Social Responsibility in the Digital Age: Sex Crimes, Jennifer Lawrence, and Rape Culture

Over the Labor Day weekend, while average US citizens were watching college football, cooking out, and enjoying the extra day away from work and school, a vile crime was committed against members of a particular group, who are, every day, simultaneously worshiped and reviled. At this point, it’s probably old news to you, but I’ll tell you the mainstream gist of it all: Jennifer Lawrence is now naked on the Internet.

Yes, Jennifer Lawrence. Katniss Everdeen. The coolest woman you wish you knew. America’s sweetheart.

Naked.

On the Internet.

A hacker uploaded to the Internet stolen nude photos—currently believed to have been obtained through Apple’s iCloud service—of a variety of female celebrities, including Lawrence, Kate Upton, and Ariana Grande. The anonymous user claims to possess more images, and even video, of these celebrities, as well as many others, such as Kirsten Dunst, Rihanna, and Kate Hudson.

The news spread quickly across social media: Jennifer Lawrence is naked on the Internet.

Opinions on the event running the gamut from “Who cares?” to “Where are the sex tapes?” And while the general opinion seems to be that Jennifer Lawrence is naked on the Internet, the most troublesome reactions come from those who claim that she and her fellow victims are somehow responsible for the crimes committed against them.

But let’s take some time to unpack the situation before we get to the victim-blaming. I’ll be using Lawrence as my point of reference here, but if—for some unfathomable reason—you don’t like her, feel free to substitute any other victim in this case.

First, I want to discuss intersectionality. This term was first coined by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw in her 1989 essay, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.” Writing about Black women’s lives as they relate to feminism and anti-racism, Crenshaw posits that

Black women are sometimes excluded from feminist theory and antiracist policy discourse because both are predicated on a discrete set of experiences that often does not accurately reflect the interaction of race and gender. … Because the intersectional experience is greater than the sum of racism and sexism, any analysis that does not take intersectionality into account cannot sufficiently address the particular manner in which Black women are subordinated. (140)

When an individual is a part of more than one marginalized group—non-male, non-heterosexual, immigrant, poor, disabled, etc.—their life experience must be studied and addressed in a way that analyzes all of the subordinating factor: how they interact with each other and with mainstream society.

Jennifer Lawrence is a White woman. Therefore, her experience does not lie at the intersection of race and gender. Rather, Lawrence is part of a unique—some might even say elite—social group; she is a celebrity.

Wait, you say. I would kill to be a celebrity. They’re glamorous! They’re famous! They’re rich! How can they possibly be a true minority? Everyone wants to see them and be them and know everything about them! 

The reason celebrities are marginalized is this: they are routinely and systematically denied rights that members of the general public hold dear. If someone publishes something untrue and damaging about me, I can take them to court and win, because I am not famous. I can demand repayment for emotional distress, financial losses, and the deterioration of my physical health if they are the result of a defamatory lie.

But tabloid magazines and other lurid publications may print almost anything about individuals in the public eye without fear of punishment. In the 1980s, Jerry Falwell sued Hustler for damages after the magazine ran a satirical ad in which the Moral Majority leader intimates that he lost his virginity to a prostitute at a young age. The case eventually wound up in the Supreme Court of the United States, which ruled unanimously against Falwell. In the Court’s decision, William Rehnquist wrote that

public figures and public officials may not recover for the tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress by reason of publications such as the one here at issue without showing, in addition, that the publication contains a false statement of fact which was made with ‘actual malice,’ i.e. with knowledge that the statement was false or with reckless disregard as to whether or not it was true.

In order for a person deemed public to win a defamation lawsuit, then, they must prove that the defendant knowingly published something untrue with the malicious intention of hurting the plaintiff.

In truth, this quirk in the law is not a Very Bad Thing. Going without it would constitute limitations on the freedom of the press. Politicians could jail journalists and editors who print articles questioning or condemning their policies. The 1988 SCOTUS recognized this slippery slope and avoided it.

