By now, most people are aware of a recent episode involving actress Jennifer Lawrence and others. Basically, personal iCloud accounts were hacked and private nude photos of famous stars published on the Internet. These images were never meant to see the light of day, and their distribution on such a wide scale has often been called a “scandal.”
Just yesterday, Lawrence responded to the situation in an article in Vanity Fair. She spoke directly:
“It is not a scandal. It is a sex crime…just because I’m a public figure, just because I’m an actress, does not mean that I asked for this.”
She’s right, of course. Such photos were never meant for public distribution. They represent a violation of her privacy and constitute an unwanted public invasion into her life in a way that took matters out of her control. She didn’t have a choice whether or not the world would see these photos. She has become unwitting and unwilling pornography in a digital world where such things never go away.
From the Church’s point of view, the question of pornography has taken on increasing importance with the rise of the Internet. Many people (including an unfortunate number of ministers) have found themselves caught up a culture heretofore relegated to the seedy shop on the other side of the tracks. Addiction is a serious word, but for some if not many pornography has become a kind of drug.
The Church, often focusing on those caught up in the cycle of addiction and shame, has rightly addressed the issues of sin, purity, and faithfulness that are involved with pornography. Words like “moral failure” get tossed around as a euphemism for some of what is happening. This is all fine and good as far as it goes, but I think that a situation like Jennifer Lawrence’s reveals that such a view of sin is far too limited and–dare I say–selfish. Pornography and the accompanying objectification of women is not just a problem for the man who “dirties” himself and gives into lustful thoughts and actions. It is a sin against the subject of those pornographic thoughts as well.
The Atlantic has an interesting article that clarifies Lawrence’s concern as being one of consent. She never had a say about whether these photos would be made public. In this way she was violated. Consider: it would be a transgression of sorts for any of her private photos to be published online; that they were nude photos makes it much, much worse.
I would agree with the Church that everyone (let’s be honest, mostly men) who has been viewing those images to satisfy their own lusts has been sinning. You’ll get no argument from me there. But the sin doesn’t simply stop at a person making themselves guilty. It also means that we’ve sinned against this woman. Violated her privacy. Gone against her wishes.
Such considerations go beyond photo-hacking, however. They have to do with a whole culture of objectification. While publication of private nude photographs is one of the worst examples of this, living in a world that often values people for how “cute” or “hot” or “sexy” they are offers implicit and potentially pseudo-pornographic objectification everywhere we turn. How many friends have we seen on Facebook post pictures of themselves looking for positive feedback? How many times have we simply commented how good they looked and left it at that?
So even in those instances where people seem to “share” themselves of their own free will via the selfie, magazine cover, or photo shoot, I would submit that at least some of this is because our culture has told us this is the way to be. Made it a mark of value and worth. Indicated to us that this is how you know you’ve arrived. It is an alluring lie. But it is a lie nonetheless. I’m well aware that there is a school of thought in which volitional expressions of female sexuality and celebration of the body by choice is a way of pushing back against a society that robs women of agency. Yet to do so in the same way the offense comes makes me wonder if the dynamic has really changed that much. (For more on this re: Jennifer Lawrence, read the Atlantic article referenced above.)
In the end, I hope that a situation like Lawrence’s shows us that sins of lust, the use of pornography, and the like do not belong in some dark and private personal category. Why? Because they are sins not just in our heart alone; they are sins against a fellow human being. Whether such images or actions are available for all to see because of a person’s overt decision or not, it is still all symptomatic of a world that removes agency from the individual and places it in the hand of the consumer. You don’t have to have your iCloud photos stolen to be trapped in the world of objectification. Sometimes that world can lead people to objectify themselves because that’s the only option it appears to permit.
I’ll bring this to a close with the words of Lawrence herself:
“Just the fact that somebody can be sexually exploited and violated, and the first thought that crosses somebody’s mind is to make a profit from it. It’s so beyond me. I just can’t imagine being that detached from humanity. I can’t imagine being that thoughtless and careless and so empty inside…Anybody who looked at those pictures, you’re perpetuating a sexual offense. You should cower with shame.”
When it comes to pornography, it isn’t just about the wrong we did. It is about the people we’ve wronged. With Lawrence that wronging is much more obvious and direct, but it doesn’t change the numerous ways in which we devalue others and keep our world–defined by supply and demand–locked in such a destructive pattern.