On Ruining Violentacrez’ Life

[This is part of a comment I wrote in response to Eric on my previous post on l’affaire Violentacrez. Reposting here because the concern over Chen “ruining lives” requires some curious erasures. UPDATED to include Michael Brutsch (Violentacrez) admitting that women have found their photographs under r/creepshots and asked for them to be taken down.]

One point many Violentacrez defenders emphasize is that his life will be ruined by Chen’s decision to expose him. By this they mean chiefly that he will likely be fired and become unemployable thanks to Google searches like the ones you describe. But it’s telling, isn’t it, that these are the terms in which they understand a life to be ruined? People whose photographs are posted online–particularly in the contexts Violentacrez encouraged–stand to have their lives ruined too. Many girls and women have undergone extraordinary suffering (with some, like Amanda Todd, committing suicide) because of these “free speech acts.” But this particular kind of ruination doesn’t count; according to the terms these defenders use, only employability is relevant.

I’d suggest that while of course men and women both value their employability (and the ways in which their names appear in Internet searches), only women stand to have their lives ruined in this other manner, which goes unnamed and unrecognized because a) it happens offline (while bad Google results are visible, it’s much more difficult to point to or describe the dissemination of your body and the consequences, b) it involves “social” as opposed to economic ruin to which men are less vulnerable (unless they’re sex offenders) and c) it only involves female “victims” who are quite easy to blame. If your uncle stumbles on a nude photo you sent an ex-lover on one of the sites he visits and forwards it to family and friends, oh well–you were the agent of your own ruination.

This kind of humiliation doesn’t count according to defenders of internet anonymity; an event only counts as damage if you get fired. Only by discounting this other sort of exposure and denying that it constitutes damage can Violentacrez’s defenders claim that he is a victim and people photographed against their will aren’t. What they don’t know can’t hurt them, and if they find out, BFD.

But this logic is worth chasing too: the reason your life is ruined if your boss fired you over something you did online is that you can’t make money. Your ability to pay for room and board might be compromised, and so you won’t eat, you might not have a place to sleep, etc. Your quality of life goes down in measurable, material terms. Someone psychologically devastated by having their body displayed to thousands of perverts is also quite likely (should they become depressed) to be unable to work, to eat, to sleep. If the criteria for “life ruination” is the inability to support oneself, the endpoints for both hypothetical situations are quite similar.

Two other things: Eric made the point that people in tech are likely to consider Google results more damaging than images, as likenesses can’t be easily Googled. It seems to me that tech folks are the ones most likely to know that facial recognition software is already a reality, and will become more mainstream soon. The distance between a photo and a name was never as great as it seemed, and it’s diminishing daily.

The last point concerns how the different genders are socialized to understand identity and privacy, and it occurred to me as another reason why men might invest more heavily in their name compared to their image than women. Men are socialized to see a name as unchangeable. Women aren’t, as it’s still widely expected that they will change their names when they marry. Their names were never supposed to attach to them as people; the name was a sliding marker intended to index one’s affiliation with a masculine unit. I don’t know if this is still the case, but seven years ago it was much more difficult for men to legally change their names than it was for women to do so. Women have not historically  been socialized to wed their identities to their names; quite the contrary.

UPDATE: Another argument advanced by VA defenders on Reddit—with more and more frequency—is that no one has been harmed by the posted photographs. “NAME ONE INSTANCE OF HIS ACTIONS HARMING ANYONE!” they demand, as if any woman (or girl) featured on the site would take the insane step of publicly facing the community that was violating her. (As if, in such a circumstance, the conversation wouldn’t take place behind the scenes, handled by the mods.) They proceed to insist that the lack of any such evidence means that it has never happened.

Unfortunately for them, Brutsch himself, posting under mbrutsch, his clean handle, admits that it has, and admits further that there’s a standard protocol for dealing with such an eventuality because it has happened often enough that a protocol is required. His admission appears in the course of a post today in which he attempts to defend himself against Chen’s allegations. Oops.

The blue line at left highlights the section of Chen’s article Violentacrez is quoting; below that is his response:

How gently the criteria for what violates have drifted: what constitutes a violation is not that the women discovered that their images were being circulated and used in the most disgusting and dehumanizing contexts—no, that’s not violating to someone’s privacy at all. “None of these innocent women were publicly identified,” Brutsch says, in what he obviously thinks is a compelling defense.

There’s that strange divide I described in my last post: for these people, only that which involves your name counts. A bunch of misogynistic, abusive trolls masturbating to 15-year-old you? Doesn’t count as damage, even if you know about it. The point is this: Brutsch admits that women discovered that their images were being used on Reddit. Take a minute to imagine what that discovery was like. Then imagine what it must be like to write to someone named Violentacrez to ask for them to be taken down.

Thoughts on Free Speech Logic and Violentacrez

[This originated as a series of Tweets that are basically cut and pasted with a bit of connective tissue.]

Two things strike me about the Violentacrez business. The first is how the free speech defense—as applied to posting photos of underage girls and dead underage girls in an explicitly erotic context meant to humiliate and degrade—rests on the logic that “she posted these photos, so they’re fair game.” Posing for photos constitutes an act for which any and all retaliation and “use” is fair, no matter how private their original contexts—including ex-partners circulating erotic photos, including photos taken of women unawares, including men commenting on and masturbating to them. The implication is that posing=guilt, that owning a body and being photographed in it is an action for which reprisals are fair and should have been anticipated before the subject of the photographs did what she did. In contrast, Violentacrez’s activities are framed as passive. All he’s done is circulate existing photos, and “frame” them differently. He has “done” nothing and deserves nothing, whereas women have owned bodies and posed in them. Circulating is passive, existing is active. Chen’s piece highlights how extremely *active* Violentacrez’ practices are, & how specific the intentions. It underlines the malignant intent and removes the passive framing. This stuff takes massive effort.

The second point is the curious stance that circulating photographs of women doesn’t constitute a violation of their privacy because they’re not named. Their anonymity is preserved.

Let me repeat: these are PHOTOGRAPHS. These are the objects police use to identify criminals. These are things that explicitly and routinely constitute evidence. They are precisely the opposite of anonymous—they are vehicles of anti-anonymity. And yet many people in this community bizarrely insist that they are somehow irrelevant, and that posting them is not a violation of a person’s privacy.

Whereas connecting a username to someone’s actual name—not to their body, just to another label, another way they exist in the world—is a MASSIVE PRIVACY VIOLATION.

The implication is that privacy resides in your name, not in your body. If you’re a man with the luxury to think this way, your body is understood as a sort of irrelevant accessory to your name, the thing that really matters. An invasion of privacy isn’t interpreted as a literal invasion. Although they plainly are, men’s bodies aren’t understood as being capable of being penetrated. People with this mentality don’t see a photograph as an invasion of privacy because they don’t experience the image of their bodies as being connected to the privacy that is capable of being violated. Of the genders, one is overwhelmingly more likely to think this way and to conclude—astonishingly—that having a username connected to an actual name is an invasion of privacy whereas a photograph of someone is not.

[Follow-up post here.]