Unfortunately, their ruling gives celebrities very little control over their private lives and public perceptions. As public figures, they may be photographed without their permission, and these photographs may be altered and published in any number of ways, and there is absolutely nothing the celebrity can do about it. Although it is in many ways reasonable, this targeted reduction of constitutional rights and privileges has turned celebrities into a minority group.

In addition to being a celebrity, Jennifer Lawrence is also a woman. Reams have been, and continue to be, written on the subjugation of females and the feminine to males and the masculine. For the purposes of this discussion, I want to talk about the female body and its relationships. Keep in mind, although I refer only to the United States and western society here, these same patriarchal ideas are prevalent worldwide.

Mainstream society links a woman’s worth directly to her body. The traditional means of ranking women on a scale of one to ten is a crude testament to this. In the United States, there is a formula of conventional female physical attractiveness, with its own set of commandments, which include:

  • Be White, but tanned.
  • Be toned, but not muscled.
  • Store fat only in your breasts and buttocks, but not too much or too little.
  • Don’t be as tall or as strong as a man.
  • Have your hair cut and styled so that it maximizes both your feminine features and your Whiteness.
  • Remove the hair on your legs, genitals, and underarms.
  • Groom the hair on your face according to current trends.
  • Wear makeup and dress according to current trends.
  • Show a little more skin, but not too much.
  • Always appear to be as young as possible.

Women who deviate in some way from this formula are given “appropriate” designations. Not tan enough? Pasty. Not toned enough? Lazy. Too muscled? Shemale. Too much fat in the wrong places? Slob. Too little fat in the right places? Anorexic. Too tall? Giraffe freak. Unconventional hair? Dyke. Lack trendy makeup and clothes? Bulldyke. Show too little skin? Prude. Show too much skin? Slut. Appear too old? MILF. Appear too old and break other commandments? Boner-shrinker.

These boundaries are laid out in such a way that the patriarchal mainstream may denigrate any woman who deviates from them in order to compel more women to remain within them. The kicker is that this formula is designed so that a woman who stays in her dictated place will also be condemned. For instance, fashionable women who closely follow trends in clothing, hair, and cosmetics are considered to be frivolous airheads.

The emphasis placed on a woman’s body does not stop at physical appearance. Patriarchy dictates that her sexuality and propagation must also be heavily scrutinized.

Because the formula listed above conforms to the conventional male’s idea of beauty—i.e. what will turn him on—a woman must always be sexually appealing in order to avoid being given ugly and arbitrary titles. She must conform to the male gaze, or else she is disgusting. As with the previous set of rules, however, this one may also be turned against women who follow it, specifically by saying that women who style themselves to be sexually appealing are dressing—and even behaving—slatternly.

Women who dress attractively, then, are dressing sexually, according to patriarchal standards, and they therefore want sex. From anyone. But to admit that they desire or enjoy sex is slutty, and to sleep with men—particularly with multiple partners—is downright whorish. For the patriarchy, the old age holds true: You know the difference between a slut and a bitch? A slut will sleep with anyone. A bitch will sleep with anyone but you.

The patriarchal view of sex is that it is women’s currency. We give it out as payment for dates, laughter, and acknowledgement. If a man is paying a woman attention, she owes him sex. If she refuses to sleep with him, she has violated a social contract; she has stolen his time without giving him sex in return. If she then gives it to someone else, she may be given any of the titles above and more, because she is a worthless tramp.

If women owe men sex in exchange for attention, and if women’s bodies must conform to a particular brand of sex appeal, then women are constantly on display and—literally—up for grabs. They are walking sex dispensaries who are socially obligated to open their legs to anyone, on demand. Their bodies are not whole, but are made up of parts to be changed according to men’s whims. A woman’s breasts and buttocks are not for feeding children and sitting comfortably; they are sex handles. Her mouth is not for eating, laughing, and speaking; it is a penis dock, designed specifically to swallow ejaculate. Her vagina and vulva are not for sexual pleasure and the production of offspring; her vagina is a penis dock, and her vulva is nonexistent. Her anus is not for expelling waste; it is the holy grail of penis docks.

