Stolen nude photos and the long legacy of invasive celebrity voyeurism

On her Today Show appearance in December 2012, Anne Hathaway brought the noise down on Matt Lauer: “I’m sorry that we live in a culture that commodifies sexuality of unwilling participants.”

At the time, up-the-skirt paparazzi photos of Hathaway were circulating widely, and Lauer had been attempting to shame the actress by asking what she’d “learned” from the ordeal. As if there was any other lesson to learn than, “We don’t care about a woman’s right to privacy—especially if she’s in the public eye.”

This weekend, over 100 celebrities including Jennifer Lawrence, Kate Upton, Kirsten Dunst and Mary Elizabeth Winstead were targeted, exploited, and abused when a hacker posted private photos s/he stole from their iPhones. “Private” being “explicit” and “stolen” meaning the hacker took them without their permission. The hacker also actively seeking donations s/he’ll use to justify posting videos of Jennifer Lawrence engaging in sexual acts. As if his cause is worthy of anything more than criminal charge.

So ultimately, what this is even more of the same; more of the sexual commodification of unwilling participants. Since celebrity journalism replaced what could otherwise be considered glorified public relations, every decade has brought new levels of violation—whether by shaming the likes of Elizabeth Taylor during her decade-spanning romance with Richard Burton, or by “Squidgygate” (the leaked phone conversations between Princess Diana and then-lover James Gilbey in 1990).

This disregard for women’s privacy has only climbed since ‘90s and 2000s, starting with the reveal of Sarah Ferguson’s affair with Texan financial advisor John Bryan (1992), continuing with the exposure of Monica Lewinsky’s dalliance with Bill Clinton in 1998, and nowhere near ending with leaked nude photos of Geri Halliwell (taken before her involvement with the Spice Girls) around the same time. Since the ‘60s, the message has been clear: if you are a woman in the public eye, you are entitled to nothing. Not to your privacy, not to your own sense of style, and certainly not your own sexuality. Those things are only for outsiders—ones you don’t even know are lurking—to enjoy.

Fortunately, the 2000s brought a little overdue reclamation.

The 2004 sex tape, One Night in Paris signaled a turning point in the objectification of women and the commodification of their sexuality. In 2001, a-then-20-year-old Paris Hilton slept with her boyfriend Rick Saloman, who taped it (with her consent), then released it (without it). But, she flipped it: using its momentum to release a book, premiere The Simple Life, and to up her public persona, Paris rose from night vision ashes and all but ignored the existence of Saloman on her rise to the top; leaving him with only a reputation for uploading images of a young girl being taken advantage of.

Her protégé, Kim Kardashian, took it one step further. After the release of her 2007 sex tape with ex-boyfriend Ray J, the woman built herself an empire and reclaimed the power she was stripped of after being betrayed, laughed at, and dismissed (which she still continues to be) following. That reclamation also came in the form of cash-money: a true business person, she struck a deal with the tape’s rights holders and secured herself a cool $5-ish million. And from there, reality television, a fashion line, brand campaigns, Kim Kardashian Hollywood, and Kanye West. (Remind me: Who the eff is Ray J, again?)

So while Hilton and Kardashian have been crucified for their sex tapes, what they’ve done in the wake of them is incredible. Where Princess Diana and Sarah Ferguson were forced to hide for following their husbands’ leads (neither husband was faithful) and for expressing themselves sexually, Hilton and Kardashian refused. You want to see them naked? Cool. But now the money from that want is going towards building their dynasties—ones that purveyors of sex tapes and stolen photos will always be on the outside of, dying to see into.

The stolen photos from this weekend are just another example of that death wish: to see that stars are just like us, to see that despite Oscars and money and fame, these women can still be objectified. That it’s still possible to jump out from behind that proverbial bush and scare them, hurt them, and render them powerless. But these women (or any women) will never be powerless—at some point, they will get that power back. They will build an empire, they will dress down Matt Lauer, they will tweet something we didn’t know how to articulate ourselves, and they will act. It’s those who click and who download and who shame that are without power, and those people know it.

Taking nude photos isn’t some sin, consensual sex tapes don’t warrant judgment or scrutiny; to be a sexual person isn’t wrong. Nothing the victims of this most recent sex crime (or victims of any sex crime) did justified this theft of power – power that will return and just make them even stronger, more aware, more willing to fight and to build.

But what does it say about these watchers and their commitment to voyeurism? (Or our media that sanctions them?) So powerless are they in their own lives that they’ll click and download on photos taken from total strangers. So powerless that they’ll ogle up-the-skirt shots of a celebrity getting out of the car, or shame her for not wearing underwear. So powerless that they’ll make fun of a celebrity after watching her sex tape, despite that celebrity being able to buy and sell our sorry asses thanks to her ex-boyfriend’s betrayal of trust.

Power isn’t stripping somebody of his or her own. Power isn’t watching, faceless, as a woman endures a sex crime. Power is what we’ll see when these women, and so many others, reclaim what’s been taken and help us end this sick, sad affair with voyeuristic journalism. After all, in the words of Mr. Kardashian himself, no one man should have all that power.

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