Are We Blaming the Famous Victims of Nude Photo Theft?

An expert weighs in on why so many seem to approve of a crime.

Posted Sep 02, 2014

If you sneak past my home's security and peek into my legal, private activities, you are at fault. If you break into my office and steal my desk's files, if you hotwire my car and drive it away, if you hack my email and read personal messages, if you crack my phone's security and eavesdrop on conversations meant for no outside ears, if you drug me and violate me while I am unconscious, you are at fault.

You are fully to blame for your own actions. Don't rip off my clothes and then try to shame me when people learn what I do or do not wear underneath.

There are things that I, as the hypothetical victim, could do to prevent any one of those events—conduct no private activities, write no email, own no phone, stay home and sit in one spot, waiting to starve to death while I do nothing whatsoever—sure, if I do that, I could possibly prevent all infringements on my privacy.

Life involves living. Living involves risk. The fact that risk exists does not excuse any perpetrator at all for taking advantages of such risks. As my friend Jenna Busch added when I vented about this on Facebook, "Thank you for this. Being cautious is one thing, but stopping your life in case someone decides to be a horrible human being is another. I'd rather live."

An anonymous phone hacker (or hackers) released private photos stolen from celebrities—purportedly 100 women and 1 man, but possibly more. They were victimized by this thief or thieves, their privacy ripped from them despite having used what they believed were secure, password-protected, encrypted servers.

While CosmopolitanVogue, the New York Daily News, and other outlets call this episode a "scandal," Scott Mendelson at Forbes points out that it is not a scandal, it's a sex crime, and calling it a scandal suggests that it's the victims who have done wrong. The headlines, at least so far, have focused on 24-year-old Academy Award-winner Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle, The Hunger Games, the X-Men series), whose representatives have acknowledged that actual private photos of the star had been stolen. "This is a flagrant violation of privacy," said her spokesman. "The authorities have been contacted and will prosecute anyone who posts the stolen photos."

Through tweets, actress Mary Elizabeth Winstead said:

"To those of you looking at photos I took with my husband years ago in the privacy of our home, hope you feel great about yourselves. Knowing those photos were deleted long ago, I can only imagine the creepy effort that went into this. Feeling for everyone who got hacked."

She then withdrew from Twitter due to the obnoxious responses she received.

Blaming victims is hardly unique to this situation. As I've noted before, the just-world phenomenon, or our basic need to believe that the world is just (Lerner, 1980; Lerner & Miller, 1978) can lead us to make unjust decisions: The crueler the fate, the more harshly we might blame the victim (Burger, 1981; Valor-Seguar, Exposito, & Moya, 2011). The people who most need our compassion may instead receive our cruelest critiques (Lerner & Simmons, 1966).

People have a powerful inclination to find retroactive fault. Linda Carli and her colleagues (1989, 1990) presented two sets of readers with the same description of a woman's actions. The group who also read that she then got raped blamed the female character and found fault in the same prior actions for which another group (who read a scenario identical until its rape-free finish) saw no wrong. The just-world phenomenon involves a lot of hindsight bias: "They should have known"; "I could have predicted that."

With celebrity victims, it is more than simply a matter of blaming a random victim. It's about seeing the stars fall from the sky. There is a degree to which many people revel in the misery of others. Noting that someone else has things worse than you can make your own life seem not as bad in comparison, a specific type of schadenfreude some professionals have referred to as the "Jerry Springer effect." Conversely, insecure people can feel worse about themselves when they consider someone else's success. Some people therefore take particular delight in seeing the mighty fall, in watching others get knocked off whatever pedestals the observers perceive. It is too easy to forget that the performers people see in movies and on TV are living human beings who have human feelings and who have friends and families who hurt on their behalf. 

