Creep

09.03.14 9:45 AM ET

'The Fappening' and Revenge Porn Culture: Jennifer Lawrence and the Creepshot Epidemic

There’s a sick but thriving online subculture of men who get off by violating women and sharing their photographic evidence. This isn’t for fame or fortune—it’s for sport.

To call it a “scandal” when yet another celebrity has private nude photos hacked and released is deeply misleading. “Scandal” suggests surprise and/or moral malfeasance. But is anyone actually surprised that famous women are naked under their clothes, or that celebrities use their smartphones for the same private photo purposes that everyone else uses their phones for? And if you think it’s somehow scandalous for grown adults to engage in consensual sexual activity, that says far more about you and your prudishness than it does about them. No, the only people we should be scandalized by are the people responsible for the recent theft and then release of private nude photos from celebrities like Jennifer Lawrence and Kate Upton.

What do we know so far about this massive dump of photographs of various nude celebrities into the public spaces online? Gawker has been on the case and has revealed that they were likely stolen in bits and pieces by a collection of hackers that spend an inordinate amount of their free time trying to steal just such pictures. These hackers, likely mostly or all men, have a semi-private group that exists just to trade stolen photos and, of course, brag about getting the biggest “score” in terms of the fame of the person whose privacy they’ve violated. Interestingly, there’s no indication whatsoever that the men involved in this group had any intention of publicizing the pictures far and wide. Just impressing each other with their photo thefts appears to be reward enough for them. But, of course, it only took one leaker for these photos to be shared around the world.

With this in mind, it’s unlikely that the hacker—or hackers—are actually seeking fame or even necessarily money by engaging in this practice. (Which would likely expose them to civil lawsuits or criminal penalties anyway.) Instead, this violation gives us a peek into a sick but thriving subculture, or really series of subcultures, of men who are excited by the idea of violating a woman against her will and who get together in online spaces to swap ideas on how to do this, tell bragging stories about violating women, and sharing the photographic evidence of their violations. They’re doing this not for fame or fortune, but because they loathe women and want to use sex and sexuality to hurt and punish women, often just for existing.

David Futrelle, who chronicles the alarming spread of misogyny online at his blog We Hunted The Mammoth, wrote about the whole photo dump debacle on Monday. If just seeing sexy pictures is what you want, he points out, you have “the mind-bogglingly enormous selection of women out there who have agreed to pose naked, or even perform explicit sex acts, on camera.” Indeed, your average celebrity nude selfie is downright tame compared to any random pornographic picture you can find online. In fact, there are plenty of already-famous women who have their nude images out there, if fame is your thing.  So it is “not the celebrity of the women in question” motivating the theft of these photos, “but from the violation of privacy that these pictures represent.”

Indeed, we know this because while the attacks on celebrity women grab the headlines, the vast majority of victims of non-consensual nude picture-sharing—usually called “revenge porn”—are ordinary, non-famous women. The use of technology to punish women for relationship fouls, real or perceived, has reached epidemic levels. McAfee’s 2013 Love, Relationships, and Technology survey revealed that a whopping 1 in 10 ex-partners have threatened to expose naked photos of their ex online. A full 60 percent of them carry out the threat. While there’s no doubt that some women have done this to men, by and large this is a problem of men trying to hurt women, usually for breaking up with them. Often, women’s names and personal information is shared along with the nude photos, to better encourage random and scary misogynists out there to stalk and threaten them.

Beyond just the “revenge porn” communities, there’s also a number of communities of men online who get off on posting what are called “creepshots.” It’s the same idea as revenge porn and celebrity nude “leaks”: Sexualized pictures of women where the fact that they did not consent to the picture—and would be horrified and humiliated to know all these men are looking at it—is what makes it exciting. With creepshots, the idea is to follow women, often very young (sometimes underage) in public and try to take photos of their bodies, without their consent, to be mocked and leered at in online forums. And, just like revenge porn and celebrity nudes, there’s a competitive aspect to it, with the men who get the creepiest pictures of the most non-consenting women scoring points with their gang of misogynists online.

Reddit finally buckled under outside pressure to shut down their main creepshots subreddit, but that did little to stem the problem. It just reemerged while pretending to be a “fashion” forum, but it’s still centered around a bunch of men trying to make themselves feel powerful by taking creepy photos of unsuspecting women (well, mostly girls).

The problem has grown so bad that many states have started to pass laws to deal with it. The National Conference of State Legislatures defines “revenge porn” as “the posting of nude or sexually explicit photographs or videos of people online without their consent, even if the photograph itself was taken with consent,” and chronicles 11 states so far that have laws attempting to curb it. The federal government has gotten involved, as well, indicting Hunter Moore, the owner of one of the most popular revenge porn websites, on 15 charges of conspiracy, theft, and hacking. Dealing with creepshots is a harder problem, because of strong laws allowing people to be photographed in public, however.

While these legislative efforts are helpful, the Wild West of the Internet—and the fact that many of these misogynist photo collectives are semi-private—means that there’s a limit to how much the government can do to stem the tide of technology being used to hurt women for the “crime” of being attractive but not being sexually available to them.

The real problem is a cultural one. While things have been definitely improving in recent decades as feminists raise awareness of the problem of sexual violence and the importance of consent, there are clearly still a large number of men who disregard women’s basic human right to control your own body and own sexuality. The men in these groups really do believe they are entitled to own and control female bodies. While these insular misogynist communities certainly end up reinforcing their ugly attitudes toward women amongst themselves, they didn’t invent the notion that women’s bodies are public property for men to use how they please, regardless of a woman’s feelings about it. The only real, long-term solution is to change a culture that inculcates young men with these feelings of entitlement and teach respect for women to boys starting at a young age.