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Revenge Porn and The Women-Humiliation Industry

January 29, 2013
by

Jill Filipovic has a piece in The Guardian about Revenge Porn.  She has a very personal perspective on this because she herself was a victim of a bunch of malicious anonyous misogynists on a law student and lawyer forum.  It’s an important read, and nothing I have to say would add anything to it, at least within the bounds of the discussion as she frames it.  But I do think that I can add something by situating the “revenge porn” genre within a larger universe of misogynist humiliation.

Jill says:

Once you’ve been face-to-genitals with someone, sending them a nude picture doesn’t seem like it should be such a big deal.

Society sees it differently – at least when the nude photo is of a woman. There aren’t popular revenge porn sites with pictures of naked men, because as a society we don’t think it’s inherently degrading or humiliating for men to have sex. Despite the fact that large numbers of women watch porn, there are apparently not large numbers of women who find sexual gratification in publicly shaming and demeaning men they’ve slept with.

And that is, fundamentally, what these revenge porn sites are about. They aren’t about naked girls; there are plenty of those who are on the internet consensually. It’s about hating women, taking enjoyment in seeing them violated, and harming them.

(Emphasis mine.)

This is so true, and so not limited to revenge porn.  It hasn’t been that long since the media was all in a stir about photos, taken from very long range by a very determined peeping tom, of the Dutchess of Cambridge topless.  After that, there was an unfortunate photograph of Anne Hathaway, and Matt Lauer’s inability to restrain himself from commenting on it (and Hathaway’s wonderful response: “I’m sorry that we live in a culture that commodifies sexuality of unwilling participants,” starting around 1:20 after the Les Mis clip).  A few years ago there was the photo of Britney Spears getting out of a car with no underwear.  And all the sex tapes.  And the Vanessa Hudgens photos, where her lawyer says she was a minor.  And so on.

In fact, there’s a whole industry, a whole subgenre of porn that is finding famous women just slightly more exposed than they wanted to be: nipple slips, car-exit crotch shots, et cetera.  This isn’t a creature of the internet.  Before the Internet, there was Celebrity Sleuth magazine.  (I would guess it’s still around in some form, though I don’t care enough to go look.)

The paparazzi hunt celebrities and embarrass them when they can, not just women; but it’s different with women because there is the entire subtext of sexualized humiliation that seems only to apply to men when they’re with other men.  (That last bit opens a can of worms; I can’t do justice to the analysis of gender expression and orientation and the way the leering “filthy sexxx!” attitude applies across less-normative gender expressions and sexual orientations, but broadly I think the mainstream uses it to police femininity more than femaleness … I would even say that the way the media treats more gender-conforming gay men in scandals is different from how they treat more gender-nonconforming gay men … as I say, longer conversation and one where I have to listen more than I talk.) 

Zooming out even farther, the whole culture serves up the humiliation of women as indoor winter sport.  The entire “Real Housewives” franchise is built around women being mean to each other; and many other reality TV shows (Dance Moms, I’m looking at you) could just as easily be subtitled “judge the bad woman.”  It’s not all highly sexualized; some of it is “judge the bad mom” and some of it is “judge the bad housekeeper” and some of it is “judge the bad cride” but there’s a whole cultural edifice of holding women up to public judgement and criticism and dismissal.  One might say that this happens to men also, but men are about 85% of the speaking roles in Hollywood movies, so the impact of the representation is different.  A whole host of cultural product about judging women is a huge portion of all the representation women get, while a bit of judging men settles in in a quiet corner next to presidents and CEOs and leading roles that are not there for the primary purpose of being humiliated.

The sexualization of that is only one aspect, and revenge porn is only one tiny corner of that, but seeing it in context is important. 

There’s another axis on which I want to contextualize revenge porn, and that’s the sexual assault axis.  When my friends put up Anne Hathaway’s response to Matt Lauer on Facebook, my immediate remark was that I want to see Anne Hathaway naked when she wants me to see her naked.  We have a relationship, Anne and me.  Our relationship is artist-viewer.  It can be, in part, a sexual relationship: to the extent we both consent.  If I don’t want to see her engage in sexual performance, I’m free to not watch any movie or scene that makes me uncomfortable.  And at least at her level of the business, she has a lot of freedom to choose what projects she’ll do and what scenes she’ll shoot.  And so, both Anne and me are consenting adults, and we can have some good artist-viewer fun together if we want, and neither of us has to do anything we don’t want to do.