Until recently, I had not experienced this level of body-shaming: the reduction of my body to parts. I thought of it in an abstract sense; it was present, but hidden. When it happened to me, I convinced myself that I was amused. In reality, I was floored.

It happened at the end of a long and utterly pointless Facebook debate with a few of my cousin’s acquaintances. At this point, a man named Luke* and I were the only two who had not abandoned the post. When I responded to a comment Luke directed at me, he grew defensive, essentially telling me not to speak to him because he had not spoken to me. I pointed out that he had, and thus began a long chain of denials and accusations.

Eventually, Luke began to order me to stop posting; he later called this “asking.” I am not the type of person to take orders from anyone, especially not a strange man on the Internet. So, I continued to make my points and refute his. Frustrated that I refused to follow his commands, Luke resorted to incredible insults.

“Why are you such a cunt? Did you [sic] dildo run out of batteries? Boyfriend won’t even look you in the back of the head anymore?”

This was his opening line. Here, Luke has reduced me to a single body part—my vagina—and chosen to use the most offensive word for it in the English language.** His next two sentences imply that I am not sexually active, either because no man wants me or because my partner loathes me entirely, and that this has led to what he believes to be cunt-like behavior. The corollary to this implication, of course, is that sex in some form will turn me into a complacent and cooperative creature; this is the philosophy behind curative rape.

“Let’s discuss or are you to [sic] busy cleaning sand out of your vagina?”

My vagina is not being used for any worthwhile purpose—sex—and is therefore full of debris. It needs to be cleaned, cleansed even, by a penis.

“You’re … being a stupid cunt … [bec]ause I don’t agree with you? [Your cousin] didn’t either and you don’t keep flapping your cock holster at him. … I’ll just keep being more and more profane until you get tired and move on or have a complete shit fit melt down.”

Luke again reduces my whole person down to one of its parts, only this time, he insults my level of intelligence as well. He then brings my cousin into the mix, and refers to my mouth as a “cock holster.” The gun metaphor here is so stereotypical as to be laughable. My mouth has literally no other purpose than to hold a man’s penis. Without a penis in it, my mouth is “flapping:” empty, loose, useless. Luke then attempts to threaten me with his profanity—which, I can only assume, he thinks offends my feminine sensibilities—saying that he will either use them to intimidate me to the point of flight, or until I go into hysterics. I did neither.

“So either shut your cum dumpster or come up with something that might actually hurt my feelings.”

My mouth is again worthless without sexual application. Now it is a receptacle for refuse; it is dirty and defiled. On top of this, Luke tries to goad me into being directly insulting, as he has been. Instead, I chose to preface each of my comments with “Haha:” the Internet equivalent of laughing in his face.

Not only does unpacking Luke’s revolting comments allow me to better illustrate my above argument about women’s bodies as mere objects of sexual gratification, it also brings me to my next point: because a woman’s body—in every aspect—is her worth, it is also the only avenue to controlling her. By policing women’s appearance and sexuality, condemning those who step out of line, and keeping the conformists on their toes, the patriarchy exerts a pervasive level of control over them.

These are, of course, intangible chains. Though present at all times, they appear only when they are explained. But this misogynistic system cannot survive on intangibility alone. It must also exist in the physical realm. When arbitrary rules and sexist insults will not keep women in line, there must be concrete punishment to follow.

Restrictions on abortion and contraception are one of the most popular ways to physically use women’s bodies to control them. By effectively forcing women to become pregnant, and remain that way or die, patriarchal societies dramatically limit women’s potential for success. And again, the system condemns both adherents and detractors. The woman who has an abortion is selfish at best, and is, at worst, a murderer, while the single mother is a leech on society.

