Jennifer Lawrence's Private, Nude Photos Were Not Leaked

3 years ago

Why is everyone saying that the nude photos published this weekend were "leaked?" Does mis-naming horrible things make us feel better about them? Leaking information to the press may happen in politics or business, but that's not what happened here.

The Internet, the collective clicking us, has three insatiable appetites: porn,  snark and cute things, including baby animals and charming celebrities. Every medium finds ways to connect with human primal urges, and the corresponding urges for sex, prestige and comfort are easily met by published content in those three categories. 

We often worry about what it means to be able to sate these desires with just a small flick or swipe of our devices. What happens when we can voraciously consume unlimited pornographic images 24/7 without interpersonal intimacy or accountability? Wicked humor, which plays so well on Twitter and video, might be making us mean since we don't have to see the eyes of those we skewer. We are one-way streets, consuming puppies and kittens as fluffy fur balls but never having to change a litter box or take a walk. We never have to watch our Cute Emergencies grow up, just as we don't have to see what happens to the object of our snark or hear if the object of the nude photo consented to sharing her image. But one thing we typically do pretty well is call things by their proper names when talking about digital goods. So why are we getting this story so wrong?  

Image: Ken Babolocsay/Globe Photo/

This weekend a thief published stolen photos of women who are celebrities including Jennifer Lawrence, Kate Upton, Kirsten Dunst, and  Hope Solo.  The Internet handled it with typical insatiable hunger for sexy and cute images, with snark (calling it #theFappening, among other things) and with a repulsive , juvenile-level of busted ethics, misogyny and rape culture defensiveness 

It's horrible to see the rapid consumption of these images via Twitter, Reddit and Imgur posts as though a porn pinata was broken open for fast grabbing. It's even worse to see people characterizing this digital theft in ways that minimize the harm. Some fundamental problems include:

  • Calling these photos "leaked." Major news outlets are using this term, and everyday Facebook posters are as well. These photos were not leaked to the press as though they were information about Watergate or business secrets like a new iPhone design or a movie trailer that ever would be published at some later, non-embargoed date. They were not leaked and then vetted by publishers. They were stolen property published directly by a thief. 
  • Saying these celebrities should expect their images to be desired as part of their lives in the public eye. These images were not created for our consumption and weren't even obtained by paparazzi  when the celebrities were in public. These photos were private and were stolen. We don't have any right to see them. Participating by viewing is participating in what is clearly sexual harassment. 
  • Defining cloud-based data as unsafe and therefore they deserved to be hacked. Nope. Theft is theft, even if you leave your house unlocked. Publishing stolen content is akin to pawning ripped off jewelry. 
  • Minimizing the crime because the women look appealing and shouldn't be ashamed to be seen. Their feelings one way or another are of empathetic concern, but they aren't the primary ethical problem. No, they shouldn't be ashamed of the existence of the photos or of their desire to share them with whomever they want. We, however, should be ashamed to traffick in stolen property and to view their private, sexual images without their consent. We should be ashamed that many people are viewing them for selfish sexual gratification and moreso for a sense of power and control gained from taking something withheld as private. Any person who doesn't see that as wrong has a lot to learn about our damaging rape culture. 

If these celebrities had written a novel and it was hacked and published, we'd be outraged on their behalf. If their purses were stolen, we'd understand that no one should pawn the contents and we'd worry that a criminal had private information including their addresses and travel plans.  I know it gets confusing because we are talking about nude photos, and we love to shame women for acts of sexual autonomy, but it's really not that confusing. They owned digital content. It was stolen. It was published instead of fenced, but same thing.  We don't have a right to view the photos, and if we do, we are buying stolen goods.  It gets worse from there because of the sexual nature of that content, not better. It gets worse because we don't have their consent to see those images. 

Publishing Jennifer Lawrence's nude photos was candy for the Internet, but after the sugar rush we have a lot to think about concerning the one-way street of primal gratification without concern for privacy, dignity or real life impact. We can start by calling this "leak" by its real name: sexual harassment via theft and publication. 

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