A Cost of the Stigma Against Nudity: Blackmailed Teenage Girls

Society gains nothing from making so many people feel that mere images of their own bodies are cause for shame.
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Starting in the mid-1950s, closeted gays were targeted by a ring of extortionists who posed as corrupt vice cops. These extortionists successfully blackmailed prominent Americans by threatening to expose their homosexuality. Their victims included "a navy admiral, two generals, a U.S. congressman, a prominent surgeon, an Ivy League professor, a prep school headmaster, and several well-known actors, singers, and television personalities," William McGowan wrote in his brief history. The FBI and NYPD put aside their anti-gay prejudice, teamed up, and busted the ring in 1966. The extortionists were guilty of awful behavior, and law enforcement deserves kudos for stopping them. In hindsight, it's also easy to see the role that anti-gay prejudice played in their crime. Gays were blackmailed in part because being out meant censure, ridicule, even violence. There's still anti-gay bigotry in the U.S., but not enough to sustain a blackmail ring of that sort.

This week in Tennessee, three high school boys face charges of aggravated sexual exploitation after allegedly soliciting naked texts from female classmates under the guise of romantic interest, uploading the images to an email account, and threatening to send the photographs to their parents and other students unless they sent more naked photos of themselves. Law enforcement often overreacts to sexting, filing child pornography charges against teens engaged in consensual sharing with a boyfriend or girlfriend. But if the charges prove accurate in this case, police deserve kudos for intervening, and the boys deserve to get jail time. 

As in gay blackmail cases of bygone decades, however, the problem doesn't end with extortionist depravity. It's a sad commentary on society that nudity remains so stigmatized that photos of breasts, vaginas, and penises, which are as ubiquitous on the Internet as silly cat photos, remain powerful enough to have anxious teens cowering in fear of their own bodies being exposed. Evidently, sharing naked photos of oneself with romantic interests is now common. I'll spare you the list of celebrity examples. Folks who do this seem to feel okay about it at the time.

Yet nude photo blackmail is common, says Kashmir Hill, who recalls an Indiana case where a 14-year-old was lured into the woods and assaulted by a boy who threatened to release a breast photo. Adults are victims too. "The Web is littered with stories of hackers and jerks getting access to adults' nude photos and blackmailing them," Hill writes. "One San Francisco woman had her iPhone stolen at a bar in December; according to ABC News, six days after the phone went missing, a man in Peru who purchased it emailed her naked photos she had on the phone and tried to extort her for $6,000, threatening to send the photos to contacts in her phone."

Obviously, blackmailers should be prosecuted.

What seems less evident is that we'd be better off living in a society where images of a naked celebrity or coworker or high school classmate weren't met with reflexive opprobrium, fear of which makes the blackmail possible. True, there are things people aren't ashamed of doing that they wouldn't want their parents to see. Most married couples would be horrified if a sex tape of their wedding night, the most culturally acceptable time to have sex, were sent to their parents or broadcast on TV. But in so many instances of nude photo blackmail, there's no sex, just a grainy nude image. And nudity alone, without even a provocative pose, is enough for stigma and blackmail.   

In "Pointless Shame: The English Speaking World's Issue with Women's Breasts," I told the story of young teen Amanda Todd, who committed suicide after a photo of her exposed breasts, initially obtained by an extortionist, was circulated among her peers, who bullied her mercilessly. "As a parent," I wrote, "I'll warn my kids about the permanence of the Web and its perils. I'll particularly want them to understand the potential consequences of naked images of their bodies winding up online. It's prudent to teach kids how to navigate prevailing social norms, whatever they may be. But don't stories like this one demand something more from us than cautioning? When a child is bullied to the point of suicide partly because a photo of her breasts was circulated to her friends and family, shouldn't we ask ourselves why the Anglosphere retains social norms wherein being seen topless is regarded as horrifying and shameful?"   

The cruel bullies are the worst.

But the mindset that makes bullying on this subject possible is pervasive. It tempts most Americans. Seth McFarlane's Oscar song, "We Saw Your Boobs," could've only been performed in a country where it's common. It caused us to treat Anthony Weiner as if his dick photos were more scandalous than pols who had sex with women not their wives but whose packages never made Twitter. It's the mindset that caused People magazine to headline a story about a beautiful princess photographed topless while sunbathing at a private home with her new husband, "Inside Kate's Nightmare." It's the mindset that caused Americans to sit through the hypersexualized content of countless Super Bowl commercials and halftime show choreography without objecting, only to freak out at the split-second exposure of Janet Jackson's nipple.

The typical exasperated comment would be, "What a bunch of absurd prudes we are," but that isn't right. At least if we were prudes, stigmatizing nudity would make some kind of internally consistent sense. We'd be on constant guard against sexual arousal, premarital sex, and lusting after the opposite sex in our hearts. But the stigmas against all the things nudity might lead to in the minds of concerned traditionalists have fallen away. Nudity is almost alone in remaining shameful.

In other words, the stigma makes less sense than ever.

Ridiculing the exposed isn't a last redoubt of social conservatism or religiosity. There are, of course, consistent traditionalists who counsel physical modesty, among many other things, as part of a life well lived. That's fine. I am not advocating any kind of imperative to strip off one's clothes. Modesty is fine. But show me a college student being ridiculed as a "dirty slut" after topless photos circulate on campus and I'll show you bullies who are perfectly comfortable with the sexual revolution, birth control, abortion, and thong underwear. And as they perpetuate this stigma, they treat breasts and genitals as dirty objects to fetishize, not as a lovely part of the human form. For that reason alone, God-fearing traditionalists ought to understand these bullies as particular enemies.

What does contemporary American society gain from a stigma against nudity?

I'd argue nothing very worthwhile. If you're already living in a secular, hypersexualized country where sex is routinely used to sell consumer products, most naked bodies people see are air brushed models who look nothing like the average person, body image anxiety results in epidemic anorexia and bulimia, and effectively limitless images of naked bodies can be accessed on any computer or smart phone at a moment's notice, what possible case is there for a stigma?

Meanwhile, the costs are so evident that urging change seems like common sense. In what direction? Present attitudes are so confused and indefensible that it's easy to make the case for more conservative, more liberal, or more libertarian mores. Think of naked bodies as God's beautiful creation. Think of them as biological reality that showcases individual diversity. Think of them as something to be used however their owners please, so long as no harm is done to others. Just stop treating them as something to keep closeted out of shame or fear of ridicule. Sure, lots of us might feel that, if someone tried to blackmail us. But there's no excuse for perpetuating the stigma. People who blackmail others with naked photos can be prosecuted. Those who merely react to a naked text by ridiculing the person in it? They're the ones who ought to face ridicule. No one should be made to feel that a mere image of their own body is cause for shame.

It isn't.

That isn't to say that the stigma against nudity will ever be fully extinguished, or that people will ever cease being averse to their parents seeing a naked photo was meant for their boyfriend or girlfriend. But a stigma so powerful and ridicule so intense and reflexive that it empowers blackmailers and extortionists in multiple cases all over the country? That's something that can be overcome.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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