Prince Harry is a lot like Olympian Ryan Lochte: They’re both attractive men with a penchant for doing hotness-destroyingly stupid things, like dressing up as a Nazi for a costume party, or trying to wear a custom grill on the medal platform. So when pictures started circulating this morning of Harry in his altogether after a night of strip pool in Las Vegas, they hit a perfect sweet spot, giving us a chance to check out the royal abs in their fancy suite while wondering exactly how dumb or poorly handled someone that rich has to be to keep landing in absurdly compromising situations. But the leaked photos are also a depressing reminder of how fast the market for compromising photos of the famous has outstripped our ability to consider what parts of people’s lives they deserve to keep private. (I’m not linking, but you guys can easily find the photos if you want to.)
Princes Harry and William appear to have a generally more positive relationship with the paparazzi than their mother and her generation did. Princess Diana’s back-and-forth with the rags was more complicated than it first appeared in the wake of her death, when photographers were blamed for her Paris car crash. As Tina Brown documented in The Diana Chronicles, Diana was a gossip junkie and enjoyed being photographed as long as she could set the terms of the picture. But that expectation was impossible, and there was no shortage of people willing to help the press invade Diana’s life. Among the more notable creeps was Bryce Taylor, the owner of the LA Fitness gym where Diana worked out: He rigged secret cameras to catch her exercising. She sued, and a group of her friends helped her buy the negatives back and obtain an apology. Sarah, the Duchess of York, was caught by the paparazzi topless with an American businessman kissing her feet.
But the days when it was just professionals wielding the cameras, and of the royals’ friends circling the wagons to help protect their privacy appear to be long gone. Those pictures of Prince Harry in the buff got out because someone he trusted enough to get naked around knew there would be a market for the shots. Pippa Middleton’s friends last year sold pictures of her dancing in a skirt and bra with a man who’d stripped down to his boxers. While it’s hard to pity members of the royal family for much, Harry and Pippa appear to have rotten taste in so-called friends, or an abiding inability to process the possibility that the rewards to others for betraying them are significant. It’s one thing to expect that people with enormous privilege whose lives are bankrolled by British taxpayers will represent their country admirably in public. But at least Harry’s mother could retreat behind closed doors, and her friends didn’t have the benefit of smart phones.
It would be nice if we could agree that everyone deserves the chance to be young and stupid and harmless without having their naked silliness enter the permanent record. But the impulse to treat princes and princesses as property, rather than people, as paper dolls we can strip all the way down and dress up again in whatever clothes and narratives we’d prefer them to fit is strong. And the ability to make money off it is very, very easy. It’s simple to cluck about invasions of privacy—and a lot more difficult to accept that honoring those principles would mean actually giving up something that’s guilty, judgey fun. I shouldn’t have clicked.