Jennifer Lawrence’s reaction to her nude photo leak is a reminder to us all

The actor described the feeling of knowing that ‘anybody can go look at my naked body without my consent, any time of the day’, and said her trauma ‘will exist forever’

Victoria Richards
Tuesday 23 November 2021 15:30
Jennifer Lawrence nude photos a 'sex crime'
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Jennifer Lawrence has reflected on the “trauma” of the 4chan scandal in 2014, in which hackers posted nude photographs of her on the internet.

The actor, who was one of 100 stars to be targeted, described the feeling of knowing that “anybody can go look at my naked body without my consent, any time of the day”, and said her trauma “will exist forever”. “You can just be at a barbecue and somebody can just pull them up on their phone,” she told Vanity Fair. “That was a really impossible thing to process.”

While most of us, thankfully, won’t find ourselves the victim of a high-profile scandal like the one perpetrated by 4chan, I’m confident we can all empathise with Lawrence – in truth, many of us are only a step away from waking up to the kind of living nightmare she describes.

Let’s be completely honest: if you’re an adult and you own a smartphone, chances are you have taken (and likely sent) a photo to someone, at some point, that you’d really rather nobody else in the world would ever see. You might even regret sharing it with that person in the first place. After all, relationships end, feelings sour, minds and hearts change.

It’s horrifying to consider that someone you may have once trusted could break that trust – but it happens. And for those of us with skin in the game, we are all at risk.

As part of the process of writing this piece, I took a deep breath – and a deep dive – into Reddit to look at the “AskMen” thread, which has 3.1 million members. Designed to give men an outlet to ask questions (and receive advice) exclusively from other men, I wanted to find out whether the subject of what to do with an ex’s nude photos had ever come up.

The results were startling – but not in the way you might think. On one thread, which had more than 300 comments, the original poster talked about how the person had broken up with his girlfriend of three years, and had since been dating other women, but still had “about 75 pictures and a few videos” of his ex. “I don’t know what to do with them,” the poster said. “Would it be illegal to share these pictures? Any insight would be helpful.”

The responses were largely decent, with one top post advising him to “delete them” – including any access to his ex’s social media. “This happened to me – I also had full access to my ex’s Facebook and email because my laptop saved the logins,” the anonymous poster wrote. “I had her change the passwords so I wouldn’t be tempted. I prefer to make a clean break so it doesn’t bleed into future relationships.”

Another said, poignantly: “It’s so much harder to truly let go of someone if you’re still carrying around something associated with the memory of them. Delete them and let go.” And one man suggested: “Don’t share them and if she ever asks, delete them.” Others said bluntly and succinctly: “Sharing them would be a d**k move.”

I found myself heartened by the plethora of good and empathetic advice, but then the original poster returned to the thread to add an update, in which he told those who’d commented what he’d decided to do: “If anyone cares, I decided to back up the files virtually and delete them from my hard drive,” he said. “Out of sight, out of mind.” But then he added: “If anyone wants to see them, PM [private message] me.”

And that’s precisely what worries me – you can be in a relationship built on the foundations of reciprocity and trust, but what happens when those foundations crumble?

Currently, there is no single criminal offence in England and Wales that governs the taking, making and sharing of intimate images without consent. Instead, the Law Commission says, we have “a patchwork of offences that have developed over time, most of which existed before the rise of the internet and use of smartphones”. Some abusive behaviours are not even specifically criminalised, including “downblousing”, or “deepfakes”.

In February, the Commission published a consultation paper on intimate image abuse, as part of a wide-reaching review of those laws. Its proposals centred around improving protections for victims whose images are taken or shared without their consent. The government is now considering the proposals.

But where does that leave those of us navigating the murky world of smartphones and dating as part of our everyday lives – particularly after an extended period of “online love” as seen during the pandemic? Single people were urged to “play it safe” with video calls and texting; but some couples were separated in two households and not allowed to meet. Studies showed a marked increase in “sexting” during lockdown, with one research paper concluding: “Sexting was a coping tool during Covid-19 lockdown.”

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It would be naive to assume people will “just stop” sharing risque images of themselves with people they’re involved with, yet as the law stands, there’s not an awful lot we can do if, say, a partner or an ex sticks an altered image of us on the internet, or shares candid shots of us with their mates “as a joke”. Even sharing intimate images as a threat, a way to coerce or intimidate a victim, is not currently a criminal offence – though sharing them for reasons of sexual gratification and to cause distress is illegal.

It’s clear the law needs to catch up to reality, and the reality is that when we share something intimate with a partner or a prospective date, we are putting ourselves at risk. Will that stop us doing it? In the heat of the moment, probably not. But we need a whole lot more protection than simply having to shrug and hope for the best.

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