Women's bodies are public property
The issue of women's pictures being taken and shared without their consent has been in the spotlight for more than a week now because of the furore around topless images of the Duchess of Cambridge. I suspect the most arresting photograph of the scandal will actually prove to be the one that shows where the photographer was apparently standing. An 'x' marks a spot on a public road, so far from the chateau where the couple were staying that you can barely make out the building itself. The perspective makes any argument against the right to privacy seem laughable, yet they continue. The editor-in-chief of Denmark's Se og Hør magazine, which published a 16-page supplement of the photos, has implied Kate must accept some responsibility for "willingly revealing her breasts towards a public road".
The story prompts questions about why there is such a market, and therefore audience, for these pictures. As others have pointed out, it is not as though there is any dearth of bare breasts, consensually exposed and shared, on the internet. The answer involves a familiar combination of desire and humiliation. There is an interest in seeing not just any breasts, but all breasts, a sense that female bodies are public property, fair game – to be claimed, admired and mocked.
While we associate this experience specifically with celebrities, we arguably all live in a paparazzi culture now. Cameras are ubiquitous, as is the technology to share and publicise pictures instantly. The throb of surveillance plays out in different ways. On the more benign side are the mild nerves many people feel when an email pops up to tell them they have been tagged in a Facebook photo, an image that could be from any moment in their life – recent or historical – now public, and open for comments.
But it also plays out in more insidious ways. This includes the creepshot websites, and others where people collect images of ordinary women they have culled from around the internet. Julia Gray, co-founder of anti-street harassment group Hollaback London, says she was horrified when a picture of her ended up in one of these groups, an image of her at her best friend's birthday party. "We were really drunk, I fell over, and my friend took a picture that happened to capture my boobs down my shirt." When she saw it in her friend's Flickr album online, she was completely relaxed about it; in that setting it was just an innocent, funny image. But then it was appropriated, "and in the context of all the other pictures – upskirt shots and down-top shots – it became incredibly creepy. All of a sudden it was this weird, voyeuristic thing, and I felt really preyed upon."
Then there is the evidence that young women are being coerced into taking suggestive pictures by their male peers, badgered in a way that is distinctly paparazzi-like. Teenagers today have grown up in an environment filled with both paparazzi pictures and images of ordinary women with their tops off. We live in the land built by gossip and lads' magazines over the past decade. Heat magazine ran its Circle of Shame feature for years, encouraging young women to look at their female peers, deride them for ugliness, and simultaneously police their own appearance. Nuts magazine went into nightclubs and asked women to flash for them. Zoo magazine asked readers, "What kind of tits do you want for YOUR girlfriend?" in a 2005 competition that offered £4,000 worth of surgery in return for pictures of readers' girlfriend's breasts.