Naked selfies? I’ve taken them too (and all in the name of science)

Why do famous young women risk taking nude photos? Scientist Zoe Cormier explains the new exhibitionism

4 September 2014

The Times

It was bound to happen: naked pictures of Kirsten Dunst, Jessica Brown Findlay and Jennifer Lawrence were stolen from their private iCloud accounts and posted to online forum 4chan.

Why do twentysomethings so readily take naked pictures

of themselves? Is our generation more narcissistic? Do we have an entirely different view of our personal boundaries?

As someone who has happily stripped for photographs (and given permission for them to be posted online) — all in the name of scientific exploration — I’ve spent a great deal of time thinking about this. Is the biological urge for exhibitionism ancient? Are new forces driving how we display ourselves and entice each other? How we share and connect?

I’m a science writer with a background in zoology and a producer, staging events with my side project Guerilla Science. Since 2008 we have brought strange experiences — from rat mazes at Glastonbury to live particle physics performances at the Secret Garden Party — to festivals throughout the UK. I’ve spent a lot of time observing how young people behave when the rules are slack. Skinny dipping barely raises an eyebrow, outrageous costumes become obligatory, and shame non-existent.

Nude sketches are as ancient as cave paintings, but technology has changed the playing field. There’s something about a photo snapped by the body’s owner that seems more provocative — and more needy — than an oil painting crafted by an artist.

Throw Tinder, Snapchat, Grindr and Skype into the mix (twentysomethings are far more used to sending intimate images as part of dating) and it’s an entirely new psychological landscape.

To be fair, any woman puts herself in a vulnerable position the moment she lets her boyfriend
an image of her in the buff. “Revenge porn” is a pervasive by-product of lust combined with trust and silicon chips.

Like most women, I’ve put myself in that position. But though I’ve had my share of crummy boyfriends, I have never fallen victim to photographic spite. One ex chivalrously handedback all our naked pics when we parted ways. As this was back when photos were captured with film and not pixels, I know those images will stay where they are: in a box under my bed. When I am past the age for nude cavorting, I fully intend to take comfort in remembering that I had fun when I could.

Likewise, another of my most treasured possessions is a nude portrait that another ex painted. I treasure it, despite the fact that he turned out to be a tool. It’s the immortalisation of the moment I cherish — exactly what a photograph is meant to accomplish. This is nailed to my wall behind a silk curtain — but when it comes to public displays of nudity, I’ve done my share, so I have sympathy for Lawrence and the rest.

This year at Glastonbury, Guerilla Science hosted an interactive event featuring artist Jamie McCartney, who created the art project the Great Wall of Vagina to celebrate the sheer diversity of the female body. He invited us to record images of the crowd using a hand-held scanner.

A reporter from New Scientist asked to film me being scanned. “Fine — what do you want? I’ll give you anything your editors are comfortable putting online,” I said. For a spectrum of body bits, I gave her my feet, hair, breasts and pubes (because I’m proud to look like a woman and not a child). Sleep-deprived and in the midst of the anything-goes environment of a festival, I ceased to be concerned about stripping naked in front of a complete stranger. I wasn’t particularly bothered when our 24-year-old carpenter accidentally walked in on me starkers. “Ben — that’s a freebie,” I said when he blushed pink.

Come Monday at the New Scientist office, the female reporter argued that the most explicit images were purely anatomical, not pornographic. When the video went live it became the highest viewed story that day — 15,000 hits in an afternoon.

In the calm following the festival, did I regret my spur of the moment stripping? Not at all — I posted it widely to Facebook and Twitter (my job is to publicise Guerilla Science after all). Bashful? Embarrassed? Regretful? Nope. No one can steal from me what I readily exposed.

And yet . . . as I write this, I am laboriously privatising every photo on my Flickr account. Since 2005 I have posted 25,000 shots — changing the settings is taking a glacial age. Until now I have left the account open to public view, mostly for the benefit of my friends who enjoy drunken antics.

But now that I have written a book about the history and science of hedonism, where the first word in the title is “sex”, my publisher has deemed it necessary to lock all images away from the public eye (Already, since thebook’s August launch, I have received creepy emails, my favourite stating “I know more about you than you know about me: let’s fix that a little bit.”)

Why did I leave it public until now? Because I live by the mantra that I do nothing I am ashamed of.

What does fascinate me, though, is what motivated the hackers who stole the pictures of Rihanna, Lawrence et al? Money seems unimportant. Blackmail demands, which could have been extortionate, were not made.

Does this stem from a desire to put famous, beautiful women back in their place? Or just old-fashioned voyeurism meets modern-day technology?