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Even at a national memorial, no one is safe from ‘creepshots’

A man who photographed women sitting on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial recently got away with it. (Photo by Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
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Creepshots, one of the Internet’s many bizarre sexual scourges, are “repellent and disturbing,” a D.C. judge ruled Thursday — but they are not technically illegal.

In case you aren’t familiar with the term (and you might not want to be, FYI), creepshots are essentially just what they sound like: sneaky, surreptitious photos of a person’s, usually a woman’s, private areas, taken without her consent — and often, without her knowledge that the parts in question are even visible. They’re widely considered a genre of so-called “nonconsensual porn” — explicit images or videos traded without permission from the people they depict.

Online, these images enjoy a thriving trade on sites like Reddit, 4chan, AnonIB and even Twitter, where handles like @CreepBK, @SexySights and @Creep_daddy keep up a steady stream of skin-crawling photos. Both Reddit and AnonIB have forums dedicated to these types of photos, specifically; on AnonIB’s creepshot forum, users are currently salivating over a photo of a high-school student bending over to push a Wal-Mart cart as she shops. It’s obvious, from the number and location of the photos, that someone followed her around the store to take them.

“There were some pics of a similar looking girl kicking around the interweb a few years back,” one user wrote. “She was leaning over a barrier at her swimming pool talking to her swim coach … Anyone know the whereabouts?”

Someone else in the forum promptly supplied the photo: It is indeed of a (very young) girl at a swim meet, wearing what look to be swim shorts, watching people in the pool swim.

To many a reasonable observer, the existence of such a photo, and the intentions with which it was taken, seem self-evidently wrong. These are private people, going about their private lives. Why should a quick breeze or a bathing suit expose them to this kind of sustained, humiliating attention?

In the D.C. case, at least, the answer lay in a legal technicality. Voyeurism, a misdemeanor, has a very specific definition: You can’t secretly record someone using the bathroom, changing, having sex, or doing anything else where she has “a reasonable expectation of privacy.”

That reasonable expectation is what many cases hinge on. In this one, the creepshot-er in question, Christopher Hunt Cleveland, took his photos at the Lincoln Memorial as women sat on the steps. He didn’t sneak up under them, or use a peephole, or deploy any other similarly sneaky tricks. Instead, like the photographer who followed the woman in Wal-Mart, or the one who took pictures of the girl at the swim meet, he took pictures of public things, in a public place.

Never mind that leaning over for a moment, or wearing short shorts, does not in any way constitute a consent to be photographed. Never mind that, as U.S. Attorney Akhi Johnson argued, women have a reasonable expectation of privacy just by virtue of wearing clothes.

In purely legal terms, Cleveland’s creepshots don’t meet that standard. And so all charges were dropped against him, even as the stakes for women who visit the memorial were raised. Consider the implications of this for a second: If you were to visit the National Mall this weekend, and someone began taking photos of you or your children, there is nothing you can do about it.

It is “repellent and disturbing,” but it is his right.

There are attempts to change that, of course. In March, after a Massachusetts court ruled that upskirt photos were legal in the state, the legislature quickly pushed through a bill to criminalize it. Creepshots in the Bay State are now punishable by as many as five years in jail or fines up to $5,000. Texas also recently passed a law against photographs taken “with the intent to arouse or gratify” sexual desire, though that was later struck down on First Amendment grounds.

Which means that — in Texas, as in D.C., as in much of the country — women can be photographed, objectified, and have the photos passed around the Web simply for the crime of leaving their houses. Repellent and disturbing, indeed.