An audio version of this post is available here.
When you mention naked selfies, a lot of women (I haven’t canvassed men) aren’t comfortable with the idea and would prefer to do the whole “being naked” thing in person. Because when you send a naked selfie you have to accept that it may be leaked. It may be leaked deliberately by someone you ended up not having sex with. It may be leaked deliberately by your ex. it may be leaked deliberately by your ex’s new partner. It may be leaked deliberately by your ex’s current partner. It may be leaked by whoever finds your partner’s phone when they lose it. More recently, we’ve added to that list of potential disasters, and the new addition is horrible. Men might hack the cloud and steal your pictures, which seems unlikely unless your last movie grossed a few hundred mil, but we all know what 4chan is for, right? Right.
Even in the event that photograph of your lovely peachy bottom doesn’t appear on the side of a bus, there will almost certainly be sysadmins – the ones who maintain “the cloud’s” servers – cackling over it in a server room somewhere. You knew that. Of course you did.
The short version is: your vag or boobs may end up anywhere. The papers are full of it (yeah, you can take that both ways). They talk about the stars’ dismay and their distress after the event as a narrow issue, one that affects the person in question. They talk about privacy as a broad issue that affects everyone equally. Nobody seems to be talking about the fact that women are actually subject to a unique set of malicious sexual threats online and off, from the tiresome old offers of nose-rape on Twitter, to threats to hack, or actual hacks, of private sexual data.
The theft of (and subsequent propagation of) sexual images of a person is a crime of sexual violation.
The pictures stolen from various famous women recently were taken for the specific purpose – not of obtaining a naked picture of that woman – but of violating her. That’s what this type of crime is about. It isn’t a theft of property, where one may obtain items of value. It is a theft intended to unseat, to undermine that woman and by extension, all women.
The papers don’t talk explicitly about that, preferring metaphors that involve unlocked cars or banking data, as usual. But the lesson we learn from these horror stories – is a broader one than “don’t be a beautiful famous woman, because this may happen.” The lesson is: this could be you, so don’t risk it.
Naked selfies aren’t safe.
Well, I like naked selfies. I posted a little moan to twitter earlier today about the fact that the theft of famous naked selfies basically means that people – who will not stop taking naked selfies, let’s be realistic – are now just going to take disembodied shots of unidentifiable genitals. No faces. Nobody blowing you a kiss. No smiles. Just cock and cunt. While I like both very well indeed, and while that was always the smart thing to do with people you don’t completely trust – I think this being the only option is incredibly sad. This may seem a trivial complaint, but far from it.
These violations represent a tide-mark on human communications, the point at which trust of the internet – which had been hanging on by its fingernails – was simply erased from the list of possibilities with specific regard to women’s electronic communications. The only people sending recognisable naked selfies now are going to be the hopelessly ignorant and the entirely reckless (I’ll let you guess which camp I fall into). A recognisable naked selfie of a woman always implied a great deal of trust (NB: never ask a woman for this). And that’s an important thing, that’s a thing nobody is talking about. You can’t choose to trust someone now. Because the little hacker kiddies may get onto your server and if they find pictures of a naked woman that they either think is attractive or “gross”, they will propagate those pictures. The idea that women are having sex with people they can’t even trust with a photograph is one I find pretty … unsettling.
The option women had of building that trust with a potential sexual partner via the safe medium of photos has been deliberately taken away by the men of 4chan. And they know it. They’re thrilled about it. All this alarmism about naked selfies is just what they wanted. The downgrading of women’s sexual data from the highly intimate to the merely private is a major victory for them.
There’s another thing. Speaking entirely for myself here: I like naked selfies because actual naked human beings can be really triggering for me. While I probably don’t class myself as sexually mainstream, I certainly don’t imagine that I’m unique in this particular regard.
