We Asked an Ethics Professor About Posting Pics of Hot People Online Without Their Consent
A website called Tube Crush is a forum where women and gay men take pictures of male London subway commuters and then comment on and rate each guy based on his attractiveness. (Guys who look muscular or wealthy get more praise — big shock.) The site has thousands of Facebook and Twitter followers and has been criticized for objectifying men and sharing their images without consent. As one commenter says, “If men uploaded pictures of women to rate their attractiveness, they would be slaughtered.”
If you ever spent time on Tumblr, or if you enjoy Instagram, chances are that you’ve seen similar accounts featuring candid pics of guys, taken while they’re working out at the gym, riding mass transit or walking around in public. On one hand, these shots seem somewhat harmless — after all, it’s a free country, the guys are in public places, and who doesn’t appreciate a good lookin’ man? On the other hand, posting such photos online makes private individuals public objects of desire without their permission. Is this a problem?
To be clear, we’re not talking about the law or legality here — something can be legal and still unethical or problematic. Nor are we talking about celebrities on red carpets, politicians at public events or other public performers who invite attention and crave publicity. We’re talking about posting pictures of unwitting, everyday citizens without their knowledge.
It’s typically understood that photographing a person in a private space like a toilet, shower, locker room or dressing room is inherently unethical, but what about snapping a pic of someone in public?
Or is really what one does with the photo that matters?
Sharing these images on Tube Crush or elsewhere could actually be seen as a form of honorific artistic praise, the same way one might share photos of a beautiful sunset or painting. How many times have you seen a devastatingly handsome person and thought, “Wow! What a beauty! I wish my friends could see them.”
Tube Crush and sites/accounts like it often add brief, complimentary captions, calling the men hot or handsome, illustrating that the words placed alongside such images matter immensely. It’d be quite different if the sites/accounts wrote out explicit sexual fantasies about each guy, asked readers where to buy each guy’s clothes (or if they wrote out mocking captions like the sites She Has Had It or People of Walmart) — each would give the photos a different context and make these people subject to a different sort of viewer engagement.
Posting a hot guy’s pic on Tube Crush or elsewhere isn’t always so simple.
Regardless of intent, as one ethicist says, “Once you put something out on the world wide web, it can be interpreted countless ways.” Viewers can then download the images and share them ad infinitum via social media with whatever comments they like. “When you subject someone who never asked to be part of your photo to those e-opinions, you bear greater responsibility,” and the larger your audience, the greater your role in whatever happens next.
Some people consider posting any picture of a private individual as a form of shaming because it potentially invites ridicule. But this gets even more complicated if you post an image of a marginalized person — a woman, a trans person, a person of color, an older person, a very young person, a poorer person or someone with a disability. These people generally have less power to fight back against their images being used without permission and are typically subject to more public abuse than, say, a middle-class, able-bodied, cisgender white guy.
What if you post an image on a site like Tube Crush to point out bad behavior, like public homophobia or manspreading? Even so, the waves of viral ridicule and bad publicity that follow can potentially outsize the original offense, even causing the offenders to have their personal contact information shared online, leaving them vulnerable to stalking or death threats.
It’s particularly interesting when you consider that state laws and queer spaces have increasingly recognized individuals’ right to privacy. Some U.S. states have “right of publicity” laws allowing people to sue for having their image shared based on two factors: first, whether any harm was caused by someone using their image or likeness without consent; and second, whether the person posting the image received some kind of benefit from doing so.
Though the laws differ (and are unequally applied) in every state, there’s also a growing recognition in queer spaces — like gay bars, Pride parades and other LGBTQ events — that not everyone wants to have their photo taken, either because of shyness or not being out to others.
In past years, events like QueerBomb Dallas, that city’s annual LGBTQ pride celebration, and GaymerX East, a former annual LGBTQ gaming convention, have given attendees specially colored name tags signifying that, if they should appear in any photo, they’d prefer not to have their images published.
Here’s what a gay ethics professor thinks about posting pics of hot guys.
We asked an Associate Professor of ethics at a midwestern college (he’d like to remain anonymous due to working at a conservative school) what he thinks about posting pics of random guys online. He suggests three possible approaches for determining the act’s ethics.
First, consider the utilitarian effect of posting such pics. That is, do the consequences of posting a hot guy’s picture bring about happiness or other good effects for the greatest number of people? This approach doesn’t care whether posting a hot guy’s pic is ethical in and of itself, but rather if doing so positively affects or, conversely, harms more people.
A second ethical approach focuses on each person’s inherent rights rather than consequences. In this approach, whether posting a hot guy’s picture makes others happy matters less than whether people have a right to post such pictures or whether posting them violates other people’s rights.
A third approach focuses on virtues, that is, whether posting such images reflects any larger honor or integrity. For example, a photographer might think it’s virtuous to share images of sexy men online because it honors their beauty and reflects the integrity of the human form. Conversely, one might question the honor or integrity of posting such a photo if the pic is especially revealing or shared on a site of low reputation.
This ethics professor says the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” can help determine whether posting such an image is virtuous or ethical. Furthermore, he says the Greek philosopher Aristotle would suggest basing our ethical decisions on reason rather than passion. That is, just because something makes you or others happy doesn’t always mean it’s the best choice. A larger question is what a rational person would think about having their picture posted in a public forum without their consent.
“I like to share with students and readers that these ethical questions have a longstanding cultural and historical basis,” the professor says. “So when people argue about what to post on Facebook or not, we have literally been asking these questions for centuries, only now they’re happening in public and in real time instead of over pages-long treatises.”
How do you feel about the posting of candid photos of strangers?
This article was originally published on Nov. 18, 2017. It has since been updated.