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Body Is a Four Letter Word: Why Naked Doesn't Always Mean Sex

05/09/2014 17:00 BST | Updated 05/11/2014 10:59 GMT

The word 'naked' has had a lot of airtime this week after nude images of female celebrities - including Jennifer Lawrence, Kirsten Dunst and Jessica Brown Findlay - were stolen and published online and sexually exploited in what can only be described as a sexual violation. These private images of women expressing themselves sexually as consenting adults were never intended for public consumption, but have instead been manipulated in an attempt to shame and humiliate high-profile, successful women for being naked and - heaven forfend - sexual. But when did the unclothed female body become shameful? And when did female sexual agency become a punishable offence?

On Monday, I awoke to a Twitter feed littered with victim blaming statements, astutely identified by Lena Dunham as the internet equivalent of the "she was wearing a short skirt" rape justification. New York Times columnist Nick Bilton tweeted, "Put together a list of tips for celebs after latest leaks: 1. Don't take nude selfies 2. Don't take nude selfies 3. Don't take nude selfies." The digital age has seen a transformation in not only the ways in which we communicate with each other, but in the nature of our relationships. In a world where Snapchat and smartphones exist, sexting is now an extension of the physical sexual act; another playful way to share your body with your partner. I don't consider this private act to be a form of objectification or degradation, any more than sexual intercourse is. Do we tell victims of burglaries to stop buying expensive TVs and jewellery? What about victims of credit card fraud? Should we all stop using credit cards? What's worrying is that this attitude suggests that when it comes to women's bodies, it is somehow our fault, and we should modify our behaviour. Let's be clear: what we do with our bodies is our business. I own my body and therefore I have the right to express my sexuality.

During the course of this week, I've thought a lot about our perceptions of the female body. What do we see when we look at a naked woman? This week's leak of celebrity nudes suggests that we consider female sexuality and sexual agency to be shameful. By turning a private image of a sexual subject into something public to be leered at and used as pornography, you suggest that women should be sexual objects and nothing more.

The public domain is a cacophony of conflicting representations of the female body; are we hyper-sexualised or just free to express our sexuality? Prior to the twentieth century, descriptions of the female anatomy - both medical and erotic - were written by men. Virginia Woolf once wrote that "women in literature were the creation of man," and the same can be said of the portrayal of the female body in literature. In advertising, our bodies are manipulated and airbrushed for public consumption, disseminating unrealistic beauty standards, promoting low self-esteem and marketing the female body as a sexual product. On television and in music videos, we rarely see female nudity that isn't sexualised in some way, but in real life, a naked female does not always mean sex. The female body is the source and vessel of all human life, and therefore the most powerful force behind humanity. From earliest infancy, we are nourished by our mothers' bodies, and from the moment we are born, breasts mean one thing: food. Yet, if an adult woman were to reveal her breasts in public in the UK, she would be arrested for being in breach of the peace. Breasts are not sexual organs, yet in the USA it is illegal for a woman to be topless - breastfeeding included - in 35 states, and in Louisiana an exposed nipple can result in a prison sentence of up to three years. Instagram also has a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to nipples, which has resulted in the suspension of the accounts of mothers who post photos of themselves breastfeeding their children. The #FreeTheNipple campaign is an equality movement that stands against female oppression and addresses the inequity in the censorship of male and female bodies. In criminalising breasts, they are rendered an illicit body part, forced into a purely sexual function.

In this maelstrom of bizarre double standards, one thing remains clear: the female body is plural in its identities, just as the male body is. Women are sexual, intelligent, free, powerful, beautiful and strong. A woman is a sexual being, but that is not her sole identity. A woman who chooses to share an intimate image of herself with her sexual partner is a participant, a sexual subject and not an object. When a nude image is stolen and placed in the public domain without her consent, her existence as a sexual subject is compromised; she is rendered powerless and an object for sexual delectation in which she does not participate. Women should not be punished for being sexual; the theft and publication of these images is a sex crime and by viewing these images we endorse this violation.