Editor’s note: In the wake of the scandal surrounding the hacking of nude celebrity photos, the CDEP will feature a series of essays analyzing the actions of the various actors involved. Noah Berlatsky starts off this mini-series by considering the ethical responsibility of those who search for and view the hacked photographs. Later installments will discuss the culpability of the cloud services on which the images were stored as well as the responsibility of the celebrities themselves to keep these types of photos secure.
Stealing property is illegal and unethical — breaking into someone's house and stealing their iPod is wrong. And buying an iPod that you know is stolen is also clearly unethical, and illegal. But what about simply looking at a stolen iPod online? Does looking, by itself, have moral implications?
If you switch out "iPod" from the preceding paragraph and substitute it with "hacked nude photos," the issue becomes murkier — and more pointed. At the end of last August, the notorious internet forum 4chan published around 200 pictures of nude celebrities, including Jill Scott, Kate Upton and (receiving the most publicity) Jennifer Lawrence. The images were quickly posted on a Reddit message board as well.
Again, there's no question that the theft of these images is a crime; the perpetrators, if caught, could face federal charges including wire fraud and violations of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act. People who searched and looked at the photos, though, won't in general face legal repercussions. But does that mean their actions are morally acceptable?
It's worth noting that there is one case in which viewers of the nude pictures could face prosecution. One of the celebrities whose photos were stolen was a minor at the time the photos were taken; that means the original hackers, and anyone who spread the photos of the celebrity as a minor, could be prosecuted for distribution of child pornography. Moreover, according to the Justice Department: "Federal law prohibits the production, distribution, reception, and possession of an image of child pornography." Simply looking at child pornography is not outlawed, but "possession" is — which means if someone downloaded that image of the nude underage celebrity to their computer, that person could face federal charges.
The rationale for outlawing child pornography according to the DOJ is first of all that images of child pornography memorialize sexual abuse of children, and provide an incentive to perpetuate such abuse by creating a demand for depictions of it. So looking at the images actually encourages sexual abuse of children. That doesn't apply in the case of the celebrity nudes, where no one was harmed in the actual production of the photos. However, the DOJ also says that:
Victims of child pornography suffer not just from the sexual abuse inflicted upon them to produce child pornography, but also from knowing that their images can be traded and viewed by others worldwide. Once an image is on the Internet, it is irretrievable and can continue to circulate forever. The permanent record of a child´s sexual abuse can alter his or her live forever. Many victims of child pornography suffer from feelings of helplessness, fear, humiliation, and lack of control given that their images are available for others to view in perpetuity.
Child pornography is immoral and illegal in part because it involves ongoing violation and humiliation. The circulation of the child pornography also constitutes abuse.
That's an argument that does seem to apply to the distribution, and even to the viewing, of these stolen celebrity nudes. As with child pornography, the abuse suffered by the celebrities is tied to the fact that the pictures are circulated, the celebrities here took these photos for private use; they didn't want them to be public. It seems quite likely that having their images stolen and sent around the Internet could also lead to "feelings of helplessness, fear, humiliation, and lack of control." The distribution of the images compounds the crime, and is part of the crime, which means that looking at the pictures is itself part of the perpetration of the crime as well.
Jessica Valenti at the Atlantic raises the disturbing possibility that for some, the fact that the celebrities in the photos will be humiliated is part of the appeal. “There’s a reason why the public tends to revel in hacked or stolen nude pictures," she says. "It’s because they were taken without consent. Because the women in them (and it’s almost always women who are humiliated this way) did not want those shots to be shared." Looking at the pictures becomes a way to participate in the violation and humiliation of the women pictured.
Playboy writer, Sara Benincasa, reports that many people expressed sympathy for the people who had their images stolen, and were angry on their behalf. Others, though, seemed to enjoy the humiliation and the violation, and were eager to compound it. At worst, she says, some people boasted about masturbating to the images. Others argued that the celebrities were at fault for taking the pictures in the first place, or that celebrities like Kate Upton or Jennifer Lawrence who often pose in bikinis or provocative photos have already sexualized and objectified themselves, and therefore cannot reasonably complain about only-slightly-more-revealing photos.
Blaming the victims in this way doesn't just excuse the viewers of the photos; it places them as righteous punishers. The celebrities have sinned, and the viewer gets to chastise them by gazing upon the evidence of their iniquity. The logic seems all but openly sadistic; the enjoyment stems not only from violating the celebrities, but from doing so in the righteous conviction that the humiliation is well-deserved. In that sense, the photos can be equated to revenge porn, in which nude pictures of women are posted online (often by ex-boyfriends) with the express desire to exact retribution through humiliation and embarrassment. For some viewers, then, it seems like viewing the photos is a way to punish celebrities for being celebrities, or for having sex lives out of the public view, or simply for being women. As Bekah Wells, a victim of revenge porn says:
"When someone shifts the blame to me, do you know what I say? I say, congratulations, because that's exactly what the perpetrator wants you to think. He wants you to think I am a dumb whore who makes poor decisions."
Free speech laws make revenge porn difficult to prosecute. Child pornography on the other hand has been vigorously prosecuted The serious social concern about harm to children presents a strong argument for trumping free speech and criminalizing a relatively passive act like mere possession — though it can also result in situations where parents are criminalized for taking pictures of their kids. That problem would be compounded if we were to apply this logic to the case at hand. You don't want to end up de facto criminalizing sexting between adults. But while legal recourse against viewers of the stolen nude photos may be impossible, and even undesirable in terms of both police resources and civil liberties, it seems clear that viewing or not viewing in this case is a moral choice. If you look at these photos, you're choosing to participate in someone's humiliation and violation without their consent because doing so gives you pleasure. In this case, the act of looking is unethical — and cruel as well.