July 18, 2008

Women’s bodies are not public domain: how many times does this need to be said?

Posted in assholes, body politics, entitlement, objectification, privacy, sexual politics, victim-blaming at 12:00 pm by LB

A really great post at Hoyden About Town on a recent incident of a man photographing an “upskirt” shot in public, and posting it online. The comments she lists in the post are really great…the first set makes you smile and the second makes you pissed.

But reading these particular comments from the skeevy guy’s post got me thinking:

  • “He photographed in public a nice pair of legs and he added the photo onto he’s [sic] PERSONAL blog”

I read a lot people justifying various breeches of privacy with the excuse of “well, she’s in public.” What is it about public space that means anything goes? “Public” space only means anyone can be there–no one can be refused to be in public space. How does “anyone can be there” translate to “anyone can be there and should understand that at any minute they could be photographed or videotaped doing whatever they are doing and wearing whatever they are wearing and can be distributed in any context for free and by entering public space people are consenting to this.”

You know honestly, I don’t care whether some dude videotapes a woman bending over to pick up something she dropped or a person eating their lunch on a bench, both are wrong. Both are invasions. Why do people feel the right to photograph people they don’t know and post them online? Photos of any content, displayed in any context. Why does anybody think this is ok? And why does being in public mean you cede the right to own your body? I’m starting to get really irritated with the arrogance and entitlement of these justifiers.

And it’s not as if people can help being in public. You can’t feasibly survive without leaving your house.

  • “Nicu didn’t try to photograph anything that the girl wanted to keep hidden.”

For the nth time, since when is allowing to be visible for fleeting glances the same as allowing to be visible for photographic capture and display online? This would be like saying that all women who go to the beach are consenting to or want to or wouldn’t mind photos of them in said suit posted online. All together ladies: “HELL, NO!” How asinine is this reasoning?

I mean geez, how hard is it to just leave people alone? Live and let be? Seriously?!


So I had scheduled the above post for Friday. On Thursday, I checked back on the Hoyden thread’s discussion, and sure enough a douchebag had entered the discussion, reeking with male privilege. I really couldn’t let his fallacious comments go unaddressed, so I commented on the thread, and wanted to post what I wrote here as well, since this is a topic I am very passionate about and I write about often.

So again, from Hoyden About Town (and I encourage you to check out the thread and the blog, it’s good reading):

Anders FederNo Gravatar

Apart from the lameness, there is absolutely nothing wrong in posting a picture of an unidentifiable person’s legs.

Suggesting that I am a ‘fellow sociopath-wannabe’ for standing up for reasonable freedoms of expression, on the other hand, is highly questionable.

Oh, and by the way: I demand that you all ask for my permission before responding to this post directly or indirectly. Anything else will offend me.

My response:

lindabethNo Gravatar

I really have to respond to what Anders said:

Apart from the lameness, there is absolutely nothing wrong in posting a picture of an unidentifiable person’s legs.

The unidentifiability is not the issue here. It’s the lack of consent to be photographed and the lack of consent to have the photograph distributed online.

Suggesting that I am a ‘fellow sociopath-wannabe’ for standing up for reasonable freedoms of expression, on the other hand, is highly questionable.

This is my main beef with what you say. “Freedom of expression” NEVER becomes an issue here, because freedom of expression implies some sort of ownership involved: your art, your words, your text. Photographing a woman, attempting to photograph up her shirt, no less, without her consent, and publishing it online, also without her consent, does not give any legitimate ownership of her body’s representation to this guy.

This is an issue of (the woman’s) privacy, and to be honest, her goddamm right to exist as a human being in public without being unknowingly immortalized online as a sexual thing (right? “just a pair of legs”) and NOT at all an issue of expression. It would be an issue of expression if he asked the woman to photograph her and asked her if she minded him posting it on his blog and she agreed, and if the same reaction ensued. But our reaction is not over the image’s content per se–expression–but rather over the “who do you think you are?” that he felt the right to a) take the pic in the 1st place, b) publish it online, and c) place it in an even further sexualized context through his commentary.

You, however, exhibit in gobs male privilege and an arrogant sense of entitlement over women’s bodies if you think that by a woman daring to be in public “like that” her body is up for grabs to be “owned” (by being photographed), sexualized (despite her desire to simply exist in the world as a female human being), and then displayed online for all to see and continue to sexualize her body, fetishizing her humanity’s absence (her face).

