What Revenge Porn Tells Us About Sex and Humiliation

I’m always intrigued by the many ways that sex and shame intertwine in our culture, and “revenge porn” says a lot about that. Revenge porn sites, if you aren’t familiar with them, are designed for men who want to upload sexy photos of their ex-girlfriends and lovers without permission. One of the most common scenarios is for guys to take images that their partners shared with them while they were dating and use them to “get revenge” on them. Whether it’s because of a bad breakup, lingering resentment, or simply a desire to lash out at an ex, it’s taking sexual shaming to a whole new level.

Jill Filipovic and Thomas MacAulay Millar have already done an excellent job of discussing these sites and situating them within the context of the sexual shaming that celebrity women are subjected to, such as Matt Lauer’s insulting comments to Anne Hathaway (and her snappy retort, “I’m sorry that we live in a culture that commodifies sexuality of unwilling participants.“) But there’s an element that I think they both miss.

Our culture loves to humiliate people. One of the reasons “reality shows” are so popular is the possibility of seeing a meltdown. (Actually, given how the shows are designed, it’s pretty much a guarantee.) Think about how many talk shows are structured to give the viewer a chance to shake their heads or boo a speaker. And a quick look at the supermarket checkout stand will give you plenty of examples of articles about “worst beach bodies.” For that matter, what about all of those magazine articles that mock someone’s clothing, makeup, or hair on the red carpet? As a society, we clearly enjoy shaming and humiliating people.

Of course, there’s a clear gender imbalance here. Women are subject to much, much more scrutiny when it comes to physical appearance. Every aspect of a woman’s outfit or hairstyle or presentation is an opportunity for someone to scoff, roll their eyes, or talk about how it shows off all of her “flaws.” According to Brene Brown, men’s shame usually centers on not appearing weak while women’s shame often revolves around not being perfect. It’s no wonder, given that women get attacked for not being flawless.

But in addition to everything that Filipovic and Miller say regarding revenge porn, consent, and sexual assault, I think we also need to ask ourselves why, precisely, we think there’s something so shameful about sex that a photo of a woman giving a blow job or showing her breasts justifies her losing her job or being shamed. Why did the photo of Anne Hathaway without underwear provoke so many responses? Have none of those people ever gone commando themselves? Have none of them ever seen a vulva? And while there’s certainly no shortage of woman-shaming around other aspects of life, why in the world is it so much more virulent, threatening, and pervasive when it comes to sex?

I know that sexism is a huge piece of that. But so is sex-negativity and sexual shame. Plenty of people have written volumes about slut-shaming and how it’s used to police women’s choices. (I’ve had quite a bit to say on the topic, myself.) And what’s often left out of some of those discussions is the fact that sexual shaming only makes sense if you think that sex is shameful. Sexualized shaming of women only makes sense if you think that women’s sexuality is shameful. Getting off on sexualized shaming of women only happens if you get off on shaming and humiliating women.

So ask yourself- do you get a thrill when you see a fashion disaster? Do you enjoy a feeling of smug superiority when you hear about a celebrity trainwreck or when you see someone in a paparazzi photo that shows them simply being human instead of being perfect? If you do, then you might want to consider what makes you different from the men who created or participate on revenge porn sites. It’s easy to attack and blame them for their violations of women’s consent, for their sexualized shaming of their exes, and for being creepy. But maybe it’s time that we take a look at how many ways we create a culture in which their behavior is simply a more extreme version of some behaviors that we don’t even notice anymore. Creepshots are pretty closely related to paparazzi photos, after all.

I’d love to live in a society that doesn’t get off on shaming people. Shame is powerful and while it can serve some positive purposes, as a culture, we’ve allowed ourselves to become hooked on it. I don’t see how that can be a good thing, and I think it’s up to each of us to find healthier ways to move through the world. One step we can take is to stop indulging our taste for shaming, especially sexualized shaming of women. And maybe the next time a celebrity does something embarrassing, we could just let it go. Maybe we could see what it’s like to not mock or shame people. Maybe we could ask ourselves why we get off on humiliating other people, how that shapes our relationships, and what that says about our own choices.

9 Responses so far.

  1. Irene says:

    I’d make one qualification — that there is such a thing as consensual humiliation. Otherwise, yeah. What you said.
    It took me a long time to wrap my brain around why anyone would want to be humiliated for sexual purposes. Finally it occurred to me how deep shame goes, and how powerful it is, and I realized, duh, it’s an incredibly strong force, no wonder there are ways to get off on it. Given how much people associate sex with shame, some are also going to associate shame with sex. But of course that doesn’t make it right to shame others without consent, any more than the existence of masochism makes it right to hurt others without consent.

  2. Irene, absolutely! I think there are just as many differences between the kinds of humiliation play that a lot of people enjoy and the kinds of humiliation I’m talking about, just as there are many differences  between a consensual spanking that is performed by someone who knows how to do it safely and provide aftercare and physical assault.

    Check out Bader’s book Arousal: The Secret Logic of Sexual Fantasies for an interesting perspective on some of what makes things hot. There’s a lot there.

  3. I completely agree (and was about to write “but what about consensual shaming?”, then saw Irene’s reply). I think the reason sexual shame is so popular is fairly obvious — it’s a powerful tool for keeping women in their place in a patriarchal society. If (or hopefully, when!) women let go of that shame, they’ll come to terms with their sexuality, and then no one will be able to stop them from doing whatever they want (sexually). And what happens to our society then? When the entire culture (including religious practices, laws, and values) is built around maintaining monogamy and sexual belonging for the purposes (this is just a thought) of ensuring male paternity (that men know for sure that they are supporting their offspring and the survival of their genes, if they choose to support their offspring at all), getting rid of sexual shame will surely destroy it, and undermine the powers that be. And we’re all so happy with our society the way it is, we surely don’t want that….. :)

  4. Just today, I read another article on this topic. Different point of view, though not perspective, and I couldn’t agree more. I am so glad that you highlight this problematic area.

