By Cherry Ng
When the Edison Chen photo scandal made headlines in Hong Kong over a decade ago, I was 11 years old, somewhat perplexed by what I was seeing in our media.
I am a fan of Gillian Chung, and I remember feeling it was odd that she had to apologise and endure so many professional consequences for doing nothing wrong. I wanted to say something about it, but I was an 11-year-old girl, a bit too obsessed with pop stars. I didn’t think anyone cared what I said. So I kept silent.
But I would never forget the unease I felt when I heard things like “as a teen star, she is a horrible role model for young people,” “she’s an idiot for letting him take those pictures,” and the best one, “how dare she have sex?”!
I look back and I am heartbroken that she had to be persecuted by an entire society that is shameless in its victim-blaming. Years went on, and Gillian is now happily married with a healthy career ahead of her. I wish with all my heart that she has found peace after this turbulent period of her life.
And so this scandal was relegated to, well, just a rich, privileged playboy who had numerous affairs with famous women. It ended in a pathetic eight-month custodial sentence under “access to a computer with criminal or dishonest intent” for the computer technicians who obtained and distributed the pictures in the first place. Society at the time pointed its censorious finger solely at Mr Chen, for his promiscuity.
But where was the discussion of the harm suffered by those involved? Did netizens ever realize that their grotesque curiosity in wanting to see a female celebrity in the nude without her consent was morally objectionable? How much has society learned about “consent”? Did we even think about this incident as “sexual abuse”?
We overlooked the wrongdoing of the people who illegally obtained those private sexual images, the people who distributed them and, the people who downloaded and viewed the nude photos.
These are the kinds of activities done without consent from the subjects of those images, including Chen. These are the kind of activities that we should now categorise as “image-based sexual abuse.”
‘Image-based sexual abuse’
Image-based sexual abuse (IBSA) exists on a continuum, covering many different forms of activities. In the Edison Chen incident, IBSA manifests in the 1) stealing, 2) non-consensual dissemination and 3) non-consensual viewing of private sexual images. Other types include “upskirting,” “revenge porn,” sexual extortion, recording of sexual assaults, and “sexualised photoshopping.”
Image-based sexual abuse and public figures
What is unique to the Edison Chen incident, or the 2014 “iCloud hacking” scandal in Hollywood, is the kind of bystander mentality I have witnessed whenever public figures are involved. Many felt entitled to download and view these images just because the subjects were public figures.
I am not here to discuss the legality of the act of viewing, I am trying to understand why so many would feel it is morally acceptable to do so, knowing those images were obtained without consent.
Actress Jennifer Lawrence, a victim-survivor of the 2014 scandal said in an interview with Vanity Fair: “Anybody who looked at those pictures, you’re perpetuating a sexual offence. You should cower with shame. Even people who I know and love say, ‘Oh, yeah, I looked at the pictures.’ I don’t want to get mad, but at the same time I’m thinking, I didn’t tell you that you could look at my naked body.”
Every person enjoys moral ownership over his or her own body and what is done with it. Therefore, we are entitled to exercise our agency and preserve ourselves against any violation of our power to choose regarding something as intimate as our naked body or our private sexual acts.
We should be free to determine whether or not, or to what extent, we display ourselves, and that includes to whom and in what circumstances.
As an example, when an actor voluntarily partakes in a film involving nudity, the actor has consented to show parts of his or her body in controlled circumstances that the actor is comfortable with.
Just because an actor had “bared it all” onscreen before does not mean a “licence” is given to the public to download and view private sexual images that the actor has never agreed to share with the public. Consent is not an attitude of mind or an emotion, but an individual decision made on a case-by-case basis.
Common decency tells us we should respect those decisions, and this is despite the fact that you might never meet the subject of the images. Maybe you think by virtue of the subjects being celebrites, a sense of public entitlement made it acceptable for you to look at those images, because their line of work involves them selling their image and bodies to an audience anyway.
But the truth is, them being public figures does not “lessen the impact.” In fact, Gillian herself has said she contemplated suicide and almost left showbiz. No one will get used to their bodily integrity being violently transgressed this way.
When the damage is done, it’s done. There is no respectable justification when harms are inflicted on victim-survivors in cases of sexual abuse.
And it is truly disheartening to see so many people – and that includes the media and paparazzi – treated these celebrity IBSA incidents as a spectator sport: when sexual humiliation becomes some kind of crude, public entertainment. It is not at all controversial to say that we as a society have not shown Gillian and the other victim-survivors empathy.
It’s been ten years, and I don’t think we have done anything since then to right our wrongs. The mentality of “building happiness on the other person’s suffering” continues to be prevalent.
So I want to start with a confession, and maybe you could do the same: I am complicit. I have not done enough. I was cruel and ignorant, and I am truly, truly sorry to every single one of the victim-survivors in that traumatic series of events.