Letter to the Editor 10-17-14

We were recently brought news of another round of stolen private images of several well-known women leaked to the public online. While there is no doubt regarding the legality of what has transpired here, the three weeks that have passed since the last time this occurred has given us some time to reflect on the morality of viewing and sharing these images. The crime also gives us another sad glimpse at what it means to be a popular woman in this celebrity-obsessed culture.

Similar to prior cases of theft, the current one targets women. Most people seem to agree that stealing these pictures is wrong and an obvious criminal act. There also appears to be a grudging acceptance that sharing them by, say, forwarding a link to a friend is probably wrong as well. However, a lot of people think that “merely” viewing them doesn’t exacerbate the situation since the crime has already been committed. Is this thought valid? Let us take a look at the broader context here.

Over the past decade, there has been a confluence of an increasing availability of celebrity pictures in public settings and the emergence of websites devoted to profiting from our obsession with their bodies and their private lives. This isn’t, of course, a new phenomenon; print tabloids have been around for decades. Each summer we find magazines on the racks of our local grocery store with the proud headlines, “Best and Worst Beach Bodies” with accompanying images. What has changed is where we earlier had a set of repugnant images and stories competing for a limited space on paper that consumers had to pay for, we now have practically infinite online space with free access, limited only by how much time we, the consumers, choose to devote toward peeking at other people’s bodies.

As a result, we also have hordes of photographers fighting for every inch of “legal” skin they can capture and distribute, reducing their prey to no more than mannequins in a storefront.  We are bombarded with pictures of “nip-slips,” “cleavage,” “bare midriff,” “wardrobe malfunction,” “beach bodies,” pictures of women in compromising positions while getting out of cars, attending public events and sometimes even while being in the confines of their own homes.

By shamelessly consuming these images for our entertainment, we have enabled an entire business model based on the embarrassment of women in certain professions. We have provided an avenue for websites that earn their revenues primarily from displaying pictures of women obtained without their consent. Last week, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the highest criminal court in Texas, in an 8-1 ruling struck down a state law that banned people from taking pictures up women’s skirts in public (Case Docket No. PD-1371-13). “Creepshots,” as these photographs are often called, are now legal in Texas. Setting aside arguments of First Amendment rights, we have made this the norm.

And in the process of seeking and viewing the current batch of pictures stolen from cellphones or computers, we are dangerously flirting with normalizing this act as well. Several websites made a lot of money from the drastic increase in page views. In the aftermath of the August leak, they provided links to the stolen images and only took those pages down when loss of reputation threatened to hurt their business more than the dwindling traffic could make up for.

Every time you seek out these images, you contribute a ‘+1’ to their traffic and increase their likelihood of linking to or hosting these images next time. You, personally, are thus directly responsible for playing a part in violating another human being who doesn’t even know you and did nothing to provoke or hurt you in any way.

You might hold the opinion, as a lot of people do, that these women shouldn’t have put these pictures on their cellphones or computers in the first place – that they were in some way “asking for it.”

That opinion is irrelevant and only serves to further the victim-blaming practice that is already deeply entrenched in our society when it comes to crimes against women. The bottom line is that these images were stolen. Nobody deserves to have their private property stolen, and nobody deserves to have their most intimate moments splayed out for the world to gawk at or insult.

Please remind yourself of this the next time you feel the urge to view these pictures for curiosity, arousal or even just to be able to gossip with your friends about it. The motive is immaterial. It’s the action that hurts.

Letter from Sunayan Acharya, Assistant professor of economics and finance