After reading Emily Ratajkowski’s recent essay in the Cut in which she wrote that a photographer named Jonathan Leder had published naked photos of her without her consent, I wanted to hunt down every last copy of the three books of polaroids of her and burn them in a pyre. Or toss them in a volcano. Or plunge them into the depths of the sea. Anything to gain even a sliver of justice — not just for Ratajkowski, but for every woman who’s been violently reminded that her body is not her own.
Ratajkowski posed for Leder early in her career when she was 20 years old. In the essay, she talks about calming her nerves with sugary red wine as she modeled in lingerie and in the nude, hoping to impress a man she felt it was her job to impress. She has accused Leder of sexually assaulting her, but that was not the end of the alleged violations. Once she made it big, he compiled the unused polaroids into three books over several years, against Ratajkowski’s wishes, according to her essay, and against what she says was the legal agreement around the photos’ original intended use. Her efforts to halt the project were made public, but people still bought the book and attended the opening despite — or even because of — Ratajkowski’s objections.
When reached by the Cut’s fact-checker, Leder said, “You do know who we are talking about right? This is the girl that was naked in Treats! magazine, and bounced around naked in the Robin Thicke video at that time. You really want someone to believe she was a victim?”
As Ratajkowski wrote, “For years, while I built a career, he’d kept that Emily in the drawers of his creaky old house, waiting to whore her out.”
I seethed as I read it. I still am seething. Just because she was naked once, more than once even, with her own consent shouldn't give people free rein over her body.
The fact that the exploitation Ratajkowski described is the product of Patriarchy and Misogyny 101 — that men are taught women are disposable objects for pleasure and entertainment — makes it no less horrifying. Exploitation is not just an option for some men, but an imperative. Women, then, are not fully human. Not really.
Perhaps now, in our supposedly postfeminist society, we’d like to believe we’re better than this. But it was just six years ago that dozens of famous women, Ratajkowski included, had their nude photos stolen and leaked. The fact that the major data breach was widely called “The Fappening” tells you enough about how gleefully those images were found and consumed — how those women were found and consumed. I remember how my Reddit front page became a tide of those pictures washing in, then getting deleted, then the cycle starting anew because the administrators could barely keep up.
It’s not exactly like naked bodies are hard to find on the internet. But for those who gleefully consumed the photos, the pleasure in their consumption stemmed from viewing these women without their permission — from being able to degrade them and mock them and put them in their place. “The Fappening” wasn’t just about getting off to a pair of breasts or an ass, but getting off knowing that this was a deep violation and humiliation of successful, well-known women.
In her piece for the Cut, Ratajkowski wrote that after the leak, “I’d been destroyed. I’d lost ten pounds in five days and a chunk of hair fell out a week later, leaving a perfectly round circle of white skin on the back of my head.”
Last weekend, actor Chris Evans had his own nude appear online. Unlike the hacking scandal, this was a self-made accident. He had uploaded a screenshot of his camera roll in an Instagram story, which happened to contain a dick pic. It was quickly deleted and his fans, and other celebrities, like Chrissy Teigen and Mark Ruffalo, were also quick to come to his defense. A campaign cropped up shaming anyone who shared the image, reminding us it was a violation of Evans’ privacy to share it. When his name started trending on Twitter, fans flooded the various hashtags with photos of Evans with puppies and Evans visiting children in the hospital to draw attention away from his body and toward his humanity.
I’m glad Evans was treated with kindness. But Evans’ photo was never going to be gleefully consumed with the same fervor as the photos from the 2014 hacking because his body is considered his own. By catching a private glimpse of him, we wouldn’t get any sense of ownership or power over him as a person.
You could argue that the women whose photos were stolen, including Ratajkowski, didn’t suffer any real consequences. That most major media was on their side and that their careers have continued unabated. As Leder himself argued about Ratajkowski, lots of these women voluntarily posed nude in other formats — what was really the big deal?
And that’s exactly how we treat sexual violations the world over. Under rape culture, sexual assault is considered rare or even nonexistent — but if it does happen, it’s not a big deal. It was just bad sex. It was just a photo. Get over it.
If we were really in the business of learning lessons, we have had ample opportunity. This week, This Is Paris was released on YouTube, a documentary about Paris Hilton, the original influencer. Hilton has never been a figure who has garnered much in the way of empathy, always seen as a rich airhead who exploited herself for fame. It’s almost too easy to forget that part of her rise in the public eye was a leaked sex tape.
She was just 19 when that tape, cruelly titled 1 Night in Paris, was released by a man she had loved to an audience who lapped it up — not because it was in any way a good video, but because it was, like those nudes, an opportunity to own a piece of Hilton without her consent.
“That was a private moment with a teenage girl, not in the right headspace, but everyone was watching it and laughing like it was something funny,” Hilton says in the documentary.
Hilton says that he had pulled out the camera and pressured her into making the tape, telling her that no one would ever see it. After the video was released, the press blamed her, just like Ratajkowski is being blamed by Leder, just as the women in the nude photo hack were blamed for ever taking the pictures in the first place.
“It was like being electronically raped,” Hilton said.
“If that happened today, there would not be the same story at all. They made me the bad person. I did something bad. It was my first real relationship, 18. I was just so in love with him, and I wanted to make him happy.”
I do think she’s right to say that if the tape had been leaked today, the media coverage surrounding it would look different than it did 16 years ago. At least some of the headlines would be kind; some people would call the violation out for what it is. But still, I know, and you know too, there would be plenty of salivating posts on Reddit and constant uploads to porn sites, the gleeful consumption of the ultimate gotcha moment for a woman who has achieved any level of fame, success, or likability.
That we barely care about these sorts of violations with women who are white, thin, beautiful, and famous says a lot about who else we don’t allow to own their bodies. If we’re only now coming around to seeing Hilton or Ratajkowski as women who were violated, what happens when someone who is not white, or is LGBTQ, or is fat, or has a disability, or is poor, is picked apart for consumption in such a way?
Well, we already know. In 2016, when comedian Leslie Jones was hacked and her nude photos were shared, the reaction was compounded not just by misogyny but by racism and body-shaming. The same trolls who swapped nudes of thin white women traded barbs about Jones’ appearance. Not only do we own you, they said, but we’re rejecting you. Either way, we control you. Either way, your body is not your own. And either way, it’s your fault.
I want to believe we’re having some sort of moment of reckoning now. I want to believe we’re changing. But those photo books of Ratajkowski are still sitting on shelves and you can still see those stolen nudes.
I know I’m not the only one who wants every last stolen nude and leaked video destroyed. Let’s build that pyre, and burn those books, and dance around the fire.