Justin Bieber cannot catch a break lately. First, he was derided for maybe crying during his performance at the MTV Video Music Awards, his first since 2010. And now he's the subject of intense scrutiny for several paparazzi photos released by the New York Daily News of Bieber swimming in the nude in Bora Bora. After the initial incredulity (look at the size!), Twitter responses gave way to humor ("What Do You Peen") and speculation that perhaps Bieber wanted to be photographed — maybe he knew those paparazzi were there. He had been caught on camera at the same villa in the past, after all.
That is a poor excuse for ogling his junk. It doesn't make sense, in the first place — Bieber's legal team has issued a cease-and-desist to the New York Daily News. And Bieber has posted pretty revealing images of himself in the past, albeit never full-frontal. If he so desired, why go through the trouble of a paparazzo proxy?
But rationalizing the argument isn't even entirely relevant to the debate. Questioning whether Bieber leaked the photos himself, the "maybe-he-wanted-it" justification, reeks of victim-blaming. Is it so inconceivable that, yet again, a stranger looking for a quick buck has further invaded the privacy of someone who has already ceded much of that privacy to the public sphere, as is inevitably the case for celebrity?
When 4chan leaked nudes of Kate Upton, Jennifer Lawrence, Kirsten Dunst, Gabrielle Union, and many other female celebrities late last year, the event was crudely nicknamed "The Fappening." The women were told by and large that if they didn't want those images to enter the public, they shouldn't have taken them in the first place. Without a doubt, a horrifying instance of victim-blaming, and these women were staunchly defended for their right to privacy. The FBI got involved, and the Twitter commentators jumped in in droves to weigh in on both sides. A total stranger taking intimate photos and selling them — Bieber's case — is just as intrusive and violating as a total stranger obtaining intimate photos and selling them — the 4chan case.
The primary difference, it seems, between the 4chan leak last year, Kate Middleton's topless photographs, and now Justin Bieber's nude photos, is that the women become the targets of outrage and disgust, while Bieber's nudes are laughed off, the subject of satirical headlines. The humor recalls other recent celebrity nude events like Lenny Kravitz's wardrobe malfunction and the Tumblr "Hammaconda" meme. Neither Kravitz nor Hamm were questioned about whether they wanted sudden scrutiny of their genitalia. There was relatively little horror when people across the Internet eagerly googled and clicked and watched, because it was a silly kind of crude rather than an outright disgusting one.
Some have leapt to Bieber's defense, but the simultaneous outpourings of support ("he should be proud!") don't go far. The question on the table is one of consent, not of body positivity.
Men have largely escaped the kind of victim-blaming that women in the same circumstances are targets of. But questioning whether Bieber intentionally released photos of his private vacation is an early inkling of a similar phenomenon. A celebrity is not responsible for violations of their own privacy simply by virtue of being a public figure. This should not be a gendered debate — it's not okay, in any circumstance, to access nude photos of a person without their consent. By checking into the Internet conversation, we become complicit in the paparazzo gaze that produced the images in the first place. The assumption is that the body is on offer simply because it's there, and it's famous.
Society at large seems to have tacitly accepted that entering the spotlight accompanies a total surrender of privacy. Justin Bieber offers up his body when he appears on stage and on red carpets and in the pages of magazines. However, this offering is generally, in some measure, within his control. In parallel, think about Kim Kardashian's public performance in the form of selfies. Part of what she offers as a public figure is a physical self, but her Instagram, for example, is a consensual interaction between viewer and subject. Asking whether Justin Bieber perhaps did consent to this kind of voyeuristic intrusion implicitly denies the idea that no, he probably didn't.