When I was in high school, I worked as a stockboy in a drugstore in my small Missouri hometown. My job was to replenish the shelves and do general grunt work. One of the store's services was developing photos. The task fell to an older fellow (we'll call him Joe), who spent hours in the store's basement darkroom, turning rolls of film into family snapshots.
One day, as I was loading my two-wheeler with boxes to take upstairs, Joe called me over. "Look at this, kid," he said, holding up a picture. I looked. And looked again. It was a photograph of female breasts. My 16-year-old eyes must have widened. Joe laughed and said, "Happens all the time. People take dirty pictures of themselves and hope I'll develop them and not say anything."
Then Joe opened a file drawer and pointed: "Look in there." The drawer was filled with "dirty" pictures. "You wouldn't believe some of the stuff I see," he said.
The impulse to create nude or sexually titillating pictures has been with the human race forever — from cave drawings to ancient Hindu temples to Manet's "Olympia" to Playboy. Small-town Missourians were not exempt from the urge.
Nor are celebrities. The news is filled this week with stories about the release of private nude and sexually explicit photos and videos of Jennifer Lawrence, Rihanna, Kim Kardashian, and others. The source of the photos obtained them by hacking into "the cloud." Which is a lot like Joe's file drawer, only bigger. Now, what the celebrities thought was private is public.
We may, in fact, be in the process of redefining the very term "private." In a world of cellphone cameras, sexting, home-made sex videos, and internet servers that have access to it all, "private" only means you hope nobody ever opens the drawer where your stuff is. All your "secret" text and Facebook messages, all your "funny" racist emails, your "silly" naked phone pictures, your potentially libelous personal Tweets, your ice bucket challenge gone wrong — all are potentially available to the public, if someone wants to make it happen badly enough.
This too, is nothing new. Only the methodology has changed. The FBI and the CIA — and lately, the NSA — have been invading Americans' privacy for decades. Even presidents have not been immune. John F. Kennedy's sexual adventures were closely tracked by the FBI, for example. In those days, they used phone-taps, stealthy photographers, and informants. Now, it's easier. We do the leg-work for them.
Being outed as gay or having smoked pot used to be enough to keep someone from public office. It was potential blackmail material. Now there are many openly gay public officials, and people shrug it off when they learn a politician once smoked pot. If the walls of privacy continue to crumble, revelations about a public figure's sexy private pictures may soon engender the same response.