In her first public statements about the theft and distribution of her private nude photographs, Jennifer Lawrence called the act “a sex crime.” There are differences of opinion about using those words to characterize what happened. What is not debatable however is that, of the reportedly more than 100 celebrities targeted in this episode involving Lawrence, the overwhelming majority have been women. So, why aren’t we seriously discussing this in terms of gender-based hate? That’s also a serious charge.
The nonconsensual distribution of intimate photos is similar to offline voyeurism in many ways. We call these voyeurs Peeping Toms, a classic linguistic minimization of a sex crime that, like revenge porn, is gendered. Peeping Thomasinas aren’t really a thing. (The crime is treated differently state by state. In some states, but not all, voyeurs must register as sex offenders. Revenge porn is a non-registry offense.)
“There is no principled way to argue that this is any less serious than voyeurism,” explains Mary Anne Franks, Associate Professor of Law at the University of Miami School of Law and Vice-President of the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative. “There is no denying the blunt truth of [Lawrence’s] words: she alone has the right to control access to her naked body, and anyone who violates that right has committed a profound and inexcusable wrong. That means that laws against hacking are insufficient to address this violation.” Danielle Citron, author of Hate Crimes in Cyber Space, has also argued that these crimes clearly infringe on women’s civil rights.
However, what happens when there are millions of Peeping Toms? Given the scope and number of people who participated, and the time and effort the hackers took to gather the photographs and carefully plan their release, it’s clear that technology isn’t just mirroring offline crimes but amplifying them in ways that qualitatively change their impact and should prompt serious debate about gender-based hatred and bias crimes.
Federal hate crime legislation does not actually require that perpetrators of crimes express explicit hatred for the people they target. Instead, the salient information is that hate crimes are those in which a person is targeted because of, in this case, his or her gender. In addition, a “prominent characteristic of a violent crime motivated by bias is that it devastates not just the actual victim and the family and friends of the victim, but frequently savages the community sharing the traits that caused the victim to be selected.” While men are also the victims of revenge porn, as with the threat that a serial rapist of women poses to a community, how can anyone doubt that girls and women experienced the theft and sharing of these photos, which overwhelming involved women, in ways that men did not?
This wasn’t a privately executed sex crime, but a public one infused with gender bias. As the systematic theft, accumulation and mass sharing of these photos shows, we live in a culture in which violations of women’s privacy are normalized, where harms to women are routinely trivialized, where our sexual objectification is the norm and where society resists legitimate and reasonable consideration of the role gender and status play in what happened. (There have been at least four waves of photo released, the last of which included the first man.)
It’s not just that photographs like Lawrence’s violated women’s rights to privacy and constituted theft, or that they might be considered pornographic or offensive. It’s that the perpetrators sought to attack the women, humiliate them, assault their dignity, and interfere with their lives and well being because they are women. Revenge porn is overwhelmingly perpetrated against women by men, and is rooted in displaying male dominance. There is nothing new in this type of female dehumanization. What’s new is its digitized and scalable industrialization. The attack on female celebrities sends a clear message that even the most admired and powerful women can be treated this way.
We have a national predisposition to downplay gender as consequential. This November marks the fifth anniversary of the Matthew Shepard & James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, in which sexual orientation, gender, gender identity and disability were finally added to federal hate crimes law.
The purpose of the 2009 act was largely to ensure that people have the chance to pursue justice if they feel that their state courts have failed. Only some states have hate crime statutes and, of those, a sub-segment include gender as a category for consideration. The battle to include gender at the federal level was long and hard fought. Either way, social recognition of gender-based hate, as post Elliot Rodger’s public discussions showed, remains controversial.
Bias and hate crime laws exists so that members of groups that were historically discriminated against know that the societies they live in support their equal right to live their lives, raise their children, travel in public, and pursue their work, free of fear and discrimination. They are a challenge to social norms that would perpetuate violence and subjugation, an old-fashioned word no one likes to use in the United States, on the basis of immutable characteristics. Like being female.
If there is one silver lining in this, it’s that the women who were targeted are not being stigmatized or punished and that the trajectory of traditional shame seems to be reversing in a way that accrues to the perpetrator, and not the victims, of these assaults.