In a 1975 interview with Rolling Stone, the singer Linda Ronstadt revealed that her father gave her $30 and a single, sage piece of fatherly advice when she left her home in Tucson to start her career in the big, bad city: “Don’t let anyone take your picture with your clothes off.”
It’s still good advice today (unless you are Kim Kardashian).
The recent resignation of Rep. Katie Hill of California after nude photos of herself cavorting with a staff member—a serious Congressional ethics violation—were revealed and published has put the dicey issue of “revenge porn” (also known as non-consensual pornography) back into the spotlight.
Given how incredibly often the problem of ex-lovers and discarded spouses posting explicit photos of their partners and former partners now occurs, 46 states and the District of Columbia have found it necessary to pass laws against it. Criminalizing the unauthorized posting of nude or compromising photos of another, which may or may not have been taken with their consent, is both proper and necessary. The global photo sharing now available via the Internet has created opportunities for mischief and public disgrace that were unimaginable when Linda Ronstadt’s father had only to warn his daughter about perverts toting Polaroid cameras.
The advent of widely available photographic technology in the early 20th century offered new possibilities for immortalizing beauty that also made it much easier to turn a quick buck from an attractive face and body. That these faces and bodies were—and continue to be—primarily female perhaps is a function of how women have been taught throughout the ages to associate their self-worth with their outward appearance, which often leaves them more vulnerable to the blandishments of those who see profit and personal advantage in naked flesh. Whatever the reason, sexualized presentation seems a mostly feminine enterprise—although modern men are also learning what it means to be considered a hunk of attractive meat.
Before discussing the inexplicable 21st century popularity of sending nude or semi-nude photos, it must be emphasized similar behavior long pre-dates digital photography. From the days of the ancient fertility figurines through Renaissance nude paintings to the “boudoir photography” of the 1990’s, the celebration of youth, beauty, and sexuality has been a part of our culture—both high and low.
The question that naturally arises is, given the terrifying possibilities now presented by Internet photo sharing that is both instantaneous and inherently viral, why anyone who does not depend on displaying their bodies as part of their livelihoods would willing pose naked (or nearly so) for a camera? Good judgment would seem to dictate discretion—as would any remaining sense of personal decency.
I suspect that we are more often than not seeing personal insecurity and a desperate desire for approval displayed—along with a vast expanse of skin. That so many, in addition, now consider the sharing of salacious photography to be an acceptable dating ritual is not a positive sign for both our morals or gender relations. If one is to believe the surveys and anecdotes that seem to indicate an astounding percentage of women have been wooed with dick pics, it seems safe to say that simply buying flowers and chocolates for the object of your affection is today somewhat out of fashion. No wonder so many women now prefer to spend their Saturday nights alone with Netflix.
How did this kind of bizarre oversharing become a feature of 21st century life? I suspect, as with so much that plagues our screwed up world, the blame can be laid squarely on the foibles of our supposed betters.
Celebrities are, of course, infamous seekers of attention and approval, so it is perhaps not surprising that they so often take the lead in normalizing behavior that should not be normalized. Acting as negative role models for the public at large, their scandalous, stupid, and self-aggrandizing activities, which are sometimes real and sometimes manufactured, create a crushingly low baseline for individual behavior that has turned the nude selfie shot with a cellphone in front of a mirror into a sad ritual for troubled or desperately insecure adolescents and young adults—who are, once again, primarily female. Living in the same neighborhood as a great many other self-destructive and impulsive behaviors—drinking, drug use, bingeing and purging, smoking, promiscuity, and cutting—it creates yet one more burden for lives already laden with problems.
Unfortunately, the nature of our public dialogue today makes discouraging sending consensual nude or semi-nude photos to and fro basically impossible. To induce a change in behavior requires either condemning it or punishing it, and both are now actively battled by those who promote the acceptance, affirmation, and advocacy of personal behaviors that were beyond the pale only a few generations ago. We no longer try to change dysfunctional behavior—we, in fact, celebrate it. Whether because it is considered a sign of individual freedom or a symptom of victimization that allows one to garner social support, what was once idiotic and irresponsible is now brave and transgressive activity that wins plaudits from many.
Therefore, Rep. Hill and her many supporters have now been able to place the blame for her downfall on those whom they claim weaponized her open bisexuality, slut shamed her, and want to condemn her for her experiments with unconventional sexual lifestyles. The fact that her personal choice was to engage into an unambiguously unethical sexual relationship with a member of her staff is now almost tangential. Those who criticize her are the true villains for many who now choose to celebrate behavior that respects no boundaries.
The search for new and disingenuous ways to excuse the inexcusable seems to be a favored activity for many commentators who find conventional morality, ethical boundaries, and personal honesty to be a drag. The rot that encourages this starts right at the top in our utterly dysfunctional political and entertainment worlds, is amplified and normalized by our irresponsible news/entertainment/entertaining news/newsy entertainment complex that has yet to find a pathology they don’t like (and can’t monetize), and all manner of dysfunctional behavior pioneered by attention seekers is finally embraced by those lost and lonely individuals who act out in order to deal with their own personal pain.
Never in civilized history has the self-inflicted damage done to humanity been so thoroughly documented and bizarrely reinforced. We should focus more on the warning signs of our cultural and societal collapse instead of continuing to insist we have no reason to be ashamed of ourselves for what we do. That which we fail (or refuse) to condemn now speaks more loudlyabout our decline than any statistical evidence of our shared national misery.