This is why ‘not taking nude selfies’ is not the solution to the Internet’s nude-photo hacking scandal

September 2, 2014

Jennifer Lawrence, whose nude photos were recently leaked online, as ‘Katniss Everdeen’ in The Hunger Games. (Lionsgate)

ATTENTION, women of the Internet: If you’re disturbed by the recent privacy-crushing leak of dozens of nude celebrity selfies, or the casual misogyny with which anonymous hackers sling them around, or the even more casual voyeurism of a million Internet surfers, salaciously Googling JLaw nudes as we speak, then some well-intentioned blowhards have a happy solution for you.

Don’t wanna see your nudes online? Don’t take them.

It’s meant to be practical — a sensible, concrete, if-A-then-B solution to a sprawling social problem that’s tangled thousands of women in its Web. But regardless of how this condescending tidbit of analog wisdom is meant, there’s no hiding its actual nature: old-school victim-blaming in the guise of advice.

Let’s, for the sake of argument, break this down to its fundamental pieces. When a nude photo arrives on the Internet, unbidden, it’s generally the result of two people’s discrete actions. Person No. 1 takes a photo of herself. Person No. 2 appropriates her image, perhaps illegally, and publishes it online without her knowledge or consent. (Needless to say, men also take nudes: But since revenge porn and celebrity hacks so disproportionately affect women, that’s the pronoun we’re going with here.)

Person No. 1 is well within the bounds of every mainstream moral, legal and ethical code since the dawn of photography.

Person No. 2 is shamelessly violating another person’s privacy and exploiting said violation for personal gain, often in the process of also committing multiple computer and/or wire-tapping crimes.

Two people. Two actions. But only one of them is wrong. How darkly hilarious and unfair and illogical, then, that the one who is not wrong gets blamed.

You didn’t want to see your nudes online? You shouldn’t have taken them.

It makes sense to take reasonable precautions, of course, in online privacy or anything else. Have a strong password, sure. Understand where your photos are stored, definitely.

But we fail to understand that certain types of “precautionary” lectures are given only to women, and only on certain highly gendered issues. If a woman’s nude photos are leaked online, we tell her she shouldn’t have taken the photos. If a woman is raped at a college party, we tell her she shouldn’t have been drinking. If a woman is mugged on a street at night, we tell her she shouldn’t have walked alone.

And yet, if you put a man in any of those scenarios, the blame shifts — unsubtly: Men are mugged because streets are unsafe, never because they forgot to bring a buddy, or they didn’t take a cab. If a prominent man is trolled on Twitter, it’s because the Internet teems with stupid, faceless degenerates, not because his tweets were too provocative. (Several female subjects of brutal Twitter trolling have told me the most common response they get to their situation is, “well why don’t you sign offline?”) The comedian Daniel Kibblesmith sums it up this way:

There’s a common thread going through all these things, even if they seem disparate. In each case, women are advised — as a “practical” “precaution” — to behave more traditionally, more demurely, than they might otherwise. They are asked to regress to a time when society considered them so fragile that they required escorts, and so “easily exploitable,” to quote Slate’s Amanda Hess, that they avoided any passing whiff of sexuality — even, and perhaps especially, on their own terms.

That doesn’t mean that people — and I say people, not just women — shouldn’t exercise reasonable caution and self-awareness as they go about their daily lives. “Be smart,” was my mother’s mantra since I entered college, repeated in a hundred birthday cards and e-mails. But to let so-called “smart” precautions dictate your habits or behavior — to let it change the way you act and feel and relate to the world around you — isn’t smart at all. It’s self-victimizing.

I was reminded of all on a recent road trip, when I listened to the teen hit “Divergent” on audiobook. It’s a dystopian coming-of-age story, centered on a feisty female character — much like Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss in “The Hunger Games.” In fact, the books are often grouped in the same wave of feminist young-adult fiction.

At one point in the book, however, the female lead is attacked by three men who are jealous of her abilities. The woman turns to an instructor for advice on what to do. He could say fight back, or report them to authorities, or any number of other sane things. Instead, he tells her that if she wants them to stop, she needs to “act weak.” And she does.

Unfortunately, when people think they’re asking women to “be smart,” they’re often actually asking them just that — to “be weak.” It’s not productive advice to give. And it’s disempowering, even dangerous, advice to take.

Caitlin Dewey runs The Intersect blog, writing about digital and Internet culture. Before joining the Post, she was an associate online editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.
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