The Digital Age of Sexual Assault

Earlier this week, news feeds everywhere were blasted with reports of the largest celebrity photo leak scandal the internet has ever seen. This leak is unprecedented in almost every conceivable aspect, including number of victims (over a hundred women), their celebrity stature, and the manner in which the photos were obtained (allegedly via a hack of the hitherto secure iCloud system). A great summary of the salient facts of this story can be found in this article from the Washington Post.

While those facts speak for themselves about why this piece of information is news and consequently why our society is so enthralled, the response and role of online media has added extraordinary dimension, discussion, and dissection of how we treat the sexuality of women in our digital age. On Twitter, users frenetically took to their accounts to gossip or celebrate the leak, or on the opposite end, condemn and show solidarity with the affected women (HBO Girls creator Lena Dunham, for example was a vocal Tweeter in the latter camp of opinion). Attention and development of the story only grew with added features that predictably disseminate information these days, such as hash tagging and memes. Buzzfeed posted one of their characteristic listicle-style articles that urged celebration of the professional achievements of the hardest hit celebrity, Jennifer Lawrence, instead of viewing the explicit personal photos. In short, the response to this scandal was widespread and varied, both in opinion and form.

Although it’s always interesting (at least to me) to note and track the way stories grew and change through various online platforms, the discussion and rhetoric that’s taking place because of this leak is fascinating, and some might argue, well overdue. Dunham’s censure of the theft of these photos was just one of many responses that unabashedly highlighted the violations this leak was inflicting on the targeted women and their bodies, using a language and categorisation that our society is deeply uncomfortable with: sexual assault.

This story is engrossing because I don’t believe this will end with official statements from Lawson’s representatives or lawsuits that hold the hackers cum sexual predators accountable – this kind of sexual offending behaviour has existed and will continue to do so as long as people have an interest (or what I think can more correctly be called “entitlement”) to the private lives of others (something that Roxane Gay explores in an excellent piece for The Guardian). There’s so much more that remains to be said about how we interpret our behaviour online versus in the real world, or how our perceptions of an action or concept can be altered by the framework through which we view it, by which I mean the privacy of one’s own computer. The idea as well that free internet begets the public ownership of any piece of digital material, even in the case of stolen private goods, is something else that warrants discussion; Stuart Jeffries for example looked at our collective responsibility in the face of an internet that is ungovernable by social ethics and morals.

Whichever angle you want to explore it from, this leak story is far deeper and more timely than simply a few explicit images circulating the internet.

Here are a few more articles on the subject, should anyone be interested:

The Guardian: “If you click on Jennifer Lawrence’s naked pictures, you’re perpetuating her abuse

Vocal feminist writer Van Badham doesn’t pull punches with her op-ed for The Guardian.

The Telegraph: “Jennifer Lawrence photo leak: the big business of women’s shame just got bigger

Emma Barnett shedding light on what motivation might underpin scandals of this nature.

Bellejar.ca “What Happened To Jennifer Lawrence Was Sexual Assault

Some excellent examples of the various ways that misogyny and victim-blaming exist in mainstream online forums today.

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