There is one sexually explicit photo of me in existence. San Francisco. Luxury suite in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. A settee. Face clearly visible, and as X-rated as you could want. Actually, I’m not sure if it is still in existence, because it was taken on a digital camera, and a lot of that data got lost during the great smartphone migration. Still, it is possible that this picture might surface on the internet where malice or a reverse image search could tie it to my name, so that henceforth “W.P. McNeill” would no longer connote insightful short essays on the intersection of linguistics and artificial intelligence leavened with the occasional McSweeneyish joke list, but just common porn.
I would not be humiliated if this photo were to become public. Maybe I’m fooling myself, but the hypothetical scenario evokes feelings ranging from mild embarrassment to sneaky pride. I imagine acquaintances who stumbled across the picture by accident making exaggeratedly comic shows of shielding their eyes. I’d like to imagine those to whom I’m attracted then stealing a second glance. I cannot imagine anyone who has ever been in a position of power over me either failing to immediately grasp the circumstances or actually caring. I can imagine a bit of razzing, easily laughed off. Of course someone who had it in for me could use a sexually explicit photo to create an embarrassing situation, but they’d have to do more than just show the thing around. They’d have to work at it, and likely would come off looking worse than me.
I am immune to this particular form of humiliation because I am male. The celebrity victims of the latest round of hacked private photo accounts have all been female, as have been the non-celebrity victims of the ongoing phenomenon of revenge porn. This latest round has seen second-order outrage directed at people–mostly male–who recommend that women who don’t want to risk nude pictures of themselves being distributed simply not take nude pictures of themselves. I agree that this is a simplistic blame-the-victim mentality. Life is inherently risky, and you are entitled to feel upset when some extra risk you take on comes back to bite you. But the outrage isn’t over the risk/reward ratios inherent in easily reproduced boudoir snaps. Instead it’s the cavalier way some men shrug off a thing many women feel is a form of sexual assault.
The men who do so are showing a lack of empathy. Literally. They are failing to imagine what it feels like to be in a woman’s place, but I find this lack more comprehensible than other forms of gender blindness. We all know that the rules can be arbitrarily different for women and men, but in the case of the power of a nude photo, the arbitrary difference is all there is. By contrast, at the same time the celebrity photo scandal was breaking, pop culture commentator Anita Sarkeesian has been subject to vicious anonymous attacks for having written about misogyny in computer games. No one says, oh just shrug it off when someone is making public threats to kill you and your family. Likewise, the recent #YesAllWomen Twitter campaign drew attention to the phenomenon of street harassment, which is scary to be on the receiving end of regardless of your gender. The feminist issue in these cases is not harassment per se but rather the fact that there are certain kinds of harassment that women face disproportionately.
In the case of nude picture distribution, however, the act itself, a particularly strident form of sexual objectification, has a different meaning depending on the gender of the person in the picture. The rules in our society state that when men objectify women it is a hostile act, but when women objectify men it is either odd or flattering. By convention, a man is supposed to be bemused by a leaked nude selfie, and a woman is supposed to be devastated. These are the rules regardless of the relative shyness of individual men and women, and regardless of the fact that all of us at one time or another want to be treated like sexual objects by people of our choosing. By their ubiquity these rules exhibit a powerful force, even on those of us who believe that they are senseless and leave women at an unfair disadvantage.
That is why the men who say about revenge porn just shrug it off–even though they are failing to comprehend the full hostility of the act–are still onto something. The damage comes not from the images themselves, but the conventions surrounding them. Because even if you’re a cheerfully un-slut-shamable woman (or an actress who does nude scenes in films) you can still be rankled by your awareness of the army of mouth-breathing cowards out there who benefit from the consensus that they have taken something from you by viewing your particular aureolae out of the sea of aureolae available online. But it is possible to imagine a new consensus that declares they haven’t. Viewed from a different angle, revenge porn is just a way of proclaiming to the world, “Hey look, another woman who won’t be having sex with me!” A generation from now I suspect it won’t exist.