has immense effect on the psychology behind the male perpetrators of these photo leaks; however, the role of technology in these scandals cannot be ignored. Humans are using technology in their lives in ways that were unheard of a century or even a few decades ago. Texting, chat apps, and photo-sharing tools are quickly being assimilated into every facet of daily life, so it is no surprise that they are incorporated into our interpersonal relationships as well. Since social media is rapidly becoming a vital form of communication for the average American, apps like Snapchat have begun dominating downloads in America. Snapchat, an application that allows users to send photos that self-destruct after a set time ranging from one to ten seconds, has remained the number one downloaded photo and video app in America this year and has hovered in the top ten overall downloaded apps from January to May 2014 (Edwards). While often used to innocuously send goofy pictures to friends, Snapchat is more colloquially known as the “sexting app.” Its disappearing picture trick makes it the perfect platform to “securely” send naked photographs to whomever the users please.

Snapchat appeals to users in a relationship because they can constantly connect with their partners while juggling increasingly busy lives. By merging their online and sexual personas, the Snapchat user is able to satisfy the damning need of this generation for constant connection. Sexting is an avenue for a people in a relationship to show that they are thinking about or would like to see the other in a quantifiable, digital way. As a culture, we prize this endless connectedness and statistical proof of our successful relationships because this is how we’ve come to judge most components of our life through the Internet. Just as the physical appearance via likes or online RSVPs to an event on Facebook are tangible proof of popularity, the number of snaps or presence of a smiley emoji next to a partner’s name is tangible proof of love.

Snapchat, despite its overwhelming popularity, is not immune to controversy. Users have discovered multiple hacks that allow the screen-shotting of pictures without the customary screenshot notification being sent to the sender (Cook). This facilitates the secret hoarding of pictures, possibly for blackmail or personal use, that the original sender believes have long since faded into cyber-space No Man’s land. These people abusing the tacit agreement of privacy between those who send and receive these photos seem to believe that not only do they have unequivocal access to the images, but also that they have the right to arm themselves against possible slight with the capability to spread these photos over the web. This perceived entitlement to intimate images plays into the belief that female sexuality is aimed at men, who then have the choice to do with it whatever they so choose.

In 2014, a third party Snapchat client released a plethora of images of celebrities and citizens alike that he had been collecting since the app was first created. 4chan users then transferred these images to a searchable database comprised of hundreds of thousands of photos that Snapchat users had assumed were deleted after one view. This database called SnapSaved lets people download the stolen photos, many of which showcase underage teen girls. The SnapSaved fiasco, known as “The Snappening,” and the consequent discovery of Snapchat bugs are only a few instances of technology to facilitating the dispersion of sexual photos without the original sender’s consent (Cook).

The spread of these photos is about more than the desire to view naked women; it implicates deeper messages about the withholding of women’s power in modern America. In Bruce Schneier’s article, “The Battle for Power on the Internet,” he offers insight to the ways in which the Internet is being used as a cradle of power. He says, “Internet marketing has transformed commerce… Mass media has changed dramatically, and some of the most influential people in the media have come from the blogging world. There are new ways to organize politically and run elections,” (Schneier). The world is changing, and the ways in which a person advances in their career is drastically different than it was just twenty years ago. In 1999, Matthew Symonds, a writer for the Economist, said, “Within a few years the internet will turn business upside down. Be prepared– or die” (The Net Imperative). He was correct. The Internet has radically changed the online marketing game, seen in the increased significance of one’s online presence. Now, imagine if a cursory Google search from a future employer returned intimate photographs. Your image would be irrevocably tainted.

Women must be prepared to succeed or their careers will die in this shifting landscape of online-based success. The Internet is altering the way society functions and the distribution of women’s nude photographs is a possible way to push them out of the public sphere. If women’s digital capacity is hindered by the personal details of her sexual life then we are restricting women not only from gaining power in the workplace and online, but from gaining agency over their own sexuality.

Sites like Reddit and 4chan where users can anonymously share photos create the perfect breeding ground for the posting of illegally obtained intimate photos. Once images are posted, they disseminate to the far reaches of the web making it almost impossible to track down the poster and even more difficult to delete the photos after they’ve been saved by other users. Once nude photographs have been posted online, they can continue to haunt a women’s digital presence for years—therefore making these anonymous social media platforms the perfect weapons to negatively affect women’s online existence and influence over the digital market.