The whole culture of celebrity stalker sexualization is to do away with that consent: to make avialable the sexualized image of the famous woman to the viewer when she doesn’t agree to it, doesn’t want it, doesn’t like it.  What was it Anne Hathaway said?  “I’m sorry that we live in a culture that commodifies sexuality of unwilling participants.”  Sexualizing the unwilling, conceptually, is sexual assault.  Always.  We can bullshit and nitpick about that, but it’s just bullshit and nitpicking.  We have a society with a tremendous tolerance for coercion and people can sit around thinking up all the times when it might be okay for someone to be sexualized against their will … I’m not going to dignify that exercise, whatever the law might be and whatever the policy arguments, we’re better off starting from the proposition that sexualizing the unwilling is always a sexual assault before we entertain questions of intent and mistake and exception.

Revenge porn is really just doing that to someone who isn’t famous, usually with the complicity of someone they trusted.  The whole point is to humiliate, but not just to humiliate; to violate. 

I’ll close this by thinking, as I often do, as a parent.  If the culture tells my kids that it’s hot and exciting to violate a woman’s boundaries with a camera, what lesson will they take about violating a woman’s body with a body?  MRA-types and other assholes who reflexively deny the existence of rape culture will go on shaking their heads no matter what is put before them, but for the rest of us, this isn’t hard to understand.  The rapists are the minority, and people say their behavior is aberrant and abhorent, so how do they keep getting away with it?  In a culture where violation of a woman’s boundaries in some ways is lauded and sought after, the attitudes the rapists have and the tactics they use just don’t seem that out of place.  That’s the Social License to Operate.

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19 Comments leave one →
  1. January 29, 2013 12:17 pm

    Very insightful. Humiliation and sexualization of women is far to prevalent and profitable in our culture.

  2. January 29, 2013 1:00 pm

    “Once you’ve been face-to-genitals with someone, sending them a nude picture doesn’t seem like it should be such a big deal.”

    Of course it is (or should be). It’s a trust issue: you can never be sure what will happen to the picture, so you’re trusting the recipient not to be a shit.

    In that sense, it’s like any other eroticisation of trust, be it bondage or not using condoms for intercourse or anything else – it IS a big deal and if done casually or recklessly, will often bite you.

    (Does that excuse people who break that trust? Obviously not.)

  3. Maria permalink
    January 29, 2013 1:05 pm

    I have lived every day for 3 1/2 years in fear of revenge porn due to blackmail by my sexual assailants. They have pictures taken of me that I didn’t know were being taken, that I have not given them permission to use, and if I tell anyone who did what to me those pictures could go up on their blog along with my real name and location. It’s a sickening ploy.

  4. January 29, 2013 2:59 pm

    Heh. I just assumed from the title this was going to be a post about Quentin Tarantino and his many issues. I assumed it so hard that I got really confused by the actual article. I was like, nude… photos? What does this have to do with Kill Bill?

    Okay, gonna actually read the actual post, now.

    • January 29, 2013 3:55 pm

      The discussion of Quentin Tarantino and violence is one that fascinates me and I’ve been hashing it out privately with friends – I think he’s gone from violence as aesthetic and needing no narrative or political justification (which was better!) to silly didactic facile crappy cathartic wish fulfillment, which is insulting. For counterpoints see Clint Eastwood and Cormac McCarthy. But that has nothing to do with this post.

  5. jynx houston permalink
    January 29, 2013 3:12 pm

    This kind of clear & urgent writing about the urgency of the whole world’s continued
    placing of girls & women in a lesser status of personhood & humanity needs to be seen
    everywhere!!

  6. January 29, 2013 3:14 pm

    So yeah, real reply now: “but it’s different with women because there is the entire subtext of sexualized humiliation that seems only to apply to men when they’re with other men.” My initial thought in response to this is that this is partly a practical thing: men don’t tend to wear clothing that can slip in the same way – they don’t wear skirts, or loose low-cut tops, or sheers. So even if society *wanted* to have a trade in accidentally revealing shots of men, it would be much harder to do. Of course, that’s just another way of viewing the problem. What it means for a woman to dress sexily is partly to dress in a way that means she is potentially not that far from revealing more than she might want to. Part of the point of dresses like these (http://www.elle.com/cm/elle/images/A9/Low-Cut.jpg) or this (http://i.dailymail.co.uk/i/pix/2012/06/24/article-2163798-13C0F419000005DC-715_468x859.jpg) is a subtext of “just imagine what you might see if it slips the wrong way”. Part of the sexiness is tied up in her lowered control over what she might be making public.

