Tuesday, May 20, 2008

"Open Season" for 'Peeping Toms'; or, musings on "privacy"

By LindaBeth

This post has been a long time coming, but this recent news put me over the edge: Remember back in March
when I wrote about the Oklahoma Peeping Tom? He took cel phone photos up a minor's skirt while shopping at Target; the charges were dropped because their Peeping Tom law only applies to situations where privacy is expected, and according to the ruling, privacy cannot be expected in public.

Well, it happened again. Via feministing, a Florida court dropped charges against a man for using a mirror to look up a woman's skirt at a Barnes and Noble.

The key in these cases is "a reasonable expectation of privacy." We ladies should be getting the message loud and clear now: we cannot expect bodily privacy in public. We cannot merely exist in public. In public, our bodies are subject to public ownership. We can only expect privacy in our homes. And in a marriage situation, some people don't even think we should have that.

Twice now in the courts, and resonant with a culture that sees catcalling as a compliment or that thinks women like Uma Thurman should be flattered at stalking and unwanted sexual advances (because I s'ppose we should be thankful we're oh so irresistable?!), it is becoming more and more clear that women appearing in public are open for the business of sexual consumption via harassment and now even more violations of physical privacy and integrity. The assumption is that any woman who is attractive or dresses sexy desires ogling...otherwise she wouldn't dress that way, or wear a skirt short enough to photograph up it. (Gee, isn't this all starting to sound an awful lot like most rape apologists?) And that women who dare to exist in public or online or anywhere where they can be viewed by someone are fair game for subsequent sexual remarks, objectification, physical criticism, circulation of images...

Because apparently:

  • all women are heterosexual (since they dress "like that" for male attention)

  • all women dress themselves according to how and when they want their physical appearance to be evaluated

  • all women's public existence is primarily and ultimately for the benefit of men

I've been thinking a lot about this recently, mostly regarding how people seem to lose all personal privacy upon public existence. In a culture like ours that sees women primarily as sexual objects, that any woman becomes subject to harsh criticism or objectification regarding their appearance (regardless of its relevance), this is becoming a huge problem for women. Pragmatically, we seem to have very little expectation of consent to our images being taken, and also taken out of context.

For example, if a woman signs a model release for nude artistic photography, she is consenting to a particular context of the images. The images cannot then be sold as pornography, or she would have grounds to sue. This type of consent does not seem to operate in the real world in the age of the internet. And if it does, considering the vastness of the internet, it seems hard to keep tabs on.

Let me provide some actual examples that have gotten me pissed off:

#1: Last summer, a photograph of track athlete Allison Stokke ran in her local paper. In the photo, she's adjusting her hair elastic after an event, and since she's reaching up, a bit of her midriff is bare. A widely-read blogger got a hold of the seemingly-innocuous photo and posted it on their blog along with sexual lewd commentary, which the blog commenters chimed in with. The photo continued to be picked up on other blogs with similar ensuing objectification and sexual commentary. Before she knew it, men were leering and making sexual remarks at her photograph all over the web. In other words, internet harassment. From Wa-Po:
Stokke read on message boards that dozens of anonymous strangers had turned her picture into the background image on their computers. She felt violated. It was like becoming the victim of a crime, Stokke said. Her body had been stolen and turned into a public commodity, critiqued in fan forums devoted to everything from hip-hop to Hollywood [...] the unofficial Allison Stokke fan page [...] complete with a rolling slideshow of 12 pictures; to the fan group on MySpace, with about 1,000 members; to the message boards and chat forums where hundreds of anonymous users looked at Stokke's picture and posted sexual fantasies.

She and her family are upset, but there's nothing they can do about it. It's technically not illegal. And now every time she competes, she has to wonder about what the cameras might have captured.