Her legs are her legs, her body is her body, and she decides what will be done with it, not you or anyone else. They are part of her, as a human being, and are not not not public domain. I don’t know why this is so hard for men especially to understand!

Your idea that the photo’s “anonymity” makes it alright, shows how much women have been dehumanized in western culture to the point that our only humanity is in our faces. Everything else, according to you, is just an think to sexualize, and is up for public ownership, so long as we women “dare” to be in public at all.

Your victim-blaming aside (she;s acking to be sexualized, because clearly in your male privilege-laced fantasy world all women dress solely for men’s visual benefit and according to the degree they want to be sexualized, c’mon… think about the “possible views” when a woman is sitting down on a bus with even a professional, just-above-the-knee skirt and her legs crossed. A professionally dressed woman would likely appear like this, so how dare you suggest that the very act of her taking the bus in any clothing that might show some leg means she’s up for grabs. bullshit.)

Oh, and by the way: I demand that you all ask for my permission before responding to this post directly or indirectly. Anything else will offend me.

Actually–wrong. By commenting on this blog you are consenting to discussion. That’s part of the rules of engagement in the blogging medium. She walked outside of her house. Into her community. And traveled by public transportation as a human being and community member. That is not consent to anything. You have consented to this activity; she did not consent to his activity. That is the crucial difference.

I know I rail on this issue a lot, and it might seem a small thing on The List of important issues. But I think this is very important: it says an awful lot about what women’s “place” is, who has rights to women’s bodies, and to what degree to women own their own person; in other words, to what extent are women really Lockean liberal subjects, who own property in their own person?? To me, this is an important question that has implications for all sort of women’s issues–issues legal equality (“rights”) and issues of social equality.

As I’ve said before, I don’t know what to do about it, practically speaking. For one, how could you stop people from doing thing things you aren’t aware of! And second, the internet is so expansive that making a law that make this kind of crap illegal would do little to stop it–because it could only be stopped if the person photographed, or someone they knew, actually saw it.

It’s more reasonable to attack the root cause of this: that in our society, women** do not own the right to their bodies in public, and increasingly in private. This is what needs to change. As I said above too, why can’t people leave other people alone? That’s still true, but this isn’t just an individual issue; it’s a cultural one, exacerbated by recent technology that makes this nearly impossible to solve through law. There has to be a paradigm change in the discourse on women’s bodies. And is this not part of the unfinished sexual revolution? I think so.

**And I know this kind of thing affects men too, mostly in the celebrity world, but the entitlement attitude repeatedly comes from men about women, and I think it’s more a gender issue than, say the celebrity/paparazzi issue is. Although that, too, is about public “ownership,” and while it affects male celebs too, again, it affects women disproportionately more.

Check out the comment discussion on this post at my feministing community page.



  1. Jamie B. said,

    Totally well-done. I just submitted your post to Stumble. ^_^ Imagine my fist raised in solidarity, because it is.

  2. Renee said,

    Essentially this issue is about who owns the female body. When these pictures appear it is because men feel that they have the right to display us in any form that they desire. it is disgusting and is a violation of the worst kind to take advantage of someones momentary indiscretion.

  3. Poppy said,

    First comment. Love your blog, added you to my feeds last week.

    I do have to take issue with this, however:

    “Public” space only means anyone can be there–no one can be refused to be in public space. How does “anyone can be there” translate to “anyone can be there and should understand that at any minute they could be photographed or videotaped doing whatever they are doing and wearing whatever they are wearing and can be distributed in any context for free and by entering public space people are consenting to this.”

    I think your words are too black and white. Is it wrong to take pictures of someone while intentionally trying to photograph under their clothing. Yes, that is a violation of privacy. It is, however, not automatically wrong to photograph people in public. The offense is in objectifying the woman in question by turning her into “just a pair of legs” and trying to violate her privacy by photographing areas of her body that she had covered. And it’s wrong even without his publishing the image publicly, so that’s doubly wrong.

    Speaking as both a photographer and a feminist, there’s got to be some middle ground. There’s several situations in which it IS acceptable to photograph someone in public without their explicit permission. Where (good) photographers draw the line is in how that image gets used. Photojournalists do it all the time, shooting pictures for the newspaper.

