Feminist September: The Ethics Of… Naked Jennifer Lawrence

It was the day the internet stood still – and then proceeded to lose its damn mind.

Sure the internet had seen naked pictures of celebrities leaked before, but to have over 100 images of half a dozen particularly attractive celebrities leaked on 4Chan in one go, featuring internet favourite Jenifer Lawrence no less, created an avalanche of attention possibly only trumped by 9/11.

And the internet, being the internet, gave it a silly (but sort of clever) name:

cE1W7X3A media storm predictably followed (helpfully reducing these celebrities privacy even further) with the point made loudly and repeatedly that this was a terrible invasion of privacy, and should not be called a scandal, but rather the crime that it is. The fact the victims were celebrities does not change the fact that these pictures were stolen, and with a sexual intent at that.

But running around and through this generally positive, sympathetic narrative was another message: well…they were kinda stupid, weren’t they?

Of course the pictures were stolen and it’s terrible their privacy was invaded like that (poor things, must feel terrible, tut tut) but I mean, what did they really expect? They’re famous celebs, in a large part popular because they’re attractive! They had to know that if anyone caught even the barest hint of nude photos that they’d steal them without hesitation.

I mean if you don’t want your nudes spread around then don’t take nudes in the first place, right? Not exactly rocket science.

Even other celebrities, who you’d expect to be more empathetic about the pressures of fame, have been getting on this bandwagon. Ricky Gervais threw in his 2 cents about the matter in characteristically blunt terms:


Such was the backlash to this tweet that Ricky actually deleted it and then got rather defensive (free speech! offensiveness is subjective! blah blah blah) – ironically something he’s known for making fun of other people about.

His critics said that his comments were blaming the victim for the crime – moving the responsibility for the leak away from the hackers and onto their victims. They argued that by suggesting the celebrities should have taken precautions and not taken nude photos in the first place, Ricky was effectively sending the message that the photos were fair game for anyone who could find them. This in turn reinforcing a culture that actually encourages further attacks on victims by blaming them for the situation, rather than the people doing the attacking in the first place.

These are familiar concepts to anyone interested in feminism, where terms such as ‘victim blaming’ and ‘slut shaming’ are par for the course. Feminist, or ‘humanists’ is you prefer (another topic for another day) often find themselves fighting against our tendency to question the motives and actions of victims pretty much every time a rape or sexual assault hits the headlines. Any of these comments sound familiar?

“What did she expect going to his place? A cup of milo?”,

“Women should protect themselves by not going out alone at night”,

“Why was she so drunk in the first place?”,

or for the less nuanced commentator; “Don’t dress up like a slut”.

Lines like these express pretty much exactly the same sentiment as Ricky’s advice to Jennifer Lawrence – if you didn’t want to be a victim, you shouldn’t have made it possible. Feminist argue that this sort of victim blaming is a serious problem because it not only places responsibility for this attack on the victims instead of the attackers, but actually enables future attacks by giving aggressors a justification for their actions.

‘They should have known the risks when they took the photos, it’s not my fault they made a mistake, I’d be stupid not to take the opportunity’, and so on and so forth. All empty spurious arguments attempting to justify unjustifiable behaviour, but that’s the fun thing about rationalisations – they’re entirely internal, so they don’t have to make sense so long as you believe them.

But I wouldn’t be writing about this if the answer were as clear cut as this, would I? There is a reason that we have a tendency to blame victims for their woes and that is that sometime the victim is, at least in part, to blame.

A few weeks ago I posited the ethical principle that ‘responsibility for a situation cannot be divided’; my responsibility for a situation has nothing to do whatsoever with what anyone else did or could have done – the only thing that matters is my own capacity to intervene in the situation. It doesn’t matter if I’m in a crowd of people watching a child drown because their responsibility for the death has nothing to do with mine – if I am able to intervene and choose not to, then I accept the same amount of responsibility for that death as I would if I were alone.

This distinction is a tricky one and leads us to some potentially disturbing conclusions;

If an arsonist sets fire to my house, then I’m sure we can all agree that they are 100% responsible for any damage and deaths that may occur. But if my family dies in the fire because I chose not to install smoke detectors (even though I knew the risks of not doing so), then it doesn’t matter what the arsonist did – I had the capacity to save my family’s lives and I failed to do so. Do not I then accept some responsibility for their deaths? Sure, my failure also in no way alters the responsibility of the arsonist, but I imagine that’s not a lot of comfort at this point.

