How Should We Respond to the Celebrity Photo Hacks?

By Rachel Marie Stone 9-06-2014
Jennifer Lawrence was one of many celebrities whose private photos were hacked.
Jennifer Lawrence was one of many celebrities whose private photos were hacked. Image courtesy JStone/shutterstock.com

When I was a university student, more and more people were getting cell phones that had cameras — a trend I only noticed when signs in the women’s locker room went up, warning that using cell phones in that space was strictly prohibited for reasons of privacy. It’s alarmingly easy to take pictures of someone without their knowing. You can pretend to be writing a text message when, in fact, you’re capturing someone’s image and then posting it on the Internet for anyone to see.

That’s bad manners, of course, if we’re talking about simply posting unflattering photos — and even more morally and ethically questionable if the subjects are in a partial or total state of undress. But even when a person consents to be photographed nude, if those private images end up on the Internet — as roughly 200 such celebrity photographs did last weekend — it can be surprisingly difficult to get them removed.

4Chan, the anonymous message boards where the images first appeared, and Reddit, where they were posted and shared widely, are able to claim that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 allows them to deny responsibility for the content that’s posted to their site by individual users. They certainly have the capability to remove such images, but they don’t want to — and the law doesn’t compel them to.

As Emily Bazelon noted in Slate, Reddit moved quickly to delete nude photographs of Olympic gymnast McKayla Maroney taken while she was underage.

“It’s not that Reddit is too shady to care about the law,” Bazelon writes. “It’s that there is no clear legal risk in continuing to host involuntary porn of adults.”

Greed is almost certainly a factor. Perez Hilton, who makes a living (one estimate places his monthly earnings from blog advertisements at $450,000) trading in celebrity gossip, scandal, and illicit photographs, helped the celebrity images — not least, those of Oscar-winning actress Jennifer Lawrence — go viral.

On Monday, he issued a video apology on YouTube, saying that he’ll no longer be publishing nude celebrity photos on his site, after he was strongly and widely denounced on social media as having participated in a form of sexual abuse. But while the posting of images of the underage Mahoney is unquestionably a sex crime, whether the images of JLaw and others qualify as such is much more debatable.

Marcia Dawkins, a clinical assistant professor at UC Annenberg’s School for Communication and Journalism, believes that the posting of these photos — and the sharing of them — is unquestionably a form of sexual harassment.

“The privacy violation was both unwanted and more than annoying to the victims," Dawkins said. "It is clear that these women have been victimized because of their sex and social status. In this instance, the sharing of these images is not only harassment, but sexual harassment.”

Paul Jay, professor of English at Loyola University Chicago, had a slightly different take.

“The hacking and sharing of these pictures does seem like a form of harassment that’s sexual in nature,” Jay, who teaches courses on visual culture, said.

“However, sexual harassment is usually defined, at least in legal terms, as something that happens in the workplace or some other institutional setting where the perpetrator is in some position of power over the victim.”

Jay clarified, "Whoever did this behaved maliciously and committed a crime, and anyone who shared the pictures contributed to the pain and suffering of the victim. That in itself is a kind of harassment, it seems to me, from a moral and ethical — if not from a strictly legal — point of view.”

If the posting and sharing of stolen nude images doesn’t constitute harassment, the fault, it seems, is in our laws — as Dawkins noted, recent laws dealing with so-called “revenge porn” have been enacted in 12 states to protect individuals from having sexually explicit images of themselves posted online without their consent. In 2014 alone, 27 states, including D.C. and Puerto Rico, have introduced bills aimed at curtailing revenge porn.

“The first and most important responsibility [in these laws] is placed on the person who recklessly distributes these types of images,” Dawkins said.

“It seems that according to the law, one user’s freedom of expression — if we can call the sharing of these images without consent ‘freedom of expression’ — does not trump another user’s right to privacy and freedom from sexual harassment on any social network.”

But the protections of such laws are, as yet, inadequate — perhaps especially when celebrities are in question. As Paul Jay noted, celebrities don’t have the same protections under laws guarding the right to privacy; according to The People’s Law Dictionary, “public personages are not protected in most situations, since they have placed themselves already within the public eye, and their activities (even personal and sometimes intimate) are considered newsworthy, i.e., of legitimate public interest.”

Whether courts will indeed find that "public personages" such as Lawrence are not entitled to the same rights to privacy as ordinary people remains to be seen, but it’s clear that this incident of celebrity hacking and image sharing has “uncovered major flaws regarding digital rights,” according to Syb Bennet, a professor of journalism at Belmont University in Nashville.

“What legislation protects individuals’ right to privacy online? Yes, the first and fourth amendments have been used. However, they are interpretations since they were not created to address online privacy.”

“Education is imperative,” Bennett says. “I created the Digital Citizenship course at Belmont to help students better understand their role, responsibilities, and vulnerabilities.”

One example of the necessity of education is this: iPhones back up the camera roll to the cloud automatically. Therefore, it’s more than plausible that those whose images were stolen had deleted the images or otherwise saved them in a way that they believed to be safe and private. It’s not a case of carelessness or exhibitionism — it is a violation; a theft.

Education, too, might help combat the judgment and victim-blaming, of which there’s been no small measure. Perhaps most troubling was Dawkins’ observation that while the violation of Lawrence’s privacy was generally met with outrage, Grammy Award-winning singer and actor Jill Scott, whose nude image was also stolen and shared, has been subject to online shaming “for her age, race, and body size, for having taken the photos, and also for allowing their release, as if she had control over it.”

Jenell Paris, a professor of anthropology at Messiah College in Grantham, Pa., acknowledged that while “Christians may question the propriety of taking nude photos,” we should not rush to judgment.

"This is not a scandal,” she said. “It is aggressive and unwanted intrusion. Consider victims of rape and sexual abuse, and realize our sentiments about this situation could easily extend to them. Blaming and shaming is never helpful. Advice regarding prevention and precaution is valuable, but when things are calm — not immediately after a violent event.”

Kari Nicewander, a UCC minister, told me about her visit to the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy. There’s a mosaic there, she said, that portrays an image of Moses and the burning bush, but instead of just one burning bush, there are many — every single bush is aflame.

“This reminds us of the reality of the holy everywhere we look, of the image of God stamped in all creation, on all people, everywhere,” she said.

“Using an image to degrade, abuse, or shame another human being does just the opposite. Instead of pointing towards the holy light that shines in everyone, such use of an image of a person seeks to extinguish that light.”

There a multitude of sins that allow such evils to be perpetuated: greed for pageviews and advertising revenue; covetous lust that desires the image of the body but not the person; prejudice and hate that moves people to mock and degrade other people; laws that don’t serve the cause of justice and righteousness with regard to the sacredness of human bodies.

These sins are heavy. They are rampant. I’m not sure why I’m surprised that the simple, ancient rule — “love your neighbor as yourself” — seems to be the healing answer to them all. 

Rachel Marie Stone is the author of "Eat With Joy: Redeeming God’s Gift of Food" and a book about Jesus for children called "The Unexpected Way." 

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