Though the most obvious feature, the titillation is only a small part of the subculture built around the power that comes from controlling another person’s image. These practices offer a unique chance for the perpetrators to control a piece of their victim, and should be placed firmly on “the spectrum of sexual violence and sexual harassment,” says Amy Hasinoff, a postdoctoral fellow in McGill University’s department of art history and communication studies, who studies abuse through sexting. Darin Barney, an associate professor in the same department whose research interests include the philosophy of technology, adds that there is even “perhaps a pathological pleasure and sense of control [that the perpetrators] derive from violating another person.”
A Redditor, who, fearing hate mail, asked to keep her username off the record, writes “I had a creepershot taken of me last year by a stranger. …It intimidates me that my image was used in that way without my consent and I can’t help but think that’s the point. They want to watch you when you’re not looking. To possess a small part of you and there’s nothing you can do about it.” She adds that the part that most angers her is the “lack of control of my image and a degradation of me as an entire person to my body as an object.”
In a post titled “A stranger took a picture of me today without my permission,” another redditor, astrigidae, writes “I didn’t know how to react.” After telling her story, she comments “I just don’t think anyone would get just how violated I felt.” How did commenters respond? “Seems like an overreaction to me,” commented a redditor named powerpiglet, who continued on, saying “you have just as much humanity as you did before he took the photo. Even if he masturbates to your photo every night for the rest of his days (unlikely), it literally has no effect on your life.” Despite the lack of sympathy astrigidae’s story elicited, power, and exercising that power, lie at the very heart of creepshots. According to Barney, enforced, involuntary sexualization has always been the central means by which men dominate women. “Men have for centuries committed sexual violence against women because men have been protected in various ways from being held accountable for their actions,” he says. “Online practices of sexual violation are an extension.”
To better explain the allure of online harassment, Barney refers to what he calls the “masculine dream of anonymity and invisibility.” That is, power without consequence for those who wield it, power without responsibility, and power without accountability. It’s that very anonymity that acts as a catalyst for these subcultures, sheltering the perpetrators while they do everything in their power to remove the anonymity of their targets. According to Danielle Citron, a Professor of Law and at the University of Maryland who is currently working on her book Hate 3.0: The Rise on Online Harassment and How to Stop it, “what’s going on is discrimination [and] because it’s easy and anonymous, a lot of hostility is being shoved online.”
This attachment to anonymity is something that Adrian Chen dealt with leading up to, and after, the publication of his piece. The Reddit community is so attached to their anonymity, that “doxxing,” or revealing personal information, is considered a serious crime. When confronted with Reddit’s outrage, Chen felt the need to justify his decision to expose Brutsch. “Under Reddit logic,” he wrote, “outing Violentacrez is worse than anonymously posting creepshots of innocent women, because doing so would undermine Reddit’s role as a safe place for people to anonymously post creepshots of innocent women.” The major argument that redditors and cappers come back to is the idea of free speech, the notion that because these women were in a public place or showed their bodies to one person, that they have therefore relinquished the right to control their image at all. Never mind that free speech rights don’t actually exist in privately owned spaces like Reddit, this line of argument further rationalizes the distribution of photos and videos.
The closed ranks and defensiveness are unsurprising when you consider that power also comes from the communities themselves. Members collect and stockpile photos and videos as a form of currency, and, even though redditor shittycapuccino sees “no particular appeal” in creepshots, “if the opportunity is staring me in the face, I’m gonna take it. I do it for my redditors. Once the shot goes up on the Internet, I pretty much forget about it.” For him, it seems, the value is strictly in how much validation, in the form of upvotes and comments, he is likely to get. According to Roberts’s anonymous capper, a lot of people become addicted to getting caps, creating collections, grading others, and building reputations. “In other words,” he says, “the more they cap the more it starts to become a game. …There is pretty much a food chain of sorts with capping which is basically people who get the most caps are more powerful. If you don’t share then no one will know how good you are and you will be a nobody.”