How the Internet Has Enabled Further Objectification of Women
If there’s anything indicative of 21st century fears of young women, perhaps it is the the fear of having your most intimate photographs and videos strewn across the internet. Not simply because strangers, friends, and family alike would see you nude, but because of the judgement of these victims. Regardless of whether they were willing participants in these images or victims of sexual assault, they are shamed. The heart of the problem lies in the fact that there is nothing inherently shameful about the naked human body. But there is a problem with how we stigmatize nudity, especially that of young women.
In November of 2011, 15-year-old Rehtaeh Parsons was gang raped at a party by four of her male peers. Only a year later, the police concluded their investigation stating that there was insufficient evidence despite a viral photograph of Rehtaeh with her rapists. The police never seized any of the boys phones, computers, or hard drives. On April 7, 2013, almost two years after her sexual assault, Rehtaeh killed herself. The Canadian police only reopened the case following her death and were able to convict two boys of making and distributing child pornography. If the news of her rape and subsequent death had not gone viral, I’m not sure if Rehtaeh would have ever been given the justice she deserved. Despite these convictions, it is still not enough. If these boys had not taken pictures of their assault, what would they be charged with? Not Rehtaeh’s rape, apparently.
Only several months after Rehtaeh’s assault, a 16-year-old high school student was raped by two high school football players in Steubenville, Ohio. Her assailants documented her rape through photographs shared with classmates and posted on Instagram. In the end, several adults (members of the school district) were indicted for failing to report child abuse and tampering with an ongoing investigation. According to Jezebel, just this week two Vanderbilt University football players were found guilty for the gang rape of a student that took place in the summer of 2013. The charges against both men are disgusting. I can only agree that these two and other unnamed men complicit in this heinous crime should pay dearly for their actions.
I mention Rehtaeh Parsons, Steubenville, and the Vanderbilt cases because of the enormous amount of media attention they have gained, but there have been many women and men who have been victims of sexual assault and harassment. And there are many that find video and images of their assault posted through social media and shared through text messages. The consequences of these actions are severe. If only the justice system had not failed Rehtaeh. If only her rapists were found guilty immediately following her assault and she had the chance to move on with her life and recover from the trauma of her assault. If only. The end of this story could have been quite different. “If only” is a poor response in the wake of this tragedy and it makes me so angry that those, yet again, who are supposed to protect their citizens (regardless of country) fail to do so. “Justice is Blind”: a slogan that is paraded through courthouses across the United States, a motto adopted by countries across the globe. It’s true, but only if you’re privileged, white, and male. Perhaps we should consider a disclaimer.
Despite the darkness and the cruelty of this situation, there are positive things happening that I believe have been inspired by the way we treat women who fall victim to online predators. Perhaps Rehtaeh’s suffering and death can act as a catalyst for reassessing how we treat women who have been violated. Because, in reality, it makes me so fucking pissed that a kid had to be a catalyst when all she really wanted was to just live her life.
Where Do We Go From Here?
We must understand what is at stake when these images go viral, whether they were taken by the women themselves or their lovers, but especially when the women are not consenting to what is taking place in these pictures or videos. This issue is so problematic in a multitude of ways. It sometimes feels impossible to encompass all that needs to be said. So, I won’t try to do that. How can we undo the damage that has been done? The stigmatization of women’s bodies? The desire to objectify, to dominate, and assault?
Reclaiming the Female Body
Earlier this month, Emma Holten, a victim of revenge porn released by a spiteful waste-of-life ex-boyfriend, released her own nude photos and started the Consent Project. She stated:
“The pictures are an attempt at making me a sexual subject instead of an object. I am not ashamed of my body, but it is mine. Consent is key. Just as rape and sex have nothing to do with each other, pictures shared with and without consent are completely different things.”
The most important part about these images is consent. Holten is empowered by these photos despite the fact that some people have criticized her decision. These images are reaffirming; she’s looking directly into the camera, giving her consent to be photographed, and aware these images will be posted on the internet. There’s something so powerful and beautiful about that. Holten is right when she says that rape and sex have nothing to do with one another. Rape and revenge porn are about power, about having control over someone’s body, about taking away their ability to make decisions. Holten has reclaimed the power that was stolen from her when her nudes were posted online. I am not suggesting that this is a route for all victims of sexual assault to take. I am simply stating that all women should have the ability to make these decisions: when and who they want to have sex with, and whether or not they want to share nude photographs of themselves.
A significant number of celebrities (including Kim Kardashian, Keira Knightley, Chelsea Handler, Rihanna, Miley Cyrus, and Scout Willis) have posed for nude photos or posted their own to the internet. Never has the message been so powerful than Caitlin Stasey’s (of Reign) Herself, a feminist website that features not only nude photographs of women, but also in-depth interviews with each participant.
In an interview with Daily Life Stasey stated:
“I want to help demystify the female form, to assist in the erasure of coveting it, and to help celebrate the ever changing face of it. We consider a woman’s sexuality so linked to her physicality that for a woman to appear naked publicly is automatically an act of sex and not for herself… My prerogative was to share the stories and plight of women just like you or me. I wanted these women to be subjects not objects”
Stasey’s project is a positive move towards de-stigmatizing the nude female form. By juxtaposing these images with lengthy, personal interviews with each participant, each photograph becomes a subject. These images reclaim power over the female body because these participants are in control of their choices and the message they relay. These consensual images are progress, a move away from a society in which we treat women like objects and allow them to be the subjects of their lives and able to make decisions regarding their bodies.