We overshare, but nude photos still matter
By CHRISTINE EMBA | The Washington Post | Published: November 4, 2019
Freshman Rep. Katie Hill, D-Calif., gave her final floor speech Thursday, resigning from Congress after being accused of having a sexual relationship with one of her staffers.
The alleged affair was a potential ethics violation — but it’s not just the affair that brought Hill down. Even post-#MeToo, Capitol Hill remains a hotbed of compromised ethics and questionable relationships — the difference is that in this case, there were pictures. Nude photographs of Hill and a former lover were leaked to and published by a conservative website and a British tabloid.
Hill, 32, was one of 20 millennials who won seats in Congress last year, part of the second-largest voting bloc in the nation. We millennials are also the digital bloc — an internet-raised generation used to photo-documenting all parts of our lives.
We share those pictures, too, with seeming relish. On every possible platform, we air out our relationships and our wellness regimes; we hashtag our mental health challenges and post every possible sort of image, including our most personal. It’s scrapbooking, updated; a real-time processing of our lives and a bid for connection, dusted with a light layer of self-promotion.
Sexual photos in particular have gone from risque, in our parents’ generation, to standard, in ours. Millennials basically invented an app just to pass them around — Snapchat’s disappearing messages are tailor-made for distributing our nudes — and one 2015 study found that 82% of adults have sexted in the past year. Even among young teens (the majority of whom aren’t even having sex yet) 1 in 4 is sexting. By many accounts, it’s an established relationship practice.
So it would seem that photos like Hill’s are the norm. And if everyone has nude pictures, shouldn’t it sort of mean that no one does? Hasn’t this sort of scandal become ubiquitous, and thus banal?
The odd thing is that although our media have changed, and our behaviors changed to meet them, something within us has yet to catch up. For all of our talk of openness and love of self-disclosure, our desires for privacy, intimacy and the ability to hide some parts of ourselves — when we want to, at least — has not gone away.
We may share more than ever, but we’re still just as capable of feeling vulnerable — and attacked — as anyone else. And despite our dialogues around shamelessness, reclamation and pride (#FreeTheNipple, anyone?), there are still parts of ourselves (yes, physical ones but emotional ones too) that we don’t necessarily want shared.
The truth is, many of us don’t feel as secure in our performance of freedom as, well, we perform. Millennials, in particular, are building life on a historically shaky foundation, in a time when it feels as though there is simultaneously less on offer and much more to lose if we mess things up.
It’s not just an admissions letter that we worry about but our chance at success; not just a job but our economic stability; not just a relationship but a lifeline in a weakened social web. We may overshare on some fronts in a play at bravado, but we are only truly comfortable airing out our imperfections, as Hill euphemized in her resignation speech, when we’re sure we don’t need to worry about them anymore.
Sex, with its inevitable revelations about both our physical and emotional selves, still stands out as the trickiest area to balance. Despite our inclination to make sex both a more public and seemingly less meaningful subject than it might have been in the past, we haven’t quite reconciled our emotional selves to the idea that it’s the same as anything else.
After all, teens aren’t committing suicide over shared pictures of themselves vomiting at parties. Politicians aren’t bothering to resign over leaked photos of themselves in blackface. It’s “revenge porn,” the sharing of sexual photos without consent, that remains a shockingly potent form of blackmail and attack — as Katie Hill just found out.
“She should know better!” observers have said of Hill. “You can’t just have pictures like that around; anyone could get to them!” But the number of picture-possessors is now very high, and the guardrails against theft haven’t quite caught up to the violation we would still feel should those guardrails fail.
It will continue to be a tightrope walk for those of us caught between a time when certain things were assumed to be private and a present in which many of those same things are definitely not. How do we manage to maintain our private selves in a world where everything seems to end up as public content? There’s a general feeling that we’ve done Hill wrong by judging her for her pictures, but no one feels too inclined to share theirs in solidarity.
Yes, everyone may be naked, but that doesn’t mean we want everyone else to see — nor have we ever. Digital nudes are still fairly new, but our desire for a private self is as old as time.
Christine Emba is an opinion columnist and editor for The Washington Post.