How do you solve a problem like “the fapenning”? Since dozens of private nude photographs of female celebrities were hacked, leaked, and widely disseminated this past weekend, commentators have proposed a raft of remedies: Some have suggested that women themselves can prevent their own victimization by never snapping nude selfies at all. Others insist the American legal system must step up to investigate and prosecute the hackers. Or perhaps Apple’s lax security measures are really to blame. Still others have proposed that incidents like this one can be fixed with a collective attitude adjustment. At Al Jazeera America, for example, Lux Alptraum argues that destigmatizing sex is the key to preventing hackers from exploiting women: If women are no longer forced to view their sexuality as a shameful expression that ought to be hidden from the world, she says, then hackers will have little reason to ever pull back the curtain.
Destigmatizing female sexuality is an important project, but it is not the remedy to this problem. The central issue here isn’t that the people hacking, leaking, and sharing these photos view women’s bodies as shameful. It’s that they view women’s bodies as property.
Consider the members of AnonIB, an Internet message board where anonymous users convene to share naked photographs of women without their consent. Jennifer Lawrence’s hacked photographs surfaced on AnonIB days before they exploded across the Web; hackers have set up camp there, advertising their abilities to download private photos from the iCloud accounts of a handful of female celebrities and thousands of women you’ve never heard of. After spending a day paging through the board, I haven’t seen any users who seem to care whether their targets are shamed or embarrassed by their actions. In fact, I’m not convinced that they’re aware that women have any feelings at all. To them, women—and here, it is always women—are objects to be passed around between friends and strangers. The prospect that the women exposed might experience humiliation does not enter the discussion, because that would require women to be capable of subjective experience. People who release “revenge porn” do so in an attempt to shame women in their lives who they think have done them wrong, but the people on this board are perfectly content to violate their acquaintances, classmates, and perfect strangers with no additional interpersonal motivation. On AnonIB, women are not framed as mortified or distressed. They are “hot” or “stunning” or “so fuckable” or simply “that ass on the right” or “this firm pair of tits,” or devoid of identity entirely—just a name tied to an explicit photo.
This is a sport, and women are the trophies. Whenever a nude photograph is stolen from the cloud or extracted from an oversharing ex-boyfriend, it’s reported on the site as a “win.” As in, “Girl has an amazing body. The wins are rare but they exist. Harass her ex into giving them to you then post them here.” It doesn’t seem to matter how the photos get on the site, just that they do: Some photos surface from an iCloud hack, but others are passed along through the target’s network of acquaintances—some leakers say they received the photo from the woman while they were dating; others say they secretly lifted a photo of a friend’s girlfriend from his phone while he wasn’t looking. Women who reveal their images online by their own volition—like through a long-ago gig as a pornographic cam model—are also here, in the form of dredged-up screenshots.
When wins don’t surface, bikini shots posted in Facebook vacation albums will do, because while everyone’s here for a win, just playing appears to be half the fun. Sharing tips and tricks about how to secure the photos is a large part of the appeal. On the boards, users post selfies their targets have published to Instagram that show the women smiling in their cars, for instance. Then, they recruit other users to help identify the make and model of the vehicle; that information, at least according to the game, can be used to correctly answer a common security question tied to their target’s iCloud account. (While I can’t assess the sincerity of every anonymous posting—and my emails to about a dozen contributors went unanswered—the sheer volume of interactions and photos on the site make it pretty clear to me that not everyone is bluffing.)
The leaked celebrity photos that have surfaced on AnonIB and other sites have been widely publicized (by hackers, sharers, and the media), but most of the people who congregate on these boards aren’t interested in exposing their “wins” to the wider world. AnonIB prohibits the posting of “addresses, telephone numbers, social network links, or last names” of the women who are exposed there. The ostensible aim of this rule is to avoid being “evil,” AnonIB claims, but really, it protects the site’s members from having their activity discovered by the women themselves, like through a Google search. Widespread public shaming does not seem to be the goal. While some users post photographic evidence of their wins on the board, more congregate to connect with hackers who can privately deliver a cache of photos of an ex-girlfriend or a classmate via email. “Will keep private if requested!” one hacker writes. “Just hoping to enjoy the win.”
Some hackers agree to provide their services to users in exchange for the ability to take a peek at the “wins” they discover (and many specify that they’ll only hack the accounts of “hot girls”). The photos also function as currency between the hackers themselves, who sometimes agree to share their own stash of accumulated nudes in exchange for new hacking tips that will help them score even more photos. On one area of the site, users congregate on pages organized by state, then start threads dedicated to surfacing pictures of women at their colleges or girls at their high schools. (While the site maintains an ostensible rule against the posting of child pornography, many users are seeking out photographs of high school girls who are due to graduate in 2015, 2016, or 2017; these threads number in the hundreds.) Often, the people in possession of nude photos of girls at a specific school share them in the hopes that others will do the same. If they don’t, leakers become frustrated for giving away their wins for free and complain that other users won’t “man up.”
This is a world beyond humiliation. It is an organized network of people who seek to exert power over women and girls by reducing them to lifeless bodies and hoarding them in their hard drives. Not that the participants would put it that way—these users, many of whom appear to be very young men, likely think that they’re simply engaging in harmless masturbation; the power differential inherent in their activities is so normalized it probably goes unnoticed. This is not a problem that will be solved by encouraging women to see their bodies as beautiful, rather than shameful. These people don’t care what women think. Theirs is the culture that needs to shift. And if it doesn’t, perhaps prosecution can help it along.