    • March 4, 2013 12:36 pm

      No, I really think it is that women are sexualized in a way that men just… aren’t.

  7. January 29, 2013 3:49 pm

    I agree with everything in the post, Thomas, but I’m curious to know how you feel the takedowns of (mostly male) political figures fit into this. What about Anthony Weiner, for example?

    • January 29, 2013 4:03 pm

      Okay, that’s very different, but related, especially in the shaming area. I’ve been thinking about writing a post on this, around Petraeus. Thoughts in brief:
      1) I don’t care how public figures have sex, as long as they are not hypocrites.
      2) I don’t care who they have sex with, as long as it’s not an undisclosed conflict of interest.
      3) With elected officials, I don’t care what they do but I do care if they are violating promises they’ve made to partners, because if their promises to their partners are worthless, how much moreso their promises to me?
      4) Most of the sex scandals involve at least one aspect I have a problem with. Clinton sought and found sex partners among people whose employment he controlled. That’s wrong. Just plain wrong. Most of the scandals at least publicly involve infidelity. I can never tell when someone’s marriage is supposed to be monogamous because people who are not can’t say so in public life, but if they say they’re monogamous and they cheat, yes, I do care. If they stand for election. Appointees I don’t care, so for example Petraeus was brought down for nothing.
      5) If Weiner wasn’t cheating, if his then-fiance was fine with him sexting, he should have said so.
      6) Ironically, the one sex scandal that I think is a shining example of nobody did anything to be ashamed of is Roger Stone on the Dole ’96 campaign. Stone, however, should be ashamed not of his sexual behavior but of everything political he has ever done or even thought in his entire life.

    • Sheelzebub permalink
      January 29, 2013 4:23 pm

      Weiner was sending dick pics to at least one woman (a college student) who did not ask for them and did not want them. While some of the women were okay with them, you don’t just send random pictures of your gentials to people, FFS. That’s basically flashing and it’s harassing behavior. (The woman who did not ask for or welcome those pics? Was actually mercilessly harassed by dudes on the right. Because apparently, even being targeted by a harasser means you’re asking for harassment.)

      • January 29, 2013 4:35 pm

        Sending explicit photos to people who don’t want them is harassment. That’s plenty of reason to have to give up an office IMO. If he only meant to send pics to folks who wanted them and doing otherwise was a mistake, I’d have more sympathy, and I thought that was the excuse early on but perhaps it fell apart.

  8. January 29, 2013 5:03 pm

    Love this and have not heard or viewed this perspective until now. And it clicked, and made sense, and is something that I need to teach my children, and others. I don’t agree that men are above this, and after reading the comments see that it may be more in opportunity (with clothing); however, I do see more women being humiliated in this way, whereas for men it may be more shrugged aside, or pride issue (take women are sluts, men are players (as the worst name)).

  9. February 20, 2013 6:04 pm

    Yep i agree as a victim myself to rape its a sad thing although i have had men open up to me who are tired of way women are treated Very few good ones out there left you mention rape or this stuff in churches be prepared to get preached at or ignored they are good at it or their masters in twistology

  10. June 25, 2013 9:54 pm

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  11. Nathanael permalink
    August 14, 2013 4:15 pm

    To nitpick — but I think it’s an important nitpick — I think the word “assault” should be reserved for “threat of bodily harm or attempted bodily harm”, which is the legal meaning of assault. I care about this because I was repeatedly subjected to both assault and (occasionally) battery as a child, only to have people dismiss it as “just bullying”, or slightly more sympathetically “just harassment”. I don’t want the meaning of the word “assault” to be weakened.

    “Sexualizing the unwilling, conceptually, is sexual assault.”

    This is “sexual harassment” and more generically “sexual abuse”, but it is not “sexual assault”. Now, it’s true that the people who harass often go on to commit assault, of course. But not always.

    Having been both harassed and assaulted, I know the difference. Most ill-trained cops do not, and I’ve heard them claim that assault is merely “harassment”. This is a serious problem.

    There’s a difference, and I know my law and my English: threats of being beaten are assault. Stuff which doesn’t involve threats (or implied threats) of physical violence or physical contact can be harassment, and it’s illegal, and it’s nasty, but it’s not assault, and frankly assault is worse, and assault is really horrendously common, and undercharged, and I really would like this distinction to be maintained.

  12. September 6, 2013 1:50 am

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