It’s not that I’m uniformly averse to naked humans. But if I don’t have a significant amount of trust with the occupant of that human body, the urge to hit them with an axe and then run is strong in this one. And that leads to really problematic sexual encounters. It’s a snowball effect where the more often you have to suppress the “axe and run” instinct the less emotionally present you can be during sex, the less you enjoy it, the less you want to bother, the less you bother, the stronger the axe reflex becomes. So I like to build up (and maintain) trust with a potential (or existing) partner by talking to them. This involves texts, emails, stupid photos of things I come across in my day. I WILL BOTHER YOU WITH BEETLES AND SHIZ. I expect to be bothered back. That little syn/ack syn “Are you there?/I’m here, are you there?” that computers handle so much more elegantly than humans. The vast majority of this isn’t sexual. Because trust isn’t really about sex. Sex is a side effect of trust (I don’t believe this applies to everyone, but this paragraph is about me). And yeah, at some point if it’s that kind of a relationship, it will involve sex and it will involve naked selfies. That’s important. It isn’t trivial. It is how I get from living in a bubble and wanting to hit anyone who touches my bubble with an axe, to letting someone put their hands on me. (Without secretly wanting to hit them with an axe.)
Because here’s the thing: naked selfies are safe.
Although photos have been used by bad people to violate, nobody ever got raped by a photo. They’re not a bad way to get to know someone.
They are a place where a woman has a terrific amount of agency. She can probably overcome difficulties or transgress socially imposed boundaries in a selfie that she’d have a hard time broaching in the flesh, and once broached electronically, they’re out there. You don’t have to have that awkward conversation about your weirdo nipple if he’s seen it and is still turned on. You don’t have to explain that you need to dress up as Pumbaa from the Lion King in order to get off, if someone’s seen it and got so excited they’ve already dashed out and bought a Scar onesie. A picture is often worth not a thousand words, but entire books. A picture is often the only route to liberation someone has, and this applies more to women than to men, because the weight of society’s disapproval rests more heavily on women’s sexuality than on men’s. Our sexuality is already imposed, reduced, warped, forbidden, truncated, restrained, punished: silenced.
Naked selfies are a door, ajar. A woman can choose how to represent herself. She can choose how much of herself to show. The timing is hers to choose (things happen far too quickly in real life for me: axe). The trust is hers to give – or to withhold, not as an absolute, but from minute to minute, hour to hour. She may stop. She may drive the exchange. She may say yes to this and no to that. She may make requests. She may bark orders. She may take time to think over ideas she could well have been railroaded into in the flesh. Identifying one’s own lack of consent – as a woman – often requires space to think. We are not given those tools, we have to claw them out of our bones, where society has buried them. This is the beginning of a safe negotiation that is often difficult or lacking in real life.
And when 4chan or anyone else hacks into a woman’s – specifically a woman’s – private account they damage the freedom all women feel to use that medium safely to explore their sexuality. They leave women once again with the option of going into meatspace with men they haven’t built any trust with, having probably not told him anything about her preferences or her sexuality or her hangups or her needs. It’s a truncation, another silencing, another punishment.
4chan knows this. That’s why they do it. This isn’t about the violation of any one person – those images as far as 4chan are concerned, are merely the flag hoisted over a very calculated undermining of the sexual agency and security of all women. If you doubt that a certain class of men are really that organised against women, I urge you to look into the events of #gamergate.
That security for this type of data needs to be far, far better is not simply an issue of data privacy in the way your bank account or first draft novel needs good security. This is an important feminist issue. As with online threats and the need for online anonymity, women have a specific set of vulnerabilities here, those who seek to exploit women’s online vulnerabilities have a specific incentive to obtain this data and that is the opportunity to sexually humiliate a woman for the approval of their male peers; and by doing so, undermine all women’s presence online. It is literally all win for these guys.
Firms holding our data need to demonstrate that they’re aware of this. It is time the electronic empires we all rely on woke up to the fact that women’s online security risks are different and require explicit identification and action: we have a specific enemy. He wants to drive us offline, or leave us online but feeling (and indeed being) vulnerable. This isn’t about property theft, it is about misogyny.
Women’s security needs are different, and they are not being met.