    I agree with your point about changing the cultural paradigm regarding visual ownership of women’s bodies; I just don’t think that saying “Don’t anyone photograph any female in public for any reason without her explicit permission” is a workable answer. It’s addressing a symptom, not the cause, and ignores all of the photographers, male and female, who approach their subjects with a little more respect.

    Yes, photographers should strive for explicit permission, both in terms of “can I take a picture of you” and “may I post this image publicly”, but there’s times when it’s just not an option – group shots, language barriers, or when asking first would just plain ruin the scene to the point where what you’re trying to photograph isn’t there anymore.

    ‘Nuff said from me. I look forward to reading more.

  4. lindabeth said,

    Hey Poppy, thanks for adding me and joining in the discussion!

    I don’t necessarily disagree with you altogether. I’m not necessarily 100% on this, but when I started blogging about this, I was focusing on the unconsented to sexualization and objectification of the images, my thinking now is that the violation of privacy stems from the sexuality of the photograph or the intentions. And I don’t think “the body” is just about the skin–the parts of the body that are ‘uncovered.” Plus, as I mention, a woman choosing to be on the beach in a swimsuit cannot be considered the same as consenting to be photographed that way. I feel like choosing what you wear in public should be just about that–not about choosing what to wear in public AND what I wouldn’t mind being photographed in. Otherwise, an awful lot of women would have their freedom constricted in not wanting to ever show up at a beach! So right now, I do disagree with you on that point.

    But your taking exception to this point with the example of a photojournalist is why I’m really unsure of what to do about this, and why a solution isn’t readily apparent. I don’t have a solution at all, because regulation, laws, or, as you say, just saying never photograph anyone doesn’t really work.

    Part of the problem too is that these aren’t “photographers” (as in professionals) doing this…it’s everyday guys in the blogosphere. And I think respect is dubious as well. I imagine this guy thought he was fully respecting the woman by “appreciating” her legs. But this is part of the problem too: being viewed as sexy, or being socially validated as sexually appealing is supposed to be a positive, respectful thing-a compliment. Hell, some days, I think it’s the highest designation that women achieve socially.

    And I do agree that this is a symptom of public ownership of women’s sexuality, and the presumed male entitlement to women as sexual beings.

    One reason why I’m really pushing a somewhat extreme view is that while it sounds reasonable to say “only photograph people respectfully,” (besides the fact that “respect” is subjective), I’m actually wondering-from a philosophical standpoint- why even respectful photographers have this “right.” Why does anyone feel like they have the right to unsuspectingly photograph other people and own those images? On what basis is this a “right”?

    Yet, as you suggest, photojournalists, I understand. Which is why, as you say “don’t ever take pics of anyone” as a blanket rule doesn’t really work. But as a guiding rule for the average Joe/Jane on the street, I think it does work. The first question they should be asking themselves is why do they want the picture, and why do they have a right to take it? To own a photograph of a woman you find beautiful I don’t think is a sufficient answer. What gives him the right to own her representation?

    I think we can all agree that no women should be sexualized without her consent. But I guess I’m thinking, why should bodily privacy end with sexualization; or, why should privacy only be defined by sexualization. As you point out, I do sound very black and white. But I guess in some circumstances asking permission is cumbersome (although I think you can also always ask after-the-fact and delete the image if objected to), but in thinking about all this, I am very concerned with whose right trumps whose?

    I think you’re right in saying that if social equality was a reality, this would likely be a moot point. Which is why I think that this needs to be part of a larger discussion about women’s bodies and who owns them.I’m still working through this, and as I say I have no workable solution whatsoever, except that people should just leave people the fuck alone, and I both agree and disagree with your points, and they’ve definitely made me consider again about some of my thinking on this topic.

  5. Steven said,

    I agree with your value statement, but what I need is a mechanism to put it into place in such a manner that freedom of speech is not abridged.

    And I think you have to discuss the issue in terms of speech. The people in your post did two things that were wrong:

    1. they took the photos, and
    2. they distributed it through a series of tubes

    That distribution is the speech aspect of the event. And that is the part I am worried about. I really do think that freedom of speech is one of the most important rights we have. (A lot of constitutional interpretation has put extra weight to the first amendment as they see its firstness as symbolizing its place as importance to the Founders).

    I am not sure I buy the positional arguement, but I do beleive that it is through freedom of speech all the other rights are protected, and we should tread carefully when we think of abridging it.