Apply this principle to the horrific crimes of sexual assault or rape and the results are even more disturbing; if responsibility is indivisible and an individual’s responsibility for a situation is based entirely their capacity to intervene in said situation, then doesn’t that basically mean that victim blaming is accurate? Aren’t all those women who put themselves in predictably dangerous situations then partly responsible for an attack if it does occur? Certainly the same principle clearly points out that this changes nothing about the attacker’s guilt, but the implications are clear – sometimes the victim is to blame.

Ok, quickly, deep breath. Before pretty much everyone I know loses their mind at me, there is more to this story.

Run the circumstances of ‘The Fappening’ through this theory: several famous people took nude photos of themselves. They then saved them on their computers. Someone has hacked into these computers (when, where and how are highly debated) and leaked these images to the public.

Now ask the question: what was the celebrities’ reasonable capacity to intervene in this situation?

Sure they could have prevented the situation easily by never taking the photos. By is that a reasonable demand? There’s nothing wrong with taking nudes of yourself (and they’re hardly the only ones to do so), and given that they were taken privately and stored on a personal device, is it reasonable for them to predict that the images would be stolen?

Given the victims here are professional actors and therefore pretty unlikely to be super tech savvy, I’m going to go with no. They used a technology for a totally justifiable purpose and trusted it to do the thing it was designed to do – keep their data secure. Blaming them for someone finding a highly technical loophole in the system (or possibly someone betraying their trust and leaking the pics) is the equivalent of blaming the victim of a house fire for faulty wiring an electrician installed. Sure it was always a possibility, but likely? Predictable? Hell no.

In terms of the far more serious attacks such as sexual assault and rape, sure it is definitely true that some victims have made grave errors of judgement – putting themselves into dangerous situation they could and should have identified as dangerous. But quite apart from the fact that these situations describe an indescribably small proportion of victims (the VAST majority of victims of sexual crimes know the person that attacked them) there is more to the story here:

First of all, the Indivisibility of Responsibility means that nothing the victims does, no matter how idiotic or dangerous, in any way justifies the attacker’s actions. People who try argument such as “she was asking for it”, or “she should have known better” deserve to die in a fire, regardless of anything else we say here.

Secondly, do the victims in these circumstances have a reasonable capacity to intervene in the situation? This depends a lot on the specific circumstances of the situation, but broadly speaking the answer is no. Think about the typical scenarios that we like to criticise the victims about:

  • They get drunk and goes home with someone, then decide they doesn’t want to have sex any more. The someone decides to push the point.
  • They walk home alone, down a back street at night and are attacked.
  • They hang out with bad sorts, in seedy bars, perhaps work as a prostitute, and find themselves in a situation they can’t control.

Stupid decisions? Definitely. Unreasonable things to do? Hell no. Are we seriously arguing that if you go home with someone and decide you’re not up for sex that you should expect to be raped? Or that people should not walk on public streets because it’s a reasonable expectation that they will be attacked? Do we seriously think that it’s reasonable that a person can’t go to specific bars or socialise with who they wish for fear of being attacked?

It’s important to acknowledge that this is one of those practical versus principle things again; perhaps these are not the messages we want to send, but in many cases they are the practical reality – but I’ll get more into that next week. But as far determining the responsibility of the victims in these scenarios, do they have a reasonable capacity to intervene in the situation? Only if we accept that a potential victim should never leave the house – basically punishing them for being potential victims. Kinda arse-backwards if you ask me.

And thirdly and finally, even if we find a situation where the victim could reasonably have prevented the situation, and so takes some responsibility for the attack made against them, this does not ever, in any way, under any circumstances translate through to them deserving the attack.

Based on the psychological harm alone, rape is debatable the worst thing that can happen to a person. There is no level of stupidity, of foolishness or gross neglect that could ever cause a person to deserve this sort of attack. It’s debatable if there is anything a person could do to deserve such a heinous act.

The same goes for most instances where the victim is blameable; I may well be responsible for my family’s deaths if I fail to install smoke detectors, but to argue that I deserved them to die is heinous in the extreme. And even if Jennifer Lawrence and the rest could reasonably have predicted and prevented the theft of their photos, they definitely did not deserve for them to be subsequently stolen and plastered all over the place.

The principle that Responsibility is Indivisible is a tricky beast that turns a lot of our ideas of right and wrong on its head. While it may indeed point out that victims are sometimes responsible for their situation, you can bank on the fact that the situation will always be a lot more complex than ‘they should have known better’.

5 thoughts on “Feminist September: The Ethics Of… Naked Jennifer Lawrence

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