This month, Playboy magazine features photographs of Ashley Alexandra Dupré, the escort-turned-advice columnist whose name became synonymous with the downfall of former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer almost two years ago. Dupré graces the cover wearing nothing but a bed sheet, and inside the magazine, she's wearing far less.
"So what?" you might ask. We're already seen Dupré in a state of undress many times. When the Spitzer scandal broke, the images of Dupré were almost impossible to avoid. If we've already seen her almost naked, what makes the Playboy shoot so special? The difference is that these photos, unlike the ones that were splashed all over the tabloids two years ago, were published with Dupré's consent.Blogging at Stiletto Suicides, which she co-writes with a friend, Dupré recounted the experience of watching helplessly as photos of herself nearly naked found their way into the press:
I was being sold out by nearly everyone I knew. Those stupid little cell phone pictures were everywhere, blown up and plastered on the front page... A former friend or acquaintance would sell pictures of me to anyone who'd buy. Then the newspaper would use my scandalous photo to generate more sales. Everyone was buying and selling sex. They were buying and selling me. And all I could do is bang my head against the wall.
The photos might have been taken with Dupré's knowledge and consent, but she never gave permission for them to be sold and reprinted and posted and downloaded a million times over (nor, I should add, did she receive any payment from the papers that enjoyed a circulation bump when they printed them). Unlike the Playboy photos, which are being published with her consent, and from which she will profit, the unauthorized photos robbed Dupré of the right to decide who would see her naked and when.
Lena Chen, the former sex blogger and founder of Sex and the Ivy, was a 19-year-old junior at Harvard when photos of her naked were posted in the comments section of an Ivy League gossip website. From there, the pictures went viral and soon, virtually every single student on campus, and hundreds of thousands of people off campus, had seen them. The photos of Chen, like the unauthorized ones of Dupré, had been taken with her permission but published without her consent. "The leaked photos were taken in private by someone I was dating at the time," Chen told the Washington City Paper earlier this month. "I didn't expect them to be publicly disseminated. They were never meant for public consumption. It felt like a major violation."
Chen had posted photographs of herself in a state of undress on her blog before. She had also posed nude for a friend's art project, and those images had been displayed in a gallery. But when she posed for those pictures, Chen says, she "knew exactly the context in which they were going to be used." She trusted her friend to only use them in that context, just as she trusted her ex-boyfriend not to publicly disseminate the pictures in his possession.
The violations of trust that both Chen and Dupré experienced at the hands of their peers, friends and former sex partners might serve as cautionary tales to anyone who's ever considered taking or sending photos of themselves naked. Indeed, Dupré writes in that same blog entry, "Advice: don't send naked pictures of yourself to people you hardly know via cell phone. Scratch that, don't send them to anyone. Never ends well!" (Then again, rather than warning people about the danger of entrusting potentially compromising photos of themselves to friends or sex partners, perhaps we should be using these women's recounts of feeling violated and exploited to discourage recipients of such photos from breaking that trust when it's granted).
The crucial distinction that both women make when talking about the publication of these photographs is that in one instance there was consent for publication, and in the other instance there was none. In this way, what happened to Dupré and Chen was, as prominent blogger Amanda Marcotte has argued, a form of sexual assault, and it can serve as a useful parallel to help us better understand more physical forms of sexual assault.
Some of the most common excuses and explanations we hear for rape center on the victim's previous sexual or life choices. We're told that rape isn't really rape if a woman is dressed provocatively, or is being flirtatious, or has had sex with her assailant before. We're told that consent to one or many sexual encounters is consent to all and any encounters. We're told that sex workers can't be raped, since they have sex for a living and are presumed to always be on the job. We're told that wives can't be raped, that a wedding band acts as constant and irrevocable consent to sex. In other words, if you're promiscuous, your rape doesn't count. If you've consented to this act or something like it before, your rape doesn't count. If you do this as your job, your rape doesn't count. If you did this in private with someone you loved and trusted, your rape doesn't count.
Because Dupré had posed naked for a boyfriend in private, because Chen had posted photos of herself near-naked on her blog, because these women dress provocatively or had many sexual partners and were publicly sexual, and made a living or a name for themselves from their sexuality, what happened to them wasn't seen as a violation. Sure, they didn't give the newspapers or blogs permission to run the photos, but they had consented to having the photos taken, right? And they had sent them to people, hadn't they? And Chen posted similar photos of herself on her own blog, didn't she? So what's the difference?
The difference is consent. Whether it's a photograph being circulated online or a sex act being forced on you against your will, the difference is conscious, deliberate, explicit consent. It doesn't matter if you've posed for or posted similar photos in the past, just as it doesn't matter if you've willingly slept with your attacker once - or many times - before. If you don't consent this time, it's assault. It doesn't matter if you're a prostitute or a sex blogger or a woman wearing a short skirt or the girl that everyone in school has decided is a bit slutty. None of those things constitutes or implies consent.
So the difference between the seemingly ubiquitous photos of Dupré two years ago and the photos in this month's Playboy is that this time, the photos are being published with her consent. It might not feel all that different to you, but it makes all the difference in the world to Dupré. These photos aren't a violation of her trust; these photos, she writes, give her a sense of control. It's the difference between choosing to have sex with someone and being forced to. It's the difference between an out-of-control online harassment campaign and an informed, empowered choice. So if you're curious to see what the infamous Ashley Dupré looks like naked, go ahead and buy this month's issue of Playboy. Because this time, you have Dupré's consent to see her naked. This time, the difference is that Ashley Alexandra Dupré is in control.