If there’s one thing I’ve learned about being a Lady on the Internet, it’s that putting your picture online seems to be an open invitation for people to comment on your appearance. It’s kind of a bizarre conundrum. Much as I tell myself that I would love for people to only view me as a brain and two typing hands, it’s really freaking hard to remember the Platonic Writing Ideal when commenters tell me that I look pretty.
One of my friends actually commented on it back when I first started writing for xoJane and happened to be gloomily telling him about my romantic woes.
“Well, at least people on the Internet think you’re attractive?” he offered.
“And thank God for that,” I said.
Seriously, though. As much as I’d like to think that I could, in theory, brush off Internet opinions like water off the back of a duck, it is the exact opposite. On my greyest days, I carry around compliment-nuggets from the comments like they’re pebbles in my pocket. When I respond to, “Your hair looks great!” with, “Aw, thank you!”, I’m secretly saying, I AM TATTOOING THIS ONTO MY BODY AND THEY WILL READ IT ON MY STOMACH WHEN THEY EXHUME MY CORPSE FROM WHATEVER ANIMAL HAS DEVOURED ME.
Unfortunately, it’s the same thing with insults. I’m fairly certain that if trolls decided to really capitalize upon my physical insecurities (hint: the giant shoulders), the ensuing shitstorm would probably send me into a despair-spiral that ended with me hiding under my desk and only publishing photos of my (also giant) ankles, like a reverse Victorian spinster.
Even so, these days I’m largely reconciled to the fact that I’m subjecting my photos to crowd-sourced scrutiny. As much as I may enjoy the praise and use the insults for brain-fodder during workouts, I think we risk setting a harmful precedent for interpreting the act of uploading photos as blanket consent for the public to peruse them in a non-platonic way.
This issue came to light a few weeks ago, when Gawker writer Adrian Chen exposed Grand Internet Perv Michael Brutsch for curating and posting hundreds of photos of underage girls to Reddit. As s.e. addressed in the above article, most of Brutsch’s supporters fell back on the idea that his grossness was an expression of “free speech” -- however, a few defended the idea that the girls had uploaded photos to the Internet themselves and were therefore “asking for it.”
Clearly, the idea that 14-year-olds were “asking” for middle-aged strangers to fawn over their photos on Reddit is an absurd one. But what about on a more personal level?
The Daily Dot and Techcrunch recently covered an iPhone app entitled “Badabing,” which uses image recognition technology to trawl your (presumably female) friends’ Facebook feeds for all their bikini photographs. Although it purports to use the specific outline of a bikini for its search, results are apparently turning up photographs of infants and shirtless dudes. Quelle horror!
Again, the Internet’s response has been predictably lukewarm in terms of outrage. Some privacy advocates are concerned with the app’s ability to shuffle through people’s albums, but the app’s creators hold fast to their claim that they’re only accessing photos that people have given Facebook access to. Subtext: if they didn’t want people to get off on them, they wouldn’t have posted them online. Even a CNET article snarked, “All the bikini pictures on Facebook were presumably uploaded by people who'd like others to see their bikini pictures.”
Speaking as someone who posted half-naked photos to the Internet as a teenage girl relatively recently, I can say with some confidence that the majority of young women who upload beach shots to Facebook probably aren’t expecting their guy friends to use them for masturbation fodder. Sure, it might be a subtle bid for peer attention, the way some people (me) will post pictures of their outfits to Instagram when they think they look particularly snazzy. More likely, it’s just them goofing off with their friends at the beach.
Personally, I don’t particularly mind if someone feels the need to jack off to a photo of me. I’d recommend some better sites for that purpose, but you know, whatever quivers your liver. By saying that, though, I’m acknowledging that you, anonymous Internet whacker-offer, view me as a sexual being. And I’m okay with that. Consider this my over-18 consent.
You know who cannot give over-18 consent? Girls in their mid-teens, whose bathing suit photos apps like Badabing are making even easier to access. Rather than having to click through someone’s profile and risk seeing signs of their actual personhood, Badabing is turning the entire process into an activity akin to shopping in a catalog.
On some level, masturbating over someone’s photograph will always be a form of objectification. I am happy to admit that my tendency to retreat into my bedroom-cave with a photograph of Sinqua Walls has very little to do with his brain. Sinqua is a celebrity, though, and has therefore arguably given his consent to be viewed in the public eye, at least to a moderate degree.
By contrast, the assumption that a random teenage girl uploading a photo for her friends is automatically consenting to sexual objectification is a fallacy at best and some pre-assault bullshit at worst. Yes, my issue is largely with the fact that many of these women are under 18. But it’s also the idea that their photos are being sourced and reproduced for others’ pleasure without their knowledge, all because they had the audacity to put a photograph online where they’re not wearing coveralls and a burlap sack from neck to ankle.
Because to me, the phrase “they’re asking for it” sounds awfully familiar. It’s what my grandma said to me when I told her I got followed home by a dude in the car the other day -- “Well, what were you wearing? Were you asking for it?” It’s what women are asked, time and time again, when they report sexual assaults. “Were you asking for it?” Because if you were, then maybe you’re partially to blame.
Do I think that jacking off to an underage woman’s Facebook picture carries the same emotional and physical trauma as raping her? No. Of course I don't.
But it still feeds into that same rhetoric of asking women to hold themselves responsible for how others react to their bodies, both online and off. And that is not a fair responsibility to lay on anyone, let alone a teenage girl.