Taking Unauthorized (Yawn) Photos Under Your Skirt

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When I taught medical students in Morocco ten years ago, several young women inquired why “American men don’t respect your women.” I asked what they meant. “We watch CNN and your movies, and we see how women dress. Why do American men let their women out of the house, their arms and legs exposed, their tight clothes outlining their bodies for all to see?”

I explained that in America we do respect women. We express that not by restricting them, not even by “granting” them various freedoms, but by believing that they are free to choose how they dress, where they travel, and with whom they speak and socialize.

Choice is risky, replied one of the Moroccan students, suggesting that this makes freedom bad. “You’re right,” I said. “Choice always involves risk. In America, we respect women’s ability to make good choices, and to handle the risks that come with autonomy.”

This was before cell phones.

Now fast forward to an era of cell phones. With cameras.

And the horror!

Yes! The horror! Strange men taking photos of your body parts in public—pictures so disconnected from the rest of you that you can’t even recognize them as your own.

We’re not talking about anyone touching you or even talking to you. We’re talking about the admittedly odd behavior of using a cell phone or digital camera to peek up your skirt or down your blouse.

Not your face, not your name—not your face, got it? Not your face. Your panties. Your cleavage. The crotch of your jeans, which are so tight that anyone bothering to look can see if you’re wearing a thong, granny panties, or nothing at all.

This week, Salon writer Tracy Clark-Flory whipped herself into a frenzy over this. She quotes some criminal justice experts who are predictably outraged. Some of her readers are even more bloodthirsty, variously calling for ball-crushing, internet vigilantism, and police brutality.

What exactly is the problem here? You go to the mall, where security cameras record your every move. You pay with a credit card, which continues to refine the consumer profile that knows you better than your mother. You made your own choice that morning about how much of your body shape to reveal while shopping. Since social norms in America do not demand that eyes be averted, men and women look at every part of you every minute of every day that you’re out of the house.

Is it creepy to know that some guy is jacking off looking at a digital photo of your panty-clad butt or vulva? For some women, yes. For others, no. For a few, it’s a kick.

But what exactly is the harm? When we have no privacy left, why the sudden faux modesty? What’s the difference between the guy next to you looking at your cleavage, or someone taking a picture of it? They’re both done without your permission.

“The difference is that the photographer takes my image home.” Excuse me, we all take images of strangers home with us. It’s called memory. Or imagination. “I don’t want my picture on the internet for all eternity.” Wait, it isn’t a picture of you, it’s a picture of an isolated body part. There’s no you-ness about those butt cheeks.

But let’s turn the camera around, reminding ourselves that the upskirted and downbloused take pictures, too. We take photos of the homeless sleeping on the ground—without asking. Or, walking by them, we look at them and talk about them—without asking. We travel to Disneyland or New York, taking pictures of the interesting people around us—without asking.

What about traveling to South America or Asia, where people don’t want their photos taken? How many of us quietly violate their privacy anyway, clicking from the hip, or while we fake a yawn? After all, we know that our photos can’t hurt them (“steal their souls, hah!”), and their hats are SO colorful.

Many American women are married to foreign nationals. When Jennifer visits her husband’s family in India, she can’t go out alone. When Maria visits her in-laws in Iran, her flesh and hair must be covered when going out. When Carol and Zhou visit his family in China, she can’t be kissed or hugged by him in public. In Saudi Arabia, no woman—local or foreign—can drive a car, whether accompanied or not.

I’m willing to believe that there’s little or no upskirt photography in Iran or China. But ask any of these American women which they prefer—the freedom to go out and dress as they choose, “risking” an upskirt photo, or the safety that comes with imposed limitation.

Calling women whose body parts are surreptitiously photographed “victims” demeans victims of actual violence. And it trivializes women as delicate creatures who must be protected from interfacing with the adult world. Laws that would punish men taking these pictures sound right at home in the Iran and Saudia Arabia that “respects” women so much it removes their choices.

American women don’t need that. Gentlemen, get a life. Until then, take your silly pictures.

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