Non-consensual pornography—frequently called “revenge porn”—describes nude or sexually suggestive photos shared in a manner or context that the subject did not consent to, often with the intent to humiliate, intimidate, or extort the victim. In many cases, these pics are distributed by someone who received (or was allowed to take) them on the assumption that they would remain private.

While non-consensual pornography is not unique to social media, these platforms have made it easier to distribute images anonymously/pseudonymously to a wide audience. Nude or sexual pics are non-consensually distributed through dedicated websites; subforms on Reddit, 4chan, and their many offshoots; “dump accounts” on Twitter or Tumblr; torrent sites (particularly for celeb photos); and the Dark Web (for underage or otherwise illegal content).

In the past couple of years, non-consensual pornography has increasingly been discussed in the news media. One recent scandal that made headlines centered on “Marines United” Facebook page, where current and former marines were caught sharing and commenting on images of their female colleagues. Many of these images were “creepshots” taken without the knowledge of the women.

Another high profile incident occurred in 2014, when nearly 500 nude images of dozens of celebrities (mostly women) were leaked on message boards such as Reddit and 4chan; this event has been dubbed “Celebgate” (or “The Fappening”). Hackers managed to steal these images by compromising the security of celebrities’ own iCloud accounts. Though the original Celebgate hackers were caught and convicted, other hackers continue to target celebrities and leak their photos.

Perhaps the most infamous hub for non-consensual pornography was, which allowed users to post amateur pics they took of ex girlfriends, people having sex at parties, women in public, etc (and in some cases paid contributors). The website existed for a couple years before its creator, Hunter Moore, shut it down in 2012, complaining that he had to spend an average of three hours a day reporting underage submissions. Moore said of his victims:

They’re just stupid people. All I really do is take advantage of them.

Moore was eventually arrested and prosecuted in 2014. He accepted a plea deal of 2.5 years in prison for “unauthorized access to a protected computer to obtain information for purposes of private financial gain and one count of aggravated identity theft.” But he was only charged in connection with the files he purchased from hackers, not for the much larger number of lawfully obtained non-consensual pornographic images (and, yes, that sentence makes sense under current federal law).

In light of these events and countless other incidences of sexual images shared without permission by former partners and friends—or even strangers—non-consensual pornography has become the focus of lobbying organizations such as Without My Consent, campaigns by celebrities, and some journalists who have taken up this beat. One result of such attention is that several states have passed (or debated) criminal statutes specific to prosecuting non-consensual pornography, but not the federal government.

While the non-consensual sharing of pornographic images appears to be disturbingly widespread, it is difficult to track and tally these instances. Beyond the practical issue that it would be difficult to collect such information is the moral issue that such efforts could potentially bring further exposure and harm to victims. One thing we do know is that consensual sharing of pornographic images via digital media is increasingly common: A 2013 Pew survey* found that 18% of people ages 18-29 report sending sexually suggestive pictures or video of themselves with a cell phone. 42% of people in this age group reported receiving such images. Responses were similar for both single people and those in relationships.

Historically, copyright has been the main legal tool for prosecuting non-consensual pornography (at least in case of selfies). I’m certainly not going to criticize victims for using the only tools available, but this leads to absurd consequences—not the least of which is that copyright tends to vindicate those who share images without consent if they happened to be the one taking the photo.

John Oliver on non-consensual pornography, copyright, and victim blaming.

More importantly, treating non-consensual pornography as copyright infringement misses the point: The thing that actually upsets us in these case is not misuse of content but the denial of a person’s right to self-determination, particularly with regards what happens to one’s own body. I would suggest that that non-consensual pornography is more akin to sexual assault than pirating music via Bittorrent.

This disconnect between our experiences and public policy indicates a need to make sense of the deeper relationship going here—not the one bound up in copyright, property, and ownership, but, instead, what it is like to experience being the subject of non-consensual pornography and the sense of violation we feel when the control we have over our selves is taken from us.