#2: I recently read a post from a blogger and Crossfitter who was irked by the rampant sexism on the site. If you go to the site you will see that in the video where the female athlete is dressed in a way that makes it visually apparent that she has sexually desirable physical attributes, she is unabashedly objectified throughout the post. Never mind that athletic activity typically requires fitted clothing. Never mind that the site is to discuss athleticism. If you have large breasts and they can be noticed, be prepared for them to be discussed and for your body to be discussed in terms of sexuality.

One commenter said "lets be honest. If she didn't like the reaction she would have worn something else. Plenty of workout gear out there with coverage. Lighten up" (hmm where have we heard this before?)

Another aptly replied:
23's point (I think) is not whether or not the given individual likes "the attention," it's whether or not giving that sort of attention will attract women to crossfit. I think it won't help, generally speaking. There's a reason Curves exists, and it has little to do with the effectiveness of the workout program.

The bottom line is that treating women as sexual beings is not by itself offensive. But treating women as sexual beings when they would prefer not to be is offensive. So when a woman says "Don't treat me as a sexual being" saying "lighten up" misses the point a little.

Right on. There's so many things that are wrong about the comments there (like confusing a compliment with degrading objectification), but I'm going to let that be for now. (But see my concluding point for more on treating women as sex objects only when that is the context of how they are presenting themselves.)

#3: I've also stumbled on this guy's flickr page where he's essentially stolen images of girls on "public" domains such as Flickr, Photobucket, Myspace, Facebook, etc. that he thinks are sexy and has removed them from their original context and place them into a sexualized ones. In other words, images that might have just been images from a birthday party are turned into ogling fodder on this site. I am not linking to it for ethical reasons, but this is his own quote:
The majority of my images have been appropriated from public image sharing repositories. If you happen to find yourself among them, my wish is that you will graciously accept the compliment. It generally means that I have fallen in love with you at first sight. Alternatively, if you would like your image removed, please contact me and it will be done immediately [...]

This appears to be considerate at first, but think for a few seconds and you will realize it's a cop-out. If he really cared about what the women wanted, why wouldn't he contact them first, thereby getting explicit consent? Most "public domains" (Flikr, Photobucket, Myspace, etc.) have a way to contact the site owner. He doesn't do so because he doesn't care. They are online, and therefore may be taken and used in whatever context he pleases, and he's banking on that the women don't find out. How has implicit consent gotten such a foothold in our culture?? And isn't it charming this is supposed to be taken as flattery and not as a violation?

Now I can hear the objections: don't put the pictures up... blah blah. Now, I think people should take precautions like making pages private when they can. But to be honest, that's a bullshit argument:

  • I think most people have the assumption of privacy and ownership of their personal information. I think most reasonable people (at least initially) think that when they post photos online, that sure, anyone can view them, but that it would be unethical an inappropriate for someone to steal them and reproduce them in other contexts that are personally degrading. It may not be illegal and I'm not really the censorship kind of gal. But until several months ago, it never even dawned on me that people might repost my images to be sexualized and leered over...until I started reading crap like this.

  • People should take precautions but that doesn't absolve the people who do this shit from basic assholery.

  • And many times, these images are being taken out of context. Or may be posted on a friend's page, not by the person themselves. There is no way that a person can, say, attend a party and really be expected to inform every single person there with a digital camera to not post any images with them in it online. What's the alternative-don't attend (large) parties? Don't wear pretty or sexy outfits? Don't be attractive? Don't "get" your photo taken (as if we have full control over this)? Who's fucking freedom are we protecting here??

Like I said, I'm not really the censorship type, and I don't know what the solution is--except why can't people just be decent human beings (and the "f" word-feminism-might be useful too)--but it seems like a hell of a lot of womens' rights are being infringed on here. Now I know this could be done to men too, but with our objectifying and sexualizing women at every opportunity culture, this clearly is affecting women more.

