Why Congress Won't Help Jennifer Lawrence

Or the thousands of less famous women who've been victimized.

Mario Anzuoni / Reuters

If you so much as glanced at the Internet over the holiday weekend, you probably read that nude photos of Jennifer Lawrence, Kate Upton, and other stars leaked online. If you checked Twitter, you saw the typical reactions.

There were the guys who said women should know better than to take nude photos, a response Lena Dunham has termed the "She was wearing a short skirt" argument of the Web; the ones who see this as all in the name of Internet freedom; and the ones who wonder why this is any different from looking at pornography.

To that last point, the difference is that for these women, there was never any choice involved. Jennifer Lawrence never consented to have images of her naked body bandied around for public consumption; the photos posted of actress Mary Elizabeth Winstead were taken with her partner in the privacy of her own home. In fact, the photo leak has a lot less in common with porn than with another practice made infamous by Is Anyone Up?, the website that published nude images of young girls without their consent.

Revenge porn, the illegal posting of sexually explicit photos of former romantic partners, is something that's not a problem just for female celebrities, it's a problem for women everywhere. The practice has become so common in the Internet age that there are whole websites and online forums dedicated to it, as well as to its eradication. It's a practice that thrives on the hatred and subjugation of women (because naked pictures of men just don't get commonly leaked) and in most states around the country, there is little legal recourse for its victims.

Capitol Hill isn't planning to change that anytime soon. Hacking itself is still illegal under The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, and if the FBI ever finds the people responsible for hacking Lawrence's iCloud account, they could go to jail for a long time. But federal legislation on revenge porn crafted by Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier of California has been stymied since this spring, with critics arguing the bill could face challenges under the First Amendment.

It's easy to see why political traction on revenge porn is hard to come by. On the left, the legislation irks backers of total Internet freedom. On the right, it smacks of the regulatory interference conservatives fought in net-neutrality rules. (A spokesman for Speier was unable to confirm a timeline for the legislation's introduction, though one aide floated late September.)

Eradicating revenge porn, however, has been gaining momentum at the state level. California passed the first revenge-porn law in 2013, prohibiting the distribution of compromising images taken "with the intent to cause serious emotional distress." And so far in 2014, 11 states have joined the effort to enact a patchwork of revenge-porn laws, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Two dozen others are considering legislation. Whether the most recent celebrity photo leak will prompt any real reforms in Washington is an open question, but it will certainly put a spotlight on how the privacy and safety of women are abused.

And that's about more than just the leaked pictures. Another high-profile account of a problem commonly faced by women everywhere was on full display last week, when Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York opened up about all the times she'd been sexualized and mistreated in the Senate. For anyone who missed that news cycle: In her forthcoming book, Off the Sidelines, Gillibrand described how following the birth of her children, many members of Congress expressed an inappropriate level of concern about her weight. One House member called her "porky" while another assured her, "Don't worry, you're pretty even when you're fat." An older senator squeezed her waist saying, "Don't lose too much weight now. I like my girls chubby."

The stories were a potent reminder that sexism isn't merely the province of catcallers; its reach extends to the highest levels of government, and just because you're a sitting senator doesn't mean you're immune.

As with the celebrity-photo leak, a handful of male pundits emerged online to castigate not those who wronged these women, but the women themselves. In Gillibrand's case, the great misdeed was not naming the names of the men who harassed her. The psychology of that argument goes something like this: If she won't name names, can we really trust her word? Isn't she part of the problem? The assumption is that Gillibrand must want to destroy these men, to partake in an epic public character assault and summarily end their careers. That's simply not the case.

Had she wanted that, Gillibrand would have named them. What she wanted is something much more important: better treatment for herself and for women. In writing anonymously about these incidents Gillibrand has opted not to humiliate these men publicly but to create a narrative for how not to treat your female colleagues, a narrative many men will no doubt read and think: I never want to be that guy. And maybe, as a result, they never will be.

These events—both the leaking of celebrity photos and Gillibrand's discussion of her treatment in the Senate—amount to the culmination of the #yesallwomen hashtag, which erupted on Twitter in the wake of the Isla Vista killings. Those tweets detailed how universal the mistreatment of women is: be the story about rape, violence, privacy violations, or simply inappropriate comments. The goal of the #yesallwomen movement was never to shame men or call out aggressors by name. It wasn't really about men at all. It was about women and creating a safe space for them to share their painful experiences, a place where they could feel less alone.

The recent photo leak and Gillibrand's tales of harassment in the Senate have, if anything, added potency to the movement's message: Yes all women face mistreatment, even celebrities and senators.

Dustin Volz contributed to this article