We live in an era rich with sexual documentary evidence. Mass text-messaging combined with the rapid spread of hand-held cameras and photo-sharing technology have produced a world where every sexual relationship has a much higher likelihood of producing its own historical record than the trysts of a generation ago. Consequently, we’ve all become archivists of others’ sexual lives: readers of leaked sexts, viewers of dubiously released private photos, knowers of once-secret things.
It’s an easy hole to fall into, because eavesdropping is thrilling and snooping even more so, especially when the subject is otherwise remote. The latest example is, of course, Jeffrey P. Bezos — the founder and chief executive of Amazon, who owns The Post — whose intimate text exchanges with Lauren Sanchez were recently leaked by the National Enquirer. Last week, Bezos published a Medium post alleging that the Enquirer has also obtained private, explicit photographs of him, and that the tabloid has threatened to release them unless Bezos ceases his private investigation into how the Enquirer got ahold of the texts and pictures in the first place. To which Bezos said thanks but no thanks, meaning the pictures could potentially emerge at any time. He wouldn’t be the first celebrity to turn up dishabille in the press against his wishes.
Nor will he be the last, and neither will the stanchless trickle of sexts and nude photographs and the occasional video flow from the accounts of celebrities or other people in whose lives there is arguably some public interest. So it makes sense to develop some kind of principle for dealing with these materials as they emerge. And that’s more complicated than it may initially seem.
We tend to make (helpful) distinctions between thinking and doing, which in its best form serves a bulwark against detecting and prosecuting thought crimes. Thus, having a gander at the daily catch of ill-gotten erotica seems hard to fit into any preexisting category of wrongdoing. After all, looking at it doesn’t make you responsible for the initial invasion involved in stealing it. Not looking at it won’t put it back where it was, so to speak: What’s public is relentlessly public. Looking also doesn’t mean you have to participate in any kind of public shaming or pile-on. So what’s the harm in simply knowing what somebody texted to somebody else?
When it comes to viewing leaked sexual ephemera, the knowing is its own harm. This doesn’t necessarily count for every kind of secret; being aware of somebody’s private dislike of a mutual friend, for instance, doesn’t represent the same kind of violation as having ungranted sexual knowledge of them, because sex is different from other things. The exclusivity, the secrecy, that’s all part of the point — they’re the essential ingredients of intimacy. And simply knowing the details without invitation jeopardizes that.
In 2017, Jennifer Lawrence reflected on the 2014 theft of her own private, sexual photographs this way: “When the hacking thing happened, it was so unbelievably violating that you can’t even put it into words . . . like, there’s not one person in the world that is not capable of seeing these intimate photos of me.” Part of what concerned her was the social response: She mentioned her anxiety that while at an ordinary public event, a stranger could pull up those photos on a phone, apropos of nothing. That’s the uneasy violation that happens mind to mind, when someone suddenly knows something they shouldn’t, and you can’t stop them from knowing it.
The law has long had its own ways of dealing with wrongful invasions of privacy, the sorts that cause damage to careers and relationships and reputations and health, or that regard the specific invaders of privacy themselves. But moral harms need no substantive damages to be wrong, and they apply to the world of onlookers as much as to the thieves of private materials. When there is a case of prevailing public interest regarding stolen sexual materials, you’ll know, and that scenario will involve its own weighing of right and wrong. But as for the never-ending reel of things we ought not see ever-flickering across our screens — ignore them, don’t look. There are things better left unknown.