The more extreme forms of physical bodily control—domestic violence, rape, and murder—are vilified by society on its face. But dig deeper, and you will find that women are routinely blamed for crimes committed against them. Victims of domestic abuse pushed their partners to it. Women who are raped were asking for it. Murdered women should have just left their abusers, or should not have cheated, or should have paid a high enough dowry.

It does not matter that society frowns upon these corporal punishments. Because men and women both see them as potential consequences, the patriarchy maintains its control. Similarly, they need not ever actually happen in order to be wielded against women; the threat of violence is enough. Recently, video game critic Anita Sarkeesian was forced to leave her home after Internet stalkers began posting death threats to her YouTube channel. Her crime? Addressing patriarchal quotes in video games.

Having discussed the idea that women are always, according to the patriarchy, complicit in their victimization, let’s return to the plight of celebrities in society, where we can now see some similarities. Every time a celebrity scandal makes the news, you will hear the argument that the revelation is all about publicity. Celebrities, according to the stereotype, love attention. They wouldn’t make movies for us if we didn’t give them glossy photo shoots and tawdry write-ups. That’s the social contract. When a famous person is involved in a physical altercation with the paparazzi, most of us feel for the guy whose camera just got smashed. He’s just doing his job, after all. Why can’t the celebrities do theirs?

Sounds a lot like the sex-for-attention belief I mentioned earlier, doesn’t it?

This erroneous concept, that people of certain groups—women and celebrities, in this case—do something—have sex or make movies—in exchange for our attention, is what has driven the mean-spirited opinions of Jennifer Lawrence I’ve come across. As both a woman and a celebrity, she is at an intersection that is doubly damned in cases like the recent leak. One person actually said to me that anyone who keeps nude photos on digital file intends to have them stolen and published, because they crave attention. When I argued that there we occupy areas of reasonable privacy, I was told that that only made Lawrence “stupid,” because if she was smart she would have known the pictures would eventually wind up online.

Let me be perfectly clear: none of us knows when or if he or she will be the victim of a crime. None of us is to blame for crimes of which we are victims. This argument, that Lawrence somehow put herself in the line of fire by having taken nude photos of herself for private viewing, is identical to the one used to blame rape victims for their attackers’ actions: she shouldn’t have worn that skirt; she shouldn’t have gotten drunk; she shouldn’t have kissed him.

In Lawrence’s case, the argument goes more like this: she had the audacity to photograph herself nude; she withheld that part of herself from the men of the world; she violated their social contract; she deserves what happened to her.

Publishing private and sexual images of someone, whether online or in print, without their permission, is a gross violation of her rights as a human being. It is no different than secretly filming her as she undresses, or uses the bathroom. It’s the same as posting your home videos to a revenge porn site after she breaks up with you. Lawrence was the victim of a sex crime. Yes, it occurred digitally, but it is not a crime of technology. Technology was the tool: control of her body was the intention. To say that she was in any way complicit is to engage in the most prevalent symptom of rape culture: victim-blaming.

As humans, we do indeed have a social contract. But it doesn’t regulate the exchange of attentions for sex and entertainment; it doesn’t cut women’s bodies up into parts, or convert them into public property. Our social contract says that we address injustice directly, in order to create a more perfect society. Law does not function on the basis of what is or is not happening, but on the basis of what should and should not happen; the purpose of Law is to strive for justice.

Your part in the social contract is this: don’t control, or allow others to control, women by using their bodies. Don’t blame the victim. Don’t let anyone else blame them, either. When you hear someone call the young woman testifying against her rapist a whore, speak up. Challenge them. And if you ever start to feel as if they are right, ask yourself: what would I want someone to say about me, or the woman I love?


* Not his real name.

** I personally do not take offense to this word. I have called myself a cunt before, because, if I give myself the worst title in the book, then names will never hurt me.


 

You can help fight the patriarchal policing of women’s bodies by educating your friends and family, so share this article! I’m always open to civil debate, so feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments below.

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