The sex tape tipping point: What the Hulk Hogan trial means for the future of privacy

It’s not just about laws and money. It’s about consent.

Last year’s Celebgate controversy, also known as The Fappening, was online voyeurism at its worst. Hackers cracked open a trove of explicit images that weren’t intended for widespread consumption, violating the boundaries of celebrities and everyday people who expected their nude pics to remain private. The matter of personal privacy, however, didn’t stop the Internet from consuming and sharing the images with impunity, giving ample fodder to the trolls of 4chan and Reddit, and generating more than 5 million Google searches for Jennifer Lawrence’s nudes.

Celebgate, of course, was the work of hackers, whose motives and affiliations remain unknown. But when celebs such as Lawrence responded to the breach, they spoke in no uncertain terms about how cultural norms around private nude images need to change. “It’s not a scandal,” Lawrence told Vanity Fair, noting that expressing one’s sexuality isn’t anything to be ashamed of—but leaking someone’s photos without their consent is. “It is a sexual violation. It’s disgusting. The law needs to be changed, and we need to change.”

Now, there’s an impending trial that could either affirm or flatly reject a celebrity’s right to keep their intimate photos private. After lingering in legal limbo for almost three years, Hulk Hogan will finally get his day in a Florida court with Gawker Media

Hogan, whose real name is Terry Bollea, is suing for damages of roughly $100 million because Gawker posted a brief supercut from his sex tape in October 2012. The full, 30-minute video, which Gawker received, shows Hogan having sex with Heather Clem. At the time, Clem was the wife of Hogan’s friend, Bubba the Love Sponge, who was also involved in the act.. 

However, Hogan didn’t know that a security camera was in the home capturing their sexcapades. Until Gawker’s supercut of the footage was posted to the Web, the tape itself was nothing more than a TMZ news item and a few grainy screengrabs on The Dirty, as Capital New York reports.

The stakes are incredibly high, as a loss in court could force Gawker into bankruptcy. Win or lose, though, Hogan’s fight should be a game changer—both legally and socially—for affirming the rights of individuals to keep their sexually explicit images private.

So far, Gawker head honcho Nick Denton seems unrepentant about the decision to release partial footage of the video, a public position he’s likely forced to take as a means of dodging legal liability. As digital media outlets continue gaining traction, Gawker’s reputation as a hub of Internet gossip and for posting occasional NSFW posts with salacious pics of celebs has made the outlet prime source for news and information. 

But aside from playing into online voyeurism, showing Hogan’s sex tape doesn’t offer anything vital to the public interest, nor does it push for any individuals or institutions to face accountability for any wrongdoing. After all, as far as we know, three adults were in a room, within the privacy of a home, having consensual sex.

But somehow, Denton still thinks publishing excerpts from the Hulk Hogan sex tape was important and necessary. As Capital New York reports of his statements at a recent editorial meeting:

I hope that somehow we can be charming enough in our writing and on the stand so that they recognize that we might be mean, bitchy Gawker bloggers, run by someone who will probably be portrayed as a New York pornographer and foreigner, but I hope that beyond that, we can make it clear that we’re fighting for the truth to hold elites accountable … whether that light exposes a Florida celebrity having a swingers party invited by the host to have sex with his wife—whether it’s that or whether it’s the fact that the system is rigged and people can’t make it.

The public doesn’t need to know about the details of Hogan’s sex life, nor do people need to see Hogan having sex to know he’s doing the wild thing. Certainly, no individual doing the same, and not hurting anyone in the process, would expect any media inquiries into their private sexual adventures—and most editors probably wouldn’t have any interest in the first place.

That’s why the element of celebrity matters in Hogan’s case, because it’s not only indicative of how American public figures navigate privacy while living under constant scrutiny, it’s also indicative of how we treat each other.

What Hogan’s fighting isn’t all that different from what revenge porn websites such as the now defunct Is Anyone Up have gotten away with for years. Although some people voluntarily provided the site their nudes to gain notoriety, as Kashmir Hill wrote at Forbes, others had their nudes leaked by scorned lovers and exes, even with screenshots of their Facebook pages included along with specific details of sexual encounters. 

Hill wrote of Hunter Moore, Is Anyone Up’s founder, “Moore realizes that his ‘f***ing people over’ brand is saleable, so he is going to keep trolling the Internet, the media, and those who take nude photos to build his traffic and profit from it.” But the site shut down after roughly a year of operation, having attracted widespread negative attention.

Hogan’s case isn’t only indicative of how celebrities navigate privacy while living under constant scrutiny, it’s also indicative of how we treat each other.

And as Daily Dot contributor Olivia Cole wrote, nudes get leaked all the time in various Internet communities, wreaking havoc on the lives of the people affected—people who otherwise wanted their privacy respected. 

“Often visitors to these websites also find out women’s employment information, calling their jobs to ‘report’ them as whores. Occasionally these women lose their jobs,” Cole wrote, describing her own fear of having private photos leaked online. “Nudes can have unexpected consequences, as if the humiliation of having our bodies nonconsensually exposed isn’t bad enough.”

When an online platform exploits public curiosity and Internet voyeurism, sacrificing the dignity, respect, and privacy of individuals’ sexual images in the process, it may gain a few people a quick buck, but everyone loses in the end. 

What does it say about current social norms that we’ve come to expect online forums, gossip outlets, the paparazzi and other purveyors of information to release celebrities’ and others’ private nude images and videos without any legal consequences? If anything, it indicates there’s more to be discussed around issues of consent and privacy, and a broader need to respect each other’s boundaries. Such standards aren’t only for individuals; media companies can and should abide them, too.

How Gawker Media handles the Hogan case—and how the Hulk himself fights back—could unwittingly prompt a cultural shift for how news outlets, and maybe even the general public, regards private pornographic material not created or approved for widespread consumption. If the average person expects their nude pics or sex tapes to remain private, without any intrusion from the media or anyone else who may test that boundary, then surely celebrities should be able to expect the same.

Derrick Clifton is the Deputy Opinion Editor for the Daily Dot and a New York-based journalist and speaker, primarily covering issues of identity, culture and social justice. Clifton is a graduate of Northwestern University.

Screengrab via Reddit/octopusmouth

Derrick Clifton

Derrick Clifton

Derrick Clifton is an identity and culture reporter and columnist. His work has appeared on NBC News, the Guardian, Vox, the Root, Quartz, MSNBC, HLN, and Mic. He is the communications manager for ProPublica Illinois.