In defence of online nudity

Eloise Sykes explores the stigmas surrounding online nudity, and how women have both passive and active roles in the way they are sexualised in the media

When Snapchat first emerged, it prompted some mixed responses. “Why ever,” I heard a friend’s mother ask, “would someone want to send a photo that deletes after ten seconds?” However, to us, the accursed porn generation, the answer seemed obvious. In reality, you are unlikely to receive anything more titillating (excuse the pun), than a friend’s odd attempt to “face swap” with someone’s breast. (Disclaimer: it’s not that effective). At the other end of the spectrum, self-published nudes are occupying the more permanent areas of the cyber world, such as Instagram and Twitter. My first response would be positive. Finally, the world is getting over the fact that under our clothes everyone is naked. Unfortunately, this response is too optimistic.

Kim Kardashian’s nude Instagram selfie is no longer news but the public response it garnered remains newsworthy. As Bette Midler tweeted, “If Kim wants us to see a part of her we’ve never seen, she’s gonna have to swallow the camera”. And, there we have it: Kim’s notorious sex tape that resurfaces anytime she disappoints her public. She is in good company: Paris Hilton’s sex tape was infamously leaked in 2004, Pamela Anderson’s in 1998 and 2005, and many reading this will have seen Jennifer Lawrence’s hacked nudes. However, this is a gendered battlefield.How many of you know about Colin Farrell’s leaked sex tape with Playboy model Nicola Narain? Knowing this probably won’t affect your enjoyment of “In Bruges” and I am yet to hear it mentioned in interviews. But, I hear you cryKim Kardashian and Paris Hilton have no talent. No wonder people only care about their sex lives. Well, regardless of what you think of them as individuals, financially speaking, they are two of the most successful entrepreneurs alive today. Yet as soon as Kim uploads a (censored) nude to her own Instagram account, the Internet is awash, yet again, with angry keyboard warriors, desperate to reduce her to a sex tape released over a decade ago. Why?

“All women, not just the Kim Kardashians and Paris Hiltons of the world, are at risk of having their perceived sexuality used against them”

It seems people are angry that Kim got naked for the “wrong” reasons. It wasn’t to further women’s suffrage, it wasn’t for charity or to raise awareness for an important cause. Crucially, it also wasn’t anything we hadn’t seen before. With people outraged at the prospect that this image was a mere publicity stunt, I am personally more concerned by the fact that Kim’s $75,000 diamond earring could also have been dropped in the ocean as a publicity stunt, when instead it could have been donated to a charity. But no, that’s just the Kardashians being the Kardashians. It’s fine to share that video on Facebook and laugh at it. Sharing some post-childbirth body positivity, however, is not to be tolerated.

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You don’t need this article to realize that women’s sexuality is often used to delegitimize them. Only a few weeks ago, journalists were clamouring for the punchiest headline to describe Theresa May’s neckline at what has come to be described as the “busty budget” announcement. Hey, it’s not like anything else mildly life changing came out of that meeting, right? For better or worse, Theresa May is the most senior woman in British politics. That she occupies a woman-shaped form should not be seen as a legitimate means of robbing her of professionalism. Such reporting proves how all women, not just the Kim Kardashians and Paris Hiltons of the world, are at risk of having their perceived sexuality used against them.

“We all know that ‘sex sells’ but surely it would be more honest to say ‘sex is sold'”

Much of the online responses were framed as disappointment at Kim “prostituting herself”. Not only is this hugely telling of society’s blinkered views on sex work but it also reveals our discomfort at female sexual agency. The problem is not that Kim is being sold, but that she is selling herself. The sex industry is not without fault but I do not think that the world’s oldest profession is inherently flawed. The issues are underhand dealings, the abuse of power and exploitation of people, not the transaction itself. Plus, let’s not pretend that those decrying Kim’s alleged prostitution are concerned about the nasty side effects of sex work. Not at all.They are offended by something far worse, that is female control over her body.

To “prostitute herself” implies, rightly, that Kim has agency. As voyeurs of a family who are prepared to air even the most intimate and distressing moments on international television, is it really so disturbing that Kim is prepared to use her naked body for publicity? If so, then you should probably reassess your understanding of reality television. We all know that “sex sells” but surely it would be more honest to say “sex is sold”. This example is just one instance of one woman selling her own sexuality amidst a sea of women whose sexuality is being sold for them by someone more powerful or, dare I say it, more masculine.

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So, let’s not kid ourselves that the problem is the nudity or the selling of sex. Nowadays, you can’t even catch a bus or turn on the TV without being confronted by adverts depicting naked women draped over car bonnets, or hearing the satisfied moaning of a female Herbal Essences shopper mid-shower. We are bombarded with naked, sexualised female bodies every single day: the only difference in this case seems to be female control. People complain that Kim’s selfie is photoshopped. Don’t like being deceived? Well, where exactly do you imagine Nicole Scherzinger finds those orgasm-inducing Müller yoghurts? Your discomfort is not at the hyper-sexualisation, the beauty ideals, or the nudity. That is something to which you are most likely anaesthetized, thanks to our advertising industry. Instead, you are squirming in your seat at the prospect of a woman who is willing to commodify herself and reap the benefits from such a decision. You are witnessing the fact that sex sells, your discomfort is caused merely by the fact that, here it’s being sold willingly and by its owner.