For ‘Yes’ To Be Meaningful, Women Have To Be Able To Say ‘No’ Without Fear

It’s a very simple idea: When someone wants to use your body, you should have the right to say no if you don’t want them to.

People take pictures of girls and women without their consent or desire for public consumption and review all the time. This weekend’s nonconsensual sharing of nude photos of 100 female celebrities was just the recent, high profile example of something that happens every day. Namely, violations of women’s privacy, consent, and right to safety by people, usually men, who derive status, power, control, self-esteem, whatever, from denigrating women.

Dignity, for women, will remain elusive until we aren’t so casually and pervasively objectified and understood to be the end to someone else’s means.

However, non-consensual photography is just the tip of the iceberg. In addition to the shaming intent of stealing and sharing photographs like this online, there is, frequently, real violence happening offline.

Last week, Rama Lakshmi, a correspondent for the Washington Post in India, reported that rapists are increasingly filming their rapes on cell phones so they can blackmail victims out of reporting their crimes. After a 16-year-old girl was gang-raped she explained, “I was afraid. While I was being raped, another man pointed a gun and recorded me with his cellphone camera. He said he will upload the film on the Net if I tell my family or the police.”

No country has a monopoly on cell phone recordings depicting rapes. From India to the United States to Turkey to the United Kingdom, boys and men are recording their crimes and either sharing for status points or for manipulating their victims.

Some cases explode into social consciousness with outraged, sad, or grotesque trending hashtags, such as #Jadapose#Slanegirl#Steubenville, or #HandsUpForRaehtah. These are blunt-force examples that almost anyone with a shred of humanity would identify as wrong and yet people share the images by the thousands.

There are far more cases that most people never hear about, however. In between these examples of nonconsensual photography are other crimes often involving intimates, not strangers: stalking, revenge pornmalicious impersonation. Lakshmi referred to a range of these as being part of a “revenge porn economy.”

Women’s consent, or more importantly, lack of respect for the notion of women’s consent, is central to so much of this. Consent, the important affirmative “Yes!” we are increasingly, thankfully, talking about means freedom from coercion. It means our default, by virtue of being female, isn’t “yes.” For that to be meaningful women have to be able to say “No,” and we still can’t do that freely.

No, taking naked pictures doesn’t mean I consent to sharing them.

No, I don’t want to perform oral sex on a stranger.

No, I don’t want to be married to you anymore.

No, what I wear doesn’t give you rights to sex.

No, I don’t want to send you naked pictures.

No, I don’t want to see your naked picture.

No, I don’t want to see you anymore.

No, I don’t want to get back together.

No, drinking doesn’t mean I consent.

No, I won’t go to the prom with you.

No, you cannot share that picture.

No, I don’t want you to touch me.

No, I don’t want to live with you.

No, I don’t want to have a drink.

No, you’re abusing your power.

No, I don’t want to talk to you.

No, I want to keep this baby.

No, I don’t want to date you.

No, I want to go to school.

No, I don’t want to smile.

No, I disagree with you.

No, I want an abortion.

No, I don’t need a ride.

No, I want a divorce.

No, I don’t think so.

No, I will not fight.

No, I will not stop.

No, I’m not going.

No, I won’t.

No, stop.

It’s a very simple idea: When someone wants to use your body, you should have the right to say no if you don’t want them to. And, whether you are a celebrity or not, not have your civil rights violated or be humiliated, shamed, bludgeoned, raped, or killed.

WhenWomenRefuse exists for a reason. Incidents of abusive sharing and viewing of private images without consent are violences that live on the surface of structural, systemic ones. Those structures and systems are designed to deflect attention away from intimate partner violence, where the majority of the danger lies, toward stranger violence.

“In a 2012 survey, 89% of local domestic violence programs reported that victims were experiencing intimidation and threats by abusers via technology, including through cell phones, texts, and email,” explains Erica Olsen, Deputy Director of Safety Net, a program created by the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV) to address the tactical use of technology in gendered violence. Non-consensual photography is often involved.

Danielle Citron, a legal scholar who has developed a Cyber Civil Rights agenda, explores these issues in her new book, Hate Crimes In Cyberspace. Citron cites a study of 1,606 revenge porn cases revealed that 90% of those whose photos were shared were women, targeted by men they knew.

Suggestions that women stop taking pictures, or leave “The Internet” are facile updates of age-old, useless, victim-blaming ideas that only deflect from the core issue: entitlements to violence and power that some people enjoy at the expense of others.

When photographs of men, celebrities or not, are shared without their consent, the act of sharing, the violation of their privacy, while certain, doesn’t have the gendered cultural resonance or contribute to the pervasive threat that it does when women are targeted. This is even more true when women are targeted en masse, like this weekend. The message to women this weekend was very clear: Even the most famous, celebrated, glorified women are vulnerable. Even children know shame is sex-based and that women pay a higher price. There is no gender equivalence because there is no power inversion that would create it.

The concerns and fears that women have aren’t “hysteria,” but reasonablejustified adaptive responses to an environment of pandemic male perpetrated violence. As is always the case, clearly not all men are to blame, but, as we keep asking, how are we supposed to tell?

Girls and women, from Rotherham to Los Angeles and everywhere in between, whether you go East or West, can’t say no.  Until we can, and our institutions reflect the legitimacy of our “yes,” any claims about free speech, especially about the downright laughable idea that feminists don’t understand and respect it, ring hollow at best.

Soraya L. Chemaly writes about gender, feminism and culture for several online media including Role Reboot, The Huffington Post, Fem2.0, RHReality Check, BitchFlicks, and Alternet among others. She is particularly interested in how systems of bias and oppression are transmitted to children through entertainment, media and religious cultures. She holds a History degree from Georgetown University, where she founded that schools first feminist undergraduate journal, studied post-grad at Radcliffe College.

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