Here a few examples of things people are writing online in public tweets about this set of victims:

  • @fpraven4: Sorry but Jennifer Lawrence and Mary Winstead should have known better. Come on now.
  • @Rivalpromotions: Apparently we're supposed to feel sorry for Jennifer Lawrence. Tbh, it's her own fault for storing them photos on a Cloud account #THINK!
  • @brad_evans_ : All the women backing Jennifer Lawrence up after her nudes were hacked, it's her own fault for taking them knowing she's world famous!!
  • @houseofwachs @M_E_Winstead Stop posing nude on camera, dummy. Your husband not know what you look like nude? #LessonLearned
  • @rickygervais: Celebrities, make it harder for hackers to get nude pics of you from your computer by not putting nude pics of yourself on your computer.

Darker, more brutal attacks on the stars appear to be popping up on private forums. To be fair, plenty of others are sticking up for the victims:

  • @JillPantozzi: This is not Jennifer Lawrence's fault. This is not Jennifer Lawrence's fault. This is not Jennifer Lawrence's fault. #YesAllWomen
  • @lenadunham: The "don't take naked pics if you don't want them online" argument is the "she was wearing a short skirt" of the web. Ugh.
  • @MollyMcIsaac: Someone hacking someone else's personal accounts for naked pics is SEXUAL HARASSMENT. Every time you click on the nudes you're contributing
  • @elsalroberts: When women are done following all the rules to make us "safe", there's not much left of life to live. #yesallwomen #notallmen
  • @Todd__Kincannon: To all the blame-the-victim folks: If someone had broken into Jennifer Lawrence's house and stolen nude polaroids, would that be her fault?
  • @jonnymangs: How can anyone blame #JenniferLawrence for someone else stealing her personal property!? Society shames women before we blame men. #insanity

A lot of remarks in support of the victims, you'll notice, are in response to those who have blamed the stars, made light of what has happened, or sought out the images. Some are contributing to the trouble not so much by blaming the victims but by endorsing the criminal behavior—one man posted a five-minute YouTube video saying the release of the photos made it "the best day ever," and a woman tweeted, "I found Jennifer Lawrence's pics online & texted them to my husband-bc I'm the best wife in the world, that's why."

There should be nothing fun or funny about this. The victims have been violated in a way that can never be undone. If your TV gets stolen, you might get it back, or simply buy another. Those who have seen these photos cannot un-see them.

Invasion and theft are wrong. Distributing stolen property is wrong. Partaking of things someone else stole on the grounds that you were not yourself the thief is also wrong. Looking at stolen photos because you're just "curious" is wrong, too. Stolen photos are just that—stolen. Do not become accessories to the crime by seeking or sharing them.

The anonymous "collector" who distributed those photos has whined about how little money he made. His priorities, like those of whoever else may have been involved in gathering those photos as well as the people who now congratulate them, remain worth reconsidering.

Celebrity is not consent.

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Burger, J. M. (1981). Motivational biases in the attribution of responsibility for an accident: A meta-analysis of the defensive-attribution hypothesis. Psychological Bulletin, 90, 496–512.

Carli, L. L., & Leonard, J. B. (1989). The effect of hindsight on victim derogation. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 8, 331-343.

Carli, L. L., Columbo, J., Dowling, S., Kulis, M., & Minalga, C. (1990). Victim derogation as a function of hindsight and cognitive bolstering. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association, Boston.

Lerner, M. J. (1980). The belief in a just world: A fundamental delusion. New York: Plenum Press.

Lerner, M. J., & Miller, D. T. (1978). Just world research and the attribution process: Looking back and head. Psychological Bulletin, 85, 1030–1051.

Lerner, M. J., & Simmons, C. H. (1966). Observers’ reaction to the “innocent victim”: Compassion or rejection? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 4, 203–210.

Valor-Seguar, I., Exposito, F., & Moya, M. (2011). Victim blaming and exoneration of the perpetrator in domestic violence: The role of beliefs in just world and ambivalent system. Spanish Journal of Psychology, 14, 195–206.

Follow Dr. Langley on Facebook or Twitter (@Superherologist).

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