    Without free speech and a free press we don’t know if habeas corpus is being abused or if our privacy is being abused. You don’t know if government or individual citizens are abusing their

    If your right to privacy is being abused, you could use your freedom of speech to protest, without freedom of speech, you cannot protect your right to privacy against government encroachment.

    Also, freedom of speech (and other 1st ammendment rights) are freedom of public rights, as opposed to the privacy freedoms you emphasize. It really is difficult to balance the two.

  6. lindabeth said,

    I guess where I differ is that speech must be something that is yours, that you own. And un-consented to images are not properly your property to disseminate as “speech.” That’s why the “speech” issue is a strawman argument. And the “speech” bs is used to say “we” are “wrong” to criticize his disseminating the images–that by saying he is wrong, that we are infringing on his speech. I feel we’re actually saying there was no speech that was his in the first place. The speech is hers–to publish herself or to consent away to in a particular context. It isn’t his at all. If she consents to the images (like the model release a photographer obtains), then and only then is it his freedom of speech

    One big concern of mine is that this activity is impossible to stop before it starts, and this is true regarless of the view on “speech.” It can only be stopped after the damage has been done. And stopping it relies on someone actually becoming aware of the image. Fat chance in internet-land. That is why I think we need to have tools in place for (women) to easily fight these issues–we don’t. I also think the public shaming or what have you online is good too. But in the bigger picture, this, for me, is an ideological issue–part of the way we think about women and their bodies–and I think this “problem” will be better solved by a paradigm shift rather than laws or regulation, if for no other reason than that effective regulation would likely inhibit actual speech or at least be prohibitive and difficult to monitor.

    I understand concerns for speech. But I think we need to think about what speech actually is, who owns the right to their own bodies, and whether speech trumps privacy, and what this all has to do with gender ideologies.

    And I would argue that freedom of privacy is also a “public right.” It’s the right to not have your mobility restricted, to be able to be a social equal in public spaces, to have the right to your own person…privacy isn’t just about what you do in your own home. I find that the private/public separation is pretty much BS anyway…it’s an arbitrary distinction. “The personal is political,” right? The right to personal bodily privacy is very much a public freedom, and even having to call it “privacy” is perhaps misleading. Because you are suggesting that the only way this scenario can be avoided is to never leave your home, or have the supra-human ability to monitor every webpage in the entire internet to make sure your picture isn’t up. And that’s no freedom at all.

    Women already experience a kind of domestic terrorism with the prevalence of rape and sexual assault in our society. We already (often subconsciously) structure our lives and our public mobility to cope with this threat that’s always in the back of your mind when it comes to being in public at all. That’s crappy enough; we don’t need to add this too it…

    If we want to bring in American values, how about the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, as coined by John Locke? Or the foundation of our political system being on Social Contract theory: that we have the right of property in our person and between each other, we are able to make contracts. Where’s the contract here? Where’s the agreement to give right to her person?

    As far as any laws go, at the VERY least:

    1) It needs to be illegal to photograph women “upskirt” and “down-blouse” without express permission.

    2) it needs to be illegal to post any un-consented to image in a sexual context without express permission.

    and maybe 3) it needs to be illegal to distribute any images online that have not been consented to (so this excludes, for example, posed images taken at a party).

    These need actual punishments, not only being forced to remove them.

    These don’t involve regulation, but will at least give women to legal tools to protect themselves after the fact.

    And we still need to keep thinking of a way to let women protect themselves before the fact. After the fact, the damage has already been done to many women’s lives and respectability (most specifically, their careers).

    In addition, as you’ve agreed, we need a cultural revolution in the politics of women’s bodies and sexuality. And I think this conversation can begin with the enactment of said laws. And following the enactment of these laws, perhaps a non-restrictive solution can be that, at least with photosharing sites and blog sites, every time you upload a photograph, there can be a “reminder” of these laws.

  7. funnygirl said,

    Very nice.

  8. […] are a waste of time, I’d go further to say that they’re actually doing harm. This blog post from 2008 provides a good example. It talks about “upskirt” photography which is often allowed to […]

  9. Jill Mastel said,

    I recently learned that my husband has been taking pictures of women in public (their chests and rear ends, especially when bending over). I’m having a hard time dealing with it, especially because his justification is that “it’s the same as taking a picture of a sunset.” He doesn’t post the pictures online (well, since he has a Facebook account under a made up name that I’m not connected to, he very could be posting them on there), but I guess uses them for his own personal satisfaction. Walking away from our marriage over this issue. :(

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