The issue of women’s pictures being taken and shared without their consent has been in the spotlight for more than a week now because of the furore around topless images of the Duchess of Cambridge. I suspect the most arresting photograph of the scandal will actually prove to be the one that shows where the photographer was apparently standing. An ‘x’ marks a spot on a public road, so far from the chateau where the couple were staying that you can barely make out the building itself. The perspective makes any argument against the right to privacy seem laughable, yet they continue. The editor-in-chief of Denmark’s Se og Hør magazine, which published a 16-page supplement of the photos, has implied Kate must accept some responsibility for “willingly revealing her breasts towards a public road”.
The story prompts questions about why there is such a market, and therefore audience, for these pictures. As others have pointed out, it is not as though there is any dearth of bare breasts, consensually exposed and shared, on the internet. The answer involves a familiar combination of desire and humiliation. There is an interest in seeing not just any breasts, but all breasts, a sense that female bodies are public property, fair game – to be claimed, admired and mocked.
Paparazzi culture has been a problem for decades, but it has taken on an especially sinister, sexualised hue in recent years. In 2008, for instance, a photo agency announced that Britney Spears definitely wasn’t pregnant – by posting pictures of her in period-stained knickers. Emma Watson has said that on her 18th birthday she realised that “overnight I’d become fair game … One photographer lay down on the floor to get a shot up my skirt. The night it was legal for them to do it, they did it. I woke up the next day and felt completely violated.” At the Leveson inquiry, towards the end of 2011, Sienna Miller said that for years she was “relentlessly pursued by 10 to 15 men, almost daily … spat at, verbally abused … I would often find myself, at the age of 21, at midnight, running down a dark street on my own with 10 men chasing me”.
Allyson Pereira, an anti-bullying advocate from New Jersey, has had that experience first-hand. Now in her 20s, she was 16 when her ex-boyfriend – the first boy she had dated – said he would get back together with her if she sent him a topless picture. She did, and he immediately “sent it to everybody in his contact list,” she says, “and it just went viral”. She found out when everyone started laughing at her, and calling her a whore. Her mother initially said they would have to move, former friends called her disgusting and teachers made jokes about it. Six months later, Pereira felt so lonely that she attempted suicide. Having planned to become a teacher herself, she abandoned the ambition, because: “I would have had to explain to every single [employer] about my past, because you never know when a picture like that is going to resurface.” She didn’t go to university, because she felt too vulnerable. The photo is still out there, she’s sure, and although her anti-bullying work gives her pride, feels her life will always be tainted. “I don’t like public places,” she says, “I’m still bullied sometimes now if I go out. I have people who call me a whore.”