What gets me the most is this: all the excuses, reasons, justifications for all this crap has underlying it the assumption that women do things with men's attention in mind. We never do things for ourselves. We dress for the spectacle, not because we look good in an outfit. We post images because we want, or don't mind, men making sexual comments about them. We wear skirts in public because we understand and it doesn't bother us that men might look up our skirts. We engage in polite conversation, or flirt, because we want to have sex. We wear a sexy outfit because we want to have sex...with you. It is wrongly assumed that we act first with you (men, society, whatev) in mind, and that we do not act in ways that please us. (women...have pleasure...outside of men's approval? Impossible!) We have no right to just exist.

I have an idea. Can we not treat women as things that exist for your scopophilic pleasure unless they are paid to do so?? Or at least (and most practically), can we keep it private? As in, between you and your buddy? NOT on the internet? NOT via picture mail on the cel phones? Models are paid to be looked at. Ogle them all you want. Critique and objectify their body all you want. I don't fucking care. They, if anybody, are the ones "asking for it". Don't do it to athletes. Don't do it to politicians. Don't do it to moms. Don't do it to feminist writers. Don't do it to the woman you were able to sneak a photo of walking down the street. And by god, leave the kids' facebook and myspace pages alone. As a civilized society (?) we should be able to post pics of our 18th birthday party for our friends to see without becoming internet-wide sexual fodder. People should be able to be decent, respectful, and respectable human beings. Why is the onus on us to "protect ourselves" in order for people to be decent human beings???

And while we're at it, how about trying some affirmative consent, shall we?

I'm getting so sick of this crap.

(Cross-posted to Smart Like Me)

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  • The erosion of any notion of an expectation of privacy in public is not something that should be considered exclusively through a gendered lens. Rulings that women (and Scottsmen) have no expectation of privacy up their own skirts is not as much an attack on women's integrity as it is part of a long line of entirely gender neutral attacks against privacy.

    It is doubtful that these decisions were based on sexism, or indeed on anything more than the lengthy and despicable line of legal rulings that have abolished any right to privacy outside of the home.

    Further, there is a definite slippery slope aspect to carelessly extending peeping-tom laws to public and semi-public spaces. There is something obviously morally wrong about making a deliberate effort to look up a skirt. Laws forbidding the practice, however, must be designed very carefully so someone who e.g. legitimately photographs a glass floor from below at the wrong moment cannot even be charged with a sex crime. Failure to design laws appropriately would create a severe chilling effect for photographers and other artists that would be far worse for society than the current situation of comparative tolerance for perverts.

    Finally, while I don't know the details of the Oklahoma case, it's interesting that the DA did not level charges for possession of child pornography. "Upskirt" images are pretty clearly pornographic even in the absence of nudity. Since the subject was a minor, child porn charges should have been on the table at least to force a plea bargain.

    If there is a case to be made for sexism in the legal system, it's here with why the DA only pressed 'peeping tom' charges rather than going for the jugular with kiddie porn charges.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:40 PM  

  • Thanks very much for your comment. I'm not sure if you were accusing me of this, but I'm not really making a statement about how laws should be shaped to rectify these situations generally.

    I also want to clarify that I am not really saying that the legal lack of personal privacy was gendered or directly sexist. Rather, the behavioral trend is a gendered one. In fact, I said that obviously, this would be the case for men and women, but I see it as something that tends to affect women more than men because of the way that women's bodies are sexualized at every single turn, and the latter point is an issue of sexism. To be honest, I'm not sure how this gets "solved", and my writing is more out of frustration that this even needs to be solved at all. I don't understand why people feel some sort of entitlement to "owning" other people's images and using them however they'd like.

    I must say though, I disagree with your examples of a "slippery slope". I'm not sure how this would really affect artists--any artist photographing people obtains waivers. And I don't see how taking photographs through a glass floor is "legitimate" at all either. I don't see any slippery slope issue because any legitimate sexualized photography would/should involve consent, and would thus be illegal.

    The OK case-if she has panties on, it's not porn or obscenity. Otherwise scantily clad and sexualized child models would be too. For regulation purposes, an upskirt with panties is no different in appearance to modeling underwear in a department store ad.

    By Blogger lindabeth, at 10:44 PM  

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