The issue of non-consensual pornography highlights the increasingly intimate connection between our bodies and digital technologies. However, the technological mediation of our bodies is not something uniquely digital. Phenomenologists and other theorists long observed the blurring of boundaries between flesh and machine; these cyborganic relations just have never fully achieved popular and legal recognition.

Incorporation and Feeling Digital Media

I think it is particularly useful to consider the experience phenomenologists described as incorporation (i.e., the idea that we can come to experience foreign objects as being part of the body, part of our selves). Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1945), Phenomenology of Perception explains:

those actions in which I habitually engage incorporate their instruments into themselves and make them play a part in the original structure of my own body. (p. 104)

To get used to a hat, a car or a stick is to be transplanted into them, or conversely, to incorporate them into the bulk of our own body. Habit expresses our power of dilating our being-in-the-world, or changing our existence by appropriating fresh instruments. (p. 166)

Going further back to Heidegger we have an idea that tools (such as a hammer) can become almost invisible to us so long as they function properly. We feel as though our agency extends through such objects. Martin Heidegger (1927), Being and Time, explained:

The less we just stare at the hammer-thing, and the more we seize hold of it and use it, the more primordial does our relationship to it become, and the more unveiledly is it encountered as that which it is—as equipment. The hammering itself uncovers the specific “manipulability” of the hammer. The kind of Being which equipment possesses—in which it manifests itself in its own right—we call “readiness-to-hand”.

Similarly, Merleau-Ponty (p. 176) gives the example of a blind man learning to use a walking cane:

Once the stick has become a familiar instrument, the world of feelable things recedes and now begins, not at the outer skin of the hand, but at the end of the stick… The pressures on the hand and stick are no longer given; the stick is no longer an object perceived by the blind man, but an instrument with which he perceives.

There are other accounts of similar processes in social theory. Marshall McLuhan (Playboy, 1969) expanded this notion even further, suggesting that electronic media are an extension of our entire central nervous system. He also talks about the experience of driving—how the car can dissolve into our consciousness and we can forget that we are even driving:

The electric media are the telegraph, radio, films, telephone, computer and television, all of which have not only extended a single sense or function as the old mechanical media did — i.e., the wheel as an extension of the foot, clothing as an extension of the skin, the phonetic alphabet as an extension of the eye — but have enhanced and externalized our entire central nervous systems, thus transforming all aspects of our social and psychic existence.

Perhaps most relevant is a 2012 dissertation by Amy Taylor about a man left impotent after treatment for prostate cancer and, to his surprise, he discovers that he can experience orgasm using a strap-on dildo with his wife.

[The patient went] from regarding the dildo as a “piece of purple plastic” to an “organ” of his own body, and experiences the dildo as such—evidenced not only by his explicit statements, but by his ability to achieve sexual satisfaction through the dildo, a striking example of an object working in concert with the body, or extending the body beyond the skin.

The most radical aspect of our ability to incorporate objects into the body is the recognition that human subjectivity extends beyond the flesh—that objects become part of us—part of our perception of the world and part of our perception of ourselves. We generally describe such incorporated objects as “prostheses,” and we have argued that this is how we have come to relate to our social media profiles and our smartphones. It’s why when someone makes a negative comment, we feel hurt; and if they hack our accounts, we feel violated; and if we lend our phone to someone, we feel uneasy. These objects have become “digital prostheses.”

And, like Heidegger’s hammer, when these technologies work well, they seem to nearly vanish from our perception, creating the possibility for intimacy—for meaningful connection (perhaps one that is even felt physically) between two (or more) people. This perspective suggests that if we are going to makes sense of revenge porn as assaulting a person (and not just as an inappropriate use of property), then we to stop reifying conventionally held boundaries between subject and object; producer and product; person and thing—and I’d say even online and offline. The concept of digital prostheses suggests an extension of moral regard beyond flesh and blood to all things a person experiences as integral to his or her subjectivity.

