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Looking at releasing dirty pictures as a form of sexual assault

By Amanda Marcotte
Saturday, November 14, 2009 16:54 EDT
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I agree with Jeff here that it’s about time that we started viewing the release of privately made sexual photographs and videos to anyone other than their intended audience as a form of sexual assault. The motivation to do so is indistinguishable from that as a rapist—using sex as a tool to dominate and humiliate someone, while puffing up your own sense of power—and often the results could be even worse for the victim, because her assault was performed in front of a crowd. And I agree with Jeff that we need to consider Carrie Prejean’s ex-boyfriend the scum of the earth for releasing this video, and it’s true that it’s a case of sex being used against a woman to silence and humiliate her, as she’s claimed.

All that said, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with learning something from the fact that this video exists. That the video was released in an act of sexual assault, and should be treated as such. But that doesn’t mean that the act of making the video isn’t something that also matters, when the person who made it is a spokesperson for legally controlling and punishing the sexual behavior of others. I hope we can be nuanced enough about this to see that Prejean is both a victim and a horrible hypocrite. I think it’s important to realize that all these sex scandals involving the moral scolds of society demonstrate that right wingers really do get into being moral scolds because they want to reserve sexual pleasure for themselves while denying it to others. Also, that homobigotry isn’t really about some kind of strict view of human sexuality evenly applied, but that it’s basically just bigotry and attacking people for being in a minority.

Still, I think there’s a lot of clarifying value in thinking of the release of private photos and videos as a form of sexual assault, and thinking of the women in the images as the victims of this assault. Perhaps that will cause anyone who considers publishing these sorts of things to realize that they are participating in a sexual assault if they do so, and will cause them to reconsider. And for anyone applauding a man who releases this stuff, perhaps it will cause you to reconsider.

It also helps explain the psychological dynamics in this case. Two Indiana high school girls, while goofing around with their friends, took pictures of themselves in lingerie licking penis lollipops. I can’t tell from the story, but it seems that the pictures might have been hidden behind a privacy wall on MySpace, making the person who copied them and handed them to the principal a sexual assailant, if that’s what happened. Even if they weren’t private, the motivations for doing this sort of thing are similar. But of course, there was no way the principal could be a mature person about this, but instead he had to leap into “join the assault” mode.

An uknown person was able to access the pictures, copy them and hand them over to school personnel. They were eventually given to Couch, who suspended both T.V. and M.K. from all extra-curricular activities for the school year, including athletics, which both of the girls participated in.

The lawsuit claims that both teens’ parents spoke with the principal and were told that he could cut down the punishment to suspend them from just 25 percent of the girls’ activities only if they went to three counseling sessions and individually apologize to the school’s athletic board, which is comprised of the school’s varsity head coaches.

On Dan Savage’s show, he indicated that the board was all-male, which gives you a really good idea of what’s going on here. What are the girls supposed to apologize for? Being so assault-able? Making the principal and all the men involved want to humiliate and harm them? The only people who owe apologies are the person who leaked the photos, and the supposedly adult men who are getting off on using their authority to titillate themselves with these pictures and then demand that the girls grovel in front of them.

Understanding that this kind of thing is a form of sexual assault also helps us understand how it’s victim-blaming to suggest that the girls deserve all this because they were foolish enough to take these pictures. Whether or not it’s wise to do this doesn’t diminish one bit the fact that it’s wrong to use these kinds of pictures to hurt and control young women. Indeed, the only reason that taking these kinds of pictures is reckless is because there’s so many wannabe sexual assailants out there, and they know that they won’t be held responsible if they perform their assaults by leaking these pictures. Just as rape creates a general loss of freedom for women, who have to control their associations and movements out of fear that it will happen, this form of sexual assault also creates a loss of freedom. In all cases, men should consider how this loss of freedom is wrong not just because it hurts women, but also because it hurts them. When women know that some assholes are out there, waiting to punish and humiliate you if you express yourself a little bit, you don’t express yourself. And the men who might be the beneficiaries of your enthusiastic, consensual self-expression don’t get that. In this case, every use of dirty pictures to punish and humiliate women results in more women deciding that they will never, ever take and send such pictures.

I bring this up, because it’s important to see sexual assault in a systemic way. Rapists and other sundry assholes don’t just assault their direct victims, but they assault all of us. They sow fear and restrict freedom. They put a damper on joy and sexual expression. They even make women fearful of goofing off and having a sense of humor (as these two girls were doing).

During the heat of the Polanski arrest, there were a lot of defenders hiding behind the fact that the victim didn’t want to go forward, because this whole situation is so miserable for her. And I get that, and I think that should be weighed heavily against the need for justice. But even as a lot of us pointed out that rape is a crime against society and should be treated as such in court, I don’t think we took the time to explain why that’s the case. It’s not just that sexual assault disturbs the peace, though that’s an important issue. It’s also that sexual assault is largely a hate crime against women, and like all hate crimes, its effect is to restrict freedom. Ours would be a much better society if women could take naughty pictures without exposing themselves to assault, if teenage girls could audition for roles in movies without being raped, if college girls could occasionally drink too much and only face the consequence of being hungover (a privilege extended to boys), if female professionals could hit the road in male-dominated occupations (like sports casting) without being assaulted, if teenage girls could hang out with boys if they want to without being gang-raped, etc. Considering some of the benefits to everyone that comes with stopping the rape culture is a way to understand exactly what this situation is and what steps we need to take.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
 
 
 
 
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