The why of the matter goes much deeper into our cultural psyche than the development of new gadgets and apps however, bringing up the possible issue of privacy as an exclusively male privilege. Reddit is well-known for its strict privacy policy that bars the revealing of any user’s personal information. In fact, Reddit is so serious about protecting its predominantly male users (in 2012, 74% of Reddit users were male) that users will boycott certain websites in order to maintain their anonymity (“Social Media By Gender”).

In 2012, Gawker, a website affiliated with feminist news source Jezebel, released the name of a man who had been creating forums for the sharing of “creepshot” photos of women without their consent or knowledge. In response to Gawker’s supposed violation of the Reddit user’s privacy, the heads of well-known forums banded together to stop the sharing of links from both Gawker and Jezebel. Reddit users were so incensed over the releasing of private information that they vowed never to link to these feminist sites. Yet, the Reddit user in question had been posting compromising pictures of women that he had secretly taken, therefore violating the privacy of countless women. Some males, like these Reddit users, believe that they are not only entitled to uncensored access of women’s bodies, but that they have the right to retain anonymity while doing so, whereas women are denied privacy over their own bodies. Because we live in a “purity culture,” a common conception is that the sending of naked photographs is only about the sexual pleasure of the man; this sense of one-sided sexual relationships feeds into the idea of men’s tyrannical control over women’s bodies. Allowing women to have agency of their own sexuality would be acknowledging their nature as sexual creatures, which our current culture refuses to admit. The privilege of anonymity enjoyed by men in their consumption of intimate photos of women is a perk of a culture that believes female sexuality is available for men’s public consumption and men’s public consumption only.

This entitlement may come from the current state of increasing gender equality. It’s 2014 and women have come a long way since their suffragette past. Women are now paid almost as much as men, and the disparity between genders is not as visible as it once was. Perhaps, Reddit is one of the few remaining male spaces, where users are particularly threatened by the successful modern woman. The Internet is power and men, like the Reddit user in question, are seeking to keep women offline and away from the ability to gain a foothold in the digital world. Women are simultaneously prevented from accessing power within their own sexual relationships and gaining power in the online world market through the commodification of their sexuality.

Roxane Gay writes in an article for The Guardian, “The further away you are from living as a white, heterosexual, middle-class man, the less privacy you enjoy” (Gay). While the idea of female sexuality as a male tool is prevalent, the idea of female privacy seems irrelevant. Why must men respect the privacy of women whose ultimate goal in their sexuality is to please them? Men believe they deserve these images, rather than realize they are involved in a two-way relationship based on mutual sexual pleasure. The technological sharing of explicit images of women only underscores this fact. In the same way that sexual privacy is a way to gain agency over female sexuality, Internet privacy is a way to gain power online. By keeping women in the public eye, men are shutting the door to women’s digital influence. Erin Gloria Ryan in her article for Jezebel perfectly sums up what the reaction of Reddit users ultimately reveals about the values of our society:

In their inaction in the face of web harassment of women, mostly male architects of internet communities imply that it would be more of a burden for people who harass women on the internet to face a modicum of accountability than it is for women to deal with the sort of harassment that makes them afraid to go home at night. A user’s right to remain unidentified and unpunished after they post an illegally obtained picture of Jennifer Lawrence’s nude body trumps Jennifer Lawrence’s right to not have illegally obtained photos of her nude body distributed to millions of strangers. An user’s right to anonymously tell Amanda Hess that he’d like to rape her trumps her right to not be threatened with rape.

By exposing women’s private lives on the Internet, anonymous men strip women of their own anonymity, making it difficult to gain power by the same means.

Women can be exploited not only by anonymous hackers, but also by people they were romantically involved with in the past. This typically takes the form of “revenge porn.” Describing this popular term, Law professor Mary Anne Franks describes this popular terms as the misuse of graphic images that were products of a “private, consensual relationship.” In that situation, she says, “One of them later uses those images to harm the other by uploading them to porn websites, sending them to the victim’s family members, and/or distributing them to the victim’s employer, colleagues, and peers” (Franks). Jilted lovers seek to hurt their previous partners by uploading explicit images to sites that often seem devoted to this kind of attack against women. Explaining the rationale of those users who post and consume these images, Mary Anne Franks states:

They would never argue that the fact that a person voluntarily gave personal information to a cell-phone gives that provider the right to hand that information over to, say, the NSA. And yet they argue that a woman who gives her boyfriend a sexually explicit picture has given him the right to use that picture any way he wants, including uploading it to porn sites and distributing it to her family and friends. The inconsistency of this logic would be amusing if it didn’t reveal such alarming hostility to women’s basic rights over their own bodies. (Franks)

In effect, women don’t warrant the same rights over their own bodies than a man does over his personal cell phone number because, whereas a cellphone’s purpose is the pleasure and convenience of its user, a woman’s body’s purpose is the pleasure of a man. The dismantling of women’s rights over their own bodies plays into the larger movement to keep women out of a position of power in their sex lives, on the web, and ultimately in the modern world.

