Save Lives: Stop Treating Nudity as Scandalous

A few years ago, a young girl’s suicide shocked the USA. Thirteen-year-old Izabel Laxamana jumped off an overpass and died after being shamed in a very public fashion by her father. Namely, he cut off her hair, taunted her for it after the fact, and filmed this to immortalize the punishment.

While controversy raged across the country over whether her father’s shaming itself had led to her death, a local news source reported that the police investigating her case — having read her suicide notes — concluded that she was driven to suicide largely because she’d been “worried the photo she’d sent to a boy would haunt her for the rest of her life.”

Countless news outlets referred to the photo in question as a “suggestive photo.” “Suggestive,” of course, is a very loaded and subjective term. But what was this photo?

It wasn’t even a nude.

Rather, according to Slate, it was a picture of Izabel Laxamana in “a sports bra and some leggings.”

Please pause to recognize the full weight of this tragedy: a 13-year-old girl felt so much shame and intimidation about having sent a photo of herself in a sports bra and leggings that she died by suicide. That is, as police explained, she feared that having sent such a “suggestive” photo” had already ruined her future.

Her death raised important and timely questions in the United States about the (in)appropriateness of public shaming as a parenting tactic. In the words of Teen Vogue: “Parents and adults are always speaking out against bullying, but don’t they realize this is exactly what they’re doing to their kids when they do this?”

That’s a conversation we need to keep having.

But I recall being confused and alarmed throughout that entire news cycle about the fact that no one seemed to be pointing a finger at the lethal misogyny undergirding everything. We shouldn’t strictly have been asking whether public shaming is abusive; we should also have been asking what is wrong with our society, overall, when a kid and her family can get so freaked out by the “risk” of her sending a semi-revealing picture that she would be brutally shamed and panicked into ending her own life.

Would Izabel Laxamana still be alive if our society weren’t so maddeningly puritanical? I think, within that question, lies the real tragedy of what happened to her. Yes, I agree with those who say her father’s punishment was abusive. And sure, teenagers “make mistakes” — but how big of a “mistake,” truly, is a “sports bra and some leggings”? That is, how wrong is such a photo?

The real mistake, the real wrong, is on the society that would treat a “suggestive photo”as a scandalous transgression in the first place; it’s heartbreaking that a teenage girl could be cowed into believing that a flirty picture she takes at age 13 could ruin her life… and that her father could be so driven to frenzy by the same fear that he’d go to abusive extremes in order to rein her conduct in… Yet, given how fiercely grown women are derided and defamed for the sexualized images of themselves that surface — no matter how old—who can blame any girl for fearing the same?

But they shouldn’t have to fear it. Because it shouldn’t even be a source of shame.

The Laxamana case has come back to mind for me recently because of a great recent piece in OneZero by Lux Alptraum:

Alptraum talks about the threats of DeepNude technology, whereby a new app can “transform a clothed photo of any woman into a convincing nude image using machine learning.” The article goes on to talk about how, before this technology existed, there were other modes by which women were shamed for fabricated, sexualized images (e.g., Photoshop). Moreover, the article brings up cases where women have been shamed for real nude photos, whether these images were correctly or incorrectly attributed to them.

Alptraum discusses how the law, which has begun catching up on issues like revenge porn and the unlawful distribution of authentic images, has yet to catch up with potential problems regarding the distribution of fake images.

But she also rightly highlights that, in conversations like this, we are still largely missing the point:

“(W)hen men are publicly undressed, it rarely becomes the talking point that women’s naked bodies do. Jennifer Lawrence’s leaked nude photos defined her public image for years; Kanye West’s leaked nudes barely made a blip on the radar. Our society is set up to weaponize women’s sexuality against them [….] So long as our discussion focuses on who owns the images that are being distributed, or how they were created, rather than the harm they are being used to cause, the abuse and bullying of women will continue: with or without advanced tech and A.I.”

In other words, it’s great to raise awareness of new threats and to figure out how to protect women from new technologies and forms of abuse — yes, let’s keep discussing that. But doesn’t legislation on images — real or fake — feel like little more than a band-aid? We should live in a world where women don’t have to be afraid of naked or “suggestive” pictures of themselves. Alptraum astutely points out:

Fully recognizing women as complex human beings who are entitled to both privacy and rich, complicated sexual lives — giving women the same sympathy, respect, and understanding we give men — is a far more effective tactic than calls to halt the progress of technology, or whack-a-mole-like attempts to get ahead of the next iteration of DeepNude.

This is all absolutely true… but I also wonder, why should nude or sexualized photos even require “sympathy”?

I’m not saying that women shouldn’t care when their privacy has been violated. We all should care. I’m not saying, either, that women shouldn’t care when others try to smear them by using their bodies as a source of shame. Rather, I’m saying that the only reason there is any “power” in nudes and in “suggestive” photos — fake or otherwise—is because society treats the sexualized body (and sex itself) as a thing of immense shame. There may be a gender skew in this reaction, but it is more than a misogynistic issue; it is also a basic moralistic one, grounded in ancient religions.

So yes, let’s start with our change-making there. Instead of pouring our energy into attacking the various forms that public shaming might take — a sisyphean task, given trends in the evolution of technology and society—and trying to be more “understanding” of women for occasionally taking nude photos, why don’t we simply eliminate our own knee-jerk shame response about nudity altogether?

Commodities hold no currency when we cease to ascribe value (and value judgments) to them. What if we treated the nude or suggestive images that we encountered as no big deal? Because, really, they aren’t a big deal. Nudity is natural. Nearly 90% of adults sext, and more than 1 in 10 minors do. Sharing suggestive photos is highly normative behavior for most human beings in this era, in this country.

Shaming people for enjoying their own bodies by sharing those bodies with a partner — or, rather, shaming people simply for having bodies that are sometimes naked — is puritanical insanity. The problem isn’t the technology, or even the law. The problem is the fact that we see particular shades of dress or undress as a thing of scandal (and therefore we treat revealing images as a lapse of judgment that demands sympathy) in the first place.

Naked and sexualized images are only a “big deal” because some of us, men and women, have decided that they are. And we can change our perspectives on that — which means we can change that paradigm.

Alptraum is right to point out that these images cause harm. Her article primarily draws on politician and performer examples in discussing the harm that women experience (e.g., professional embarrassment) when revealing images of themselves are distributed. But for some, it’s more than professional embarrassment or emotional pain that results. Namely, personal safety can be compromised. Just think back to Izabel Laxamana, the 13-year-old girl whose images weren’t even nude, and weren’t even leaked: regardless, she faced abusive backlash, enacted upon her physical being, by someone in her very own family. And, of course, Laxamana suffered a mental health crisis after having internalized just how destructive the puritanical misogyny of our broader society can be. It was the latter fact for which her life ended.

How much safer would all women and girls be from public humiliation and its repercussions if society simply — and truly — felt nonchalant about female nudity? And how can we help society get there?

Love, sex, dreams, soul, adventure, healing, feeling. I kinda experience life as magical.

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