This concept follows in the footsteps of Sandy Stone (“Split Subjects, Not Atoms; or, How I Fell in Love with My Prosthesis,” 1994), who also examined the intimacy of our relationships with machines. In her observation of a phone sex collective, she suggests “what was being sent back and forth over the wires wasn’t just information, it was bodies.”

Stone coined the term “split” subjectivity to describe subjectivity embodied by two or more media. In other words, phone sex operators were not only embodied by flesh and blood but also by the medium through which they worked. She concludes that new media are forcing us to reimagine where the bounds of self stops and starts:

virtual systems are [perceived as] dangerous because the agency/body coupling so diligently fostered by every facet of our society is in danger of becoming irrelevant

However, rather than emphasizing the distinctiveness of the materials that mediate our experience (as Stone does), I think it is more useful to emphasize the coherence and continuity of that experience, so (drawing on past work with Whitney Erin Boesel), I prefer to describe this state as “augmented subjectivity.”

One chief assumption of this perspective is that all interactions and experiences are mediated. Flesh itself is a medium. No interactions are any more or less “real” than others, just differently mediated.

Bodily Integrity as an Alternate Framework to Privacy or Context Integrity

We need to expand our sense moral regard to accommodate the new, digital-mediated reality confronting us. In particular, I believe that the conversation about non-consensual pornography needs to be recentered from property rights, or even privacy, to the concept of “bodily integrity.” Helen Nissenbaum’s (2004) work on “context integrity” is an important bridge concept here. She observes new surveillance and information technologies strain conventional notions of privacy. When it was assumed that surveillance technologies were bulky and limited in scope,

public surveillance is determined not to be a privacy problem. Because this conclusion is at odds with the intuition and judgment of many people, it warrants more than simple dismissal.

Nissenbaum suggests that, rather than ignoring these concerns, we need a new model—a paradigm shift—that can account for them. (This, of course, is exactly what we are suggesting is needed to address the sense of violation experienced by victims of non-consensual pornography). Her concept of “context integrity” suggests that, when considering whether it is proper to collect or share information, we need to consider norms about what sort of information is appropriate in various spaces as well as how freely the information was expected to flow when it was initially disclosed. Important to our discussion of non-consensual pornography, Nissenbaum observes “appropriating information from one situation and inserting it in another can constitute a violation.”

While the disruption of context integrity is one aspect of why the experience of non-consensually sharing of nude or sexually suggestive images is so violating, it does not fully account for the intensity of this experience of violation. To understand this, we need to also consider bodily integrity.

The concept of bodily integrity assume that we have a privileged relationship to our own bodies—a right to determine what happens to them and, above all, how other people relate to them.

After the Celebgate release of private nude images stolen from her computer, Jennifer Lawrence spoke out about her experience in a way that gets to the heart why digital images are an issue of bodily integrity

Those pictures were incredibly personal to me — and my naked body I haven’t shown on camera by choice — it’s my body. I felt angry at websites reposting them. … I can’t really describe to you the feeling that took a very long time to go away, wondering at any point who is just passing my body around. Who’s got a picture of my body on their phone and is at a barbecue and looking at them. It was an unshakable, really awful feeling that after it healed a little bit made me incredibly angry.

Lawrence identifies with the photos not just as something she’s created and put out into the world but as “my body”—something that is still part of her. This loss of control over self left her shaken.

Though women celebrities like Lawrence are accustomed to being publicly objectified, she makes it clear that having images of her body shared without consent felt profoundly violating. This experience of violation is likely even more profound for people who are less accustomed to public exposure. Nevertheless, people of all types—and, particularly, women—are increasingly likely to be victims of non-consensual pornography.

What this discussion, and the concept of digital prostheses, suggests is that our pictures and profiles are not merely representations of us; rather, they are us, in some important sense. As such, they merit greater respect and protection than can be provided by laws and norms against privacy—or even context—violations. We must treat non-consensual pornography as a matter of bodily integrity.

* Download crosstabs to find these statistics.


PJ Patella-Rey (@pjrey) is a Founding Editor at Cyborgology and a PhD candidate at the University of Maryland.