Sunday's massive leak of photos of nude celebrities — including Jennifer Lawrence and Aubrey Plaza — spiraled out of 4Chan and Reddit, two web communities that fancy themselves promoters of free speech and privacy. Ostensibly, free speech and privacy are good things. But lately, those rights are so often invoked in defending the actions of men trying to intimidate and humiliate women that I'm starting to think we've conflated "free speech" with "freedom to bully without consequences."
Their hypocrisy would be hilarious if it didn't actually hurt people. In 2012, Adrian Chen of our sister site Gawker exposed the identity of Reddit user Violentacrez, a 49-year-old Texas man named Michael Brutsch who had become a Reddit darling after founding (among other things) sub forums that gleefully posted "creepshots" of women taken without their knowledge or consent. In retaliation for the horrifying breach of every Reddit user's internet god-given right to privacy, moderators of most of the largest subforums agreed to stop linking to articles from any sites in the Gawker Media family — this one included. Because privacy is just that important to them.
And so, after naked images of female (and some collateral males who happened to be in the same shot as a naked female) celebrities began being distributed online by thirsty bitcoin whores, one would think that if Reddit had any moral consistency in its leadership, it would, as vanguards of privacy and brave soldiers against doxxing, instruct its moderators to scrub links to the images from its servers and ban users that continually broke the rules.
Nope! For awhile on Sunday, all of the top 10 stories on Reddit were links to images of naked female celebrities obtained without their consent. Today, subscribers to r/TheFappening are gleefully screenshotting news coverage of the leak, linking to the image gallery with abandon. According to The Daily Dot, Reddit theoretically has a policy that should apply to this, but for whatever reason (boners), admins aren't enforcing it.
Reddit's site-wide rules forbid the posting of "person information," which these photos certainly seem to constitute. Posting "publicly available" information on celebrities is acceptable—but "it is not okay" to post links to "screenshots of Facebook profiles," or anything potentially "inviting harassment." If a users' Facebook photos are a no-go, then it seems implausible in the extreme to suggest that stolen intimate photos could not also be considered "personal information."
To add insult to injury, Reddit users who view the pirated photos of Lawrence and other celebrities are donating money to a prostate cancer charity, the very definition of a dick thing to do.
Privacy is non-negotiable for Reddit (a site visited by an estimated 6% of all internet users), unless you're a woman in the public eye. Then it's entirely within a person's rights to assail and bully and humiliate said woman until she decides that speaking up just isn't worth it, and it's entirely expected that entities that host the bullying will offer little more than a shruggie emoticon and a tepid platitude about Not All Men and thick skin and internet freedom. Women's safety is up for grabs; men's accountability is not.
Observe the case of Anita Sarkeesian, a feminist video game fan and critic who last week was bullied out of her home by psychotic Twitter users. Observe the case of Zelda Williams, daughter of Robin Williams, who after her father's death was harassed by Twitter users by fake doctored pictures bullies said was her father's body (it wasn't, but Zelda quit Twitter, anyway). Observe the preponderance of "revenge porn" — nude images of women often obtained consensually but distributed non-consensually by jilted ex-lovers who operate under the assumption that showing one person your naked female body implies that everybody should be able to see it. Observe the campaign of rape gifs and gore against readers and staffers at this very website (to my employer's credit, they've since made changes to the commenting system that seem to have effectively dealt with this particular iteration of the problem). And that's just in the last few months. This shit is happening constantly to women on the web, to women in the public eye. Earlier this year, Amanda Hess wrote a hell of a piece on web safety for women for Pacific Standard, one that should have started some important conversations that led to important meetings that built to important changes.
Nope. In the pursuit of some elusive, undefined web ideal, women's mental and physical safety is (and always has been) an afterthought.
In yesterday's Guardian, the always-great Roxane Gay ties this round of nude celebrity photo leaks to other phenomenon to which women are subjected to in the non-virtual realm — street harassment, unsolicited touching or groping, unsolicited opinions from strangers. These are things that, as Gay puts it, affect people more intensely the further away they are from being a white guy. And privacy, an outcropping of the privilege of not being under constant scrutiny, is only real for a very small number of us.
For most people, privacy is little more than an illusion, one we create so we can feel less vulnerable as we move through the world, so we can believe some parts of ourselves are sacred and free from uninvited scrutiny. The further away you are from living as a white, heterosexual, middle-class man, the less privacy you enjoy – the more likely your illusions of privacy will be shattered when you least expect it.
Male web denizens are wont to throw their palms upward and declare that nothing can be done, that this is just how things are. Bullshit. Something can always be done; reticence is a symptom of thinking that women's needs aren't important. Reddit (and other website) admins and employees aren't responsible for the underlying attitude that women's bodies are there for men to ogle and use as they see fit. But they are in a position to eliminate their forum as an outlet of expression for that socially metastatic attitude. Apple employees can't stop people from taking pictures of their hot-ass bodies naked. But they can prioritize security that prevents those photos from getting into the wrong hands.
In their inaction in the face of web harassment of women, mostly male architects of internet communities imply that it would be more of a burden for people who harass women on the internet to face a modicum of accountability than it is for women to deal with the sort of harassment that makes them afraid to go home at night. A user's right to remain unidentified and unpunished after they post an illegally obtained picture of Jennifer Lawrence's nude body trumps Jennifer Lawrence's right to not have illegally obtained photos of her nude body distributed to millions of strangers. An user's right to anonymously tell Amanda Hess that he'd like to rape her trumps her right to not be threatened with rape. Internet users' right to look at pictures Mary Winstead took for her husband trumps Mary Winstead's right to specify who gets to look at her nude body.
To those of you looking at photos I took with my husband years ago in the privacy of our home, hope you feel great about yourselves.
— Mary E. Winstead (@M_E_Winstead) August 31, 2014
I'm starting to think that maybe men on the internet don't think that women are actually people. There's really no other way to explain the horrifying lack of empathy so many of them show, time and time again, when women of all levels of fame are treated like they exist to be bullied and mocked.
The sort of free speech that is used only to silence others isn't free speech at all. It's harassment, and it's indefensible.
Image via Getty