In a culture that refuses to give its women the same rights that men enjoy, the leaking of nude photographs of women is only a byproduct. Women are bombarded by their sexualized images in the media but are hit with public backlash if they are revealed to be sexual themselves. Is a woman every truly safe from the possibility of her intimate photographs being sent out for the world to see? Or of photos being taken up her skirt while she rides the train to work? This ever-present feeling of being watched and observed ensures that women remain securely in their inferior position in society

Because photo leaks of men happen much less frequently than those of women and quite often have no effect on the men involved, men are able to retain a firmer foot holding in the changing landscape of digital influence. Of the more than one hundred women victims of the 2014 Icloud hack there is only one known male victim (De Graaf). Not only are men targeted less in these hacks, but their position in modern culture as overtly sexual creatures allows them to shake off these invasions of privacy with flippant responses. After explicit photos of Dylan Sprouse were posted on Twitter he responded, “Guess what, I’m not 14 and fat anymore” (Rose). With a similarly casual response to a nude photo leaked on Snapchat, Calum Hood of boy band Five Seconds of Summer tweeted, “Least ya [sic] know what it looks like now” (Malach). Men are expected to engage in sexual activities, so the posting of photos detailing these acts are not as surprising as women’s intimate photos. Because women are expected to be more virginal and pure than men, society views explicit examples of their sexuality as not only negative but incredibly serious matters that cannot be laughed off.

The attempt to silence women online through their sexuality is not always pornographic. Recently, Emma Watson spoke to the UN about the need for feminism in our modern culture– a speech that was met with the usual mix of ecstatic and disgruntled reviews. However, soon after her speech, a countdown clock appeared on 4chan that threatened to release nude photographs of Watson if she continued to support her feminist cause. Surprisingly, this was revealed to be a hoax by an organization that was trying to raise awareness for the attacks on women speaking their minds (Valenti). This attempt to garner support for their organization was nebulous at best, but it does raise a red flag about the power of men in the Internet sphere that is very capable of spreading into the public and private sphere.

Threatening a woman working towards gender equality with the release of private sexual photos does not seem unheard of in this desensitized culture. We are accustomed to the idea of a woman’s sexuality being used to control her actions, particularly online. Emma Watson’s speech was a viral hit, making her a celebrity who controlled her voice and image on the Internet, so an attempt to dismantle this control seemed almost inevitable. Combatting the nonconsensual sharing of intimate photographs, however, does not necessarily entail more stringent Internet privacy laws. Taking measures to ensure greater consequences for the men who take these actions wouldn’t hurt, but the ultimate solution is to the counteract the societal messages that are ingrained in our cultural psyche.

Technology is not the cause of the outpouring of photo hacks; instead, it is the attempt to combat women’s fight for digital power in an increasingly digital world. If society stopped glorifying women’s bodies as a tool for male sexual pleasure, stopped punishing women for showing their own bodies, and prevented men from using their anonymity to control women digitally, then these privacy violations would certainly decrease or cease to exist. If people do not fight this changing landscape of digital sexism, then the modern concept of the successful American woman will be left behind in a world where success is doled out according to a gendered set of rules.

Works Cited

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Ryan, Erin Gloria. “Behind Every Bullied Woman is a Man Yelling About Free Speech.” Jezebel.com. Jezebel, 2 Sept. 2014. Web. 30 Oct. 2014.

Schneier, Bruce. “The Battle for Power on the Internet.” Theatlantic.com. The Atlantic, 24 Oct. 2013. Web. 11 Nov. 2014.

“Social Media By Gender: Women Dominate Pinterest, Twitter, Men Dominate Reddit, YouTube.” Huffingtonpost.com. The Huffington Post, 21 06 2012. Web. 30 Oct. 2014.

“The Net Imperative.” Economist (US) 26 June 1999: n. pag. Web.

Valenti, Jessica. “Emma Watson Nude Photos Threat Was a Hoax- But It Was Still a Threat.” TheGuardian. The Guardian, 25 Sept. 2014. Web. 30 Oct. 2014.

Wenger, Kaimpono D., and Mary Anne Franks. “Law Developments In Revenge Porn: An Interview With Mary Anne Franks.” ConcurringOpinions.com. Concurring Opinions, 10 Oct. 2013. Web. 30 Oct. 2014.