Leaking Photos Is Sexual Assault, and It's Time to Stop Blaming the Victims

These leaks (like others) has been met with the usual mixture of victim blaming and outrage that women dared to take pictures of their own bodies for reasons other than publication.

Jill Scott's pictures were leaked this week on Twitter. Well, at least one Jill Scott picture, the other may well be a fake nude. She joins Jennifer Lawrence and other celebrities as the latest victim of an abominable practice that makes violating the privacy of women into a game for creeps who want to pretend what they're doing is harmless.

These leaks (like others) have been met with the usual mixture of victim blaming and outrage that women dared to take pictures of their own bodies for reasons other than publication. There's even a side trip into body shaming, because apparently people can always find new and exciting ways to make you lose your faith in humanity. This time the pictures were of celebrities, so it made the news in a way that most of these incidents do not.

Yet, under the guise of free speech, women are victimized daily with everything from scripts designed to turn on web cameras remotely in hopes of catching someone naked, to pictures and videos being leaked for money, revenge, or just plain old fashioned bullying. And every time one of the more outrageous incidents makes the news, there's a collective pretense of shock that such a thing could happen.

For every person that expresses outrage at the idea of private pictures being stolen and dispersed without consent, there seems to be another three people asking “Well why did they take them, they had to know this could happen?” or “What kind of woman takes naked pictures of herself?” as though women don't have a right to share their own bodies with the people that they love.

There's no shortage of truly awful specimens of humanity in M. E. Winstead's mentions on Twitter calling her a slut, slag, whore or any of a dozen other epithets for the “crime” of taking pictures for her husband. We could pretend that they are an isolated incident, that most people aren't judging the women for having taking those pictures in the first place. But, that's a polite fiction to assuage our own guilt at not doing more to change the culture that makes leaked pics so tempting.

The salacious write ups, the snickering “Boys will be boys” reactions and even the “Good girls don't do things like that” rhetoric all hinges on the bizarre notion that a woman's body exists for others to control and enjoy. Not for the woman in it to love, share, or protect.

Whether the topic is upskirting, revenge porn leaked by disgruntled opportunistic exes, or stolen pictures, the lack of meaningful consequences for sexual assaults that aren't physical in nature continues to send the message that such things will be tolerated, if not actively encouraged. And it's not just the victim blaming that's a problem, it's the people who view and share the pics and videos (yes, even if they donate to charity), it's the people who bring them up for years afterward, and those who fault women in the public eye for not being able to foresee a future where their privacy would be violated.

We don't expect victims of other property crimes to do more than lock their doors, or use their credit cards on legitimate sites. It's only when the property at stake is a woman's body, and she has treated it as something that belongs to her, and no one else, that the goalposts start moving. Suddenly, it is not enough for the pictures or video to have been made with her consent, for her to share, and otherwise kept in a theoretically secure location. It's suddenly her fault that someone was able to break in, and that the predator who did it was willing to show her body to the world.

Worse yet, if the person who leaks the photos or videos is a former lover, she gets blamed for being with them at all because then she should have known better than to ever trust them. This despite the fact that we all know that abusers don't start out being abusive. If we can create multiple media depictions of charming predators, then we must be able to grasp that most (if not all victims) of revenge porn have no idea that their former partner is capable of such things. We must also be able to understand that taking pictures of your own body isn't the problem, the problem is people willing to commit a crime in order to access those pictures without your knowledge or consent.

The true scandal in these leaked celebrity nudes isn't that the pictures exist, it's that we're all pretending that this isn't a common occurrence. That the people who engage in these activities are foreign to our society on some fundamental level, even as we tacitly support the attitudes that make their actions acceptable to them. Whether it's Cee-Lo's tweets about it only being rape if the woman remembers, or the dozens of forums online devoted to figuring out new ways to manage invading the privacy of unsuspecting women, the societal messaging is clear.

Women are fair game for predators simply because they exist. Men who don't prey on women physically (though one wonders about the overlap) aren't really hurting them by invading their privacy, so there's no reason for the law to catch up to the problem. Women (and men) who rebut these ideas, who push for laws against upskirting, revenge porn, etc are overreacting. After all, surely no man would get this upset about his pictures leaking, and any difference in the responses to having such a thing happen must be an overreaction, and not recognition of the way gender impacts societal consequences.

It's just more of the same ridiculous rhetoric designed to avoid confronting what's happening in any meaningful effective way. It's a shameful aspect of our society that we should all be fighting against like any other form of sexual assault.