AN OBJECTION BY EMMA HOLTEN
On a regular October morning in 2011 I couldn’t access my email or Facebook. I didn’t think anything of it – I forget passwords all the time – and just tried again. Waiting for me upon entry were hundreds of messages and emails.
Messages and emails with pictures of me in them.
One: me, naked, in my ex-boyfriend’s darkened room. Seventeen, a little awkward, slightly hunched forward: a harmless attempt at sexiness.
Another: two years later, in my room in Uppsala, Sweden. Older, a little more confident, but not a whole lot.
What had happened was apparent: the pictures were now online. I had become one of the thousands, hundreds of thousands, of girls thrown into the porn industry against their will. I thought “how bad can this really be?” The guys at school would find it hilarious, probably; talk about it for ten minutes: “Holy shit, have you seen Emma?” It was humiliating, of course, but I’ve never been ashamed of my body or my sexuality. No doubt, I wished it had never happened, but I couldn’t have imagined the next two years.
The weeks passed and more messages trickled in. I was on sites filled with pictures of my fellow victims, women who’d never intended their pictures to be public, who’d never wanted attention from more than one person.
“Men love naked women,” I thought “I knew as much.” But their questions in my inbox made it clear that the appeal did not rest solely upon my apparent nudity.
DO YOUR PARENTS KNOW THAT UR A SLUT?
DID U GET FIRED?
WHAT’S THE STORY BEHIND THIS?
WHO DID THIS TO YOU?
SEND ME MORE NUDES OR ILL SEND THE ONES I HAVE TO YOUR BOSS.
These messages were from men all over the world. Teen boys, university students, nuclear-family dads. The only thing they had in common was that they were all men. They knew it was against my will, that I didn’t want to be on those sites. The realisation that my humiliation turned them on felt like a noose around my neck. The absence of consent was erotic, they relished my suffering.
It’s one thing to be sexualised by people who are attracted to you, but it’s quite another thing when the lack of a ‘you’, when dehumanization, is the main factor. I realised that if I had been a model sexualising herself I would have been of little interest. My body was not the appealing factor. Furthermore, I saw that my loss of control legitimised the harrasment. I was a fallen woman, anyone’s game. What was I aside from a whore who had got what she deserved?
*** *** ***
Then, suddenly, I noticed that this dynamic – sexualisation against her will – was everywhere. Take ‘creepshots’, a global phenomenon which entails photographing women without their knowledge or consent, in order to share them in a sexual context online. On similar sites, people link to Facebook pages asking if anyone can hack or find more pictures of the girl. Here, again, women are used as objects whose lack of consent, of participation, provides the reason and allure of their sexualisation.
This dynamic is a commonplace online and is a concrete manifestation of a larger discourse around the female body, the notion that it is erotic to sexualise someone who is unaware. We all know the tropes: the sexy teacher/student/nurse/waiter/bartender/doctor. All jobs, if staffed by women, can be sexualised. What is sexy is not the job, not even the woman, but the fact that while the woman is just doing her job you are secretly sexualising her. She has become public property by simply being?
The danger is not in arousal or finding another person arousing, but in the idea that a sexually arousing situation in which two people take part, can exist without one of the party’s consent. Feminists are often singled out and ridiculed for our critique of catcalling, the suggestion is that we cannot handle it. Of course we can. Rather, our critique is directed at how it positions the female body in public spaces. It is an object, to be sexualised, even if the woman to whom the body belongs is working/shopping/picking up her kids/waiting for the bus. It is a notification that, whatever she is up to, a person is passing and sexualising her. Catcalling forcefully moves the female body from a non-sexual to a sexual situation.
If the men who contacted me thought about my humiliation, about my humanity, would they still write me? If you viewed women as beings with their own autonomy and sexuality, would you feel you had the right to photograph them without their knowledge? If catcallers saw women as complex individual people would they forcefully enter their private sphere? No. No, because such actions can only be justified if the female body is fetischized as an object. Not an object like a dice or a winter coat, but an object for your utilization. Forcing a person to play a part that you need them to play.
Because such actions only take place when you forget, or do not know that a situation in which one participant has not consented is not a sexual situation. It’s just a situation with you and someone you find sexy. Nothing more.
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Seeking out my pictures, and the pictures of my fellow victims, is to actively participate in the dehumanization of the female body. To do so is to forget that these women are people who, by sexualizing themselves for one person, have not become sexualized objects. To do so forgets that no person deserves to be reduced to an object.
But, it is also dangerous. For, if one is exposed to the objectification of women for long enough, one will internalize it. Worse, those who are objectified will internalize it too. When you are told enough times that you do not deserve to be treated as someone of worth, you lie in bed at night andbegin to agree. It has been a huge task for me to muster any kind of self-worth after being told every day for three years that I don’t deserve it.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how I could possibly stop hating my body. I blamed it for my humiliation. Why did it make people treat me that way? Would I ever be able to look at myself and see a human being?
There is no easy solution to such thoughts. You are caught between a wish to never be seen again and a determination not to live a life ruled by shame.
I thought about this a long while.
*** *** ***
I would have to write a new story about my body in order to make it possible to see myself naked and still see myself as human. I decided that a sort of re-humanisation had to happen.
I talked to the photographer Cecilie Bødker. She told me that photographing unclothed women without catering to the male gaze and sexualising them was almost impossible. Would it be possible for her to take pictures of me without my clothes on, where it was obvious that I was, in fact, a human being deserving of respect? We gave it a try. This isn’t just about me getting better. It’s also about problematising and experimenting with the roles we most see naked women portraying. We seldom smile, are in control, live. We never look, we’re always looked at.
The pictures are an attempt at making me a sexual subject instead of an object. I am not ashamed of my body, but it is mine. Consent is key. Just as rape and sex have nothing to do with each other, pictures shared with and without consent are completely different things.
Artwork © Cecilie Bødker and Emma Holten (http://friktionmagasin.dk/?p=1568)