  5. Tobysgirl says:

    This is very good. I do not understand why people enjoy bullying so much (that’s what it is), and I get angry that we get self-righteous about children bullying other children when all they’re doing is aping adults. As you say, Charlie, look at reality shows! We live in a bullying culture where many people seem to delight in others’ humiliation. And I live in a state with a bullying alcoholic governor, and it’s like the emperor with no clothes; no one mentions his very obvious problem.
    Shame, however, is a complex topic. On the one hand, we are filled with shame and on the other hand we are shameless. We stroke ourselves for being loving and generous, and yet we don’t want our neighbors to have health care or even enough to eat (unless it’s bounty from our philanthropic hands). We want to live without boundaries and limits when it comes to consumption, and we seem to worship greed and ambition. Perhaps we will continue to be filled with shame until we experience healthy shame at the sight of prisons filled with men who smoked marijuana, children with no homes, innocent civilians killed by our aggressive militarism, etc, etc.

  6. matt says:

    great post. Love the Bader book so much. I think that it should be standard reading for people above the age of 15.
     
    Also I hadn’t seen or heard of that Anne Hathaway “event” or her artful dismantling of Lauer and his question.
     
    That said I wonder about a slight variation of “revenge porn” that seems pervasive…the fake agent variety. The conceit is that Woman X wants to get into adult modeling/video and comes in for an interview. The “agent” promises her money and says that she has to engage in sex acts to show that she can do the job and then the tape goes out to producers. But the “agent” isn’t an agent.
    Is the violence being perpetrated that women are gullible? secretly slutty?
    This is the sexual face of “prank shows” like Boiling Point or The Joe Schmo Show (which sets up people in fake reality shows scenarios -so we have a double sense of smugness).
    Anyone want to play armchair social psychologist?

  7. Candy says:

    Charlie Glickman,
     
    Irene,
     I just want to ask, where do you think humiliation fetishes come from? Is it from a society (religious or otherwise) that has shamed people for basic sexuality that we link shame with sex? 
    I don’t think humiliation is empowering at all. Explain to me the audience for humiliation porn, especially men who watch it. What does it say about them? There’s porn videos with Sasha Grey being called a worthless fuck pig, told to lick the toilet, and before being anally penetrated, told “it’s anal, it’s supposed to hurt.” There’s other porn with men intentionally cumming in girls’ eyes, giving them mops to “mop up that shit like the good cum whore you are.” Other porn involving women called stupid sluts, good for nothing whores, told to lick the floor and slapped to shut up   and take it. Yet more porn (think Max Hardcore) with girls being gagged until they actually vomit or told to “cry like a pretty bitch for the camera.”
    Do you believe the men who watch this porn, (which is, by the way, not even obscure), respect women? Or is the reason they’re watching in the first place because they don’t? Who cares if they can separate reality from fantasy, who cares about consent? You shouldn’t need to separate from reality in the first place- are their certain girls you can abuse and others you can respect? This is perpetuating the whore/madonna myth. This is the whole reason girls are perpetually called whores, sluts, etc in porn- because society has designated a shameful term for women who enjoy sex. 
    It’s disgusting enough that this exists, and even more disgusting that some feminists don’t think of where it comes from.

  8. Kasey Weird says:

    Candy,
    re: humiliation porn. I find it really interesting that you are knowledgeable enough to reference specific performers (Sasha Grey) but haven’t gone that extra step to consider or include their experiences and interpretation of the work in which they appear. Grey is a fantastic example of a woman who deliberately and with foresight, planning and awareness, made a career for herself in the adult industry, specifically in a number of extreme genres. She practically had a bucket list of kinds of films she wanted to make, and she made them. When she was done, she stopped.
    I’m sure she’d tell you that people she was performing with (the men calling her a pig, etc.) didn’t see her as less than human just because they (consensually) treated her that way for the space of the scene – I know that she has always contested that she was very much in control of her career and the things that she did/that were done to her in porn scenes. And I’m sure that the men who consume porn are capable of the same kind of differentiation as men who perform in it. It’s true that some men have no respect for women and see them objects only for their own pleasure, but most do not. Even the ones who enjoy humiliation as a part of their sexual fantasy life, or of their physical sexual life.
     
    Do I find the prevalence of these images of women in mainstream porn disturbing? Absolutely. It’s sad that the primary narrative (and yes, it does sometimes feel like it’s the only narrative we see) of heterosexual sex is violent and degrading. But I don’t inherently judge the people who participate in and enjoy this type of porn, either. People are complex creatures, and to reduce their attitude toward women to some subset of the images they enjoy sexually is patently unfair.

  9. Candy, I think we need to be careful with these sorts of questions because there are many different reasons people have the fantasies they have. Here’s a post I wrote on the topic. I think a more relevant issue is whether someone’s fetish, fantasy, or sexual practice supports their well-being or not. And the only way to do that is to ask them what their experience is and how they feel about it during and after a sexual encounter. In my opinion, it would be arrogant of me to decide what someone’s sexual desires or practices means about them.

    Having said that, I do think that there is a lot of humiliation porn that isn’t about the pleasure of the participants and I know that some companies’ working and business practices are really problematic. That needs to change, for sure.

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