- Confessing Society, Confessing Cis-temRethinking Consent through Intimate Images of Trans* People in the Media
As a trans person and trans scholar who has specialized in trans* issues, over the past decade I have received more than five hundred media requests to participate in a wide variety of reports, television features, films, documentaries, variety shows, and so on. Although these requests cannot be reduced to a homogeneous mass, they have mostly been strongly motivated by an insatiable curiosity about my transition and guided by the desire to "show" my bodily transformation and "tell" this intimate story to the public. Media professionals' "will to know" about trans* people often translates into stereotypical media representations focused on autobiographical stories of transitions and visual representations, including intimate images.1 Like many trans* people, during the first few years of my transition, I participated in media projects involving the immortalization of intimate images (images of nudity) of my transition, for which it becomes impossible to withdraw consent, because consent to the distribution of images in the media, contrary to sexual consent, is a singular and irrevocable event. Unfortunately, I am not the only person dealing with the painful issues related to the public distribution of intimate images against my will. In January 2016 Judge David Stinson of the Ontario Superior Court rendered an unprecedented decision concerning the distribution of intimate photographic and video images, Jane Doe v. N.D.2 Judge Stinson ordered a man to pay $141,708 in damages to his ex-wife after posting a video of her on a pornographic website and sending it to acquaintances without her consent. The judge repeatedly refers to the fact that "in many ways [this case] is analogous to a sexual assault."3
Following current trends in Canada to reform legislation concerning revenge porn, sexual violence, and bullying in social media, the decision refers to [End Page 1] modifications made to the Criminal Code of Canada in 2014 "to include a new offence of 'publication of an intimate image without consent,'" punishable by five years' imprisonment.4 Also in January 2016, Manitoba became the first province to enact the Intimate Image Protection Act. The move to toughen laws concerning the distribution of intimate images online and in the media cannot be separated from the tragic cases of Amanda Todd and Rehtaeh Parsons, two young Canadian victims of cyberbullying who took their own lives.5 Not only have their stories made international headlines—Todd's online video testimonial has been watched nearly 20 million times—but they also demonstrate the frequency, devastating repercussions, and sometimes fatal consequences of these acts.6
Although Judge Stinson's decision and the Intimate Image Protection Act appear to provide a starting point for people who, like me, find it painful to see images of their intimate selves in the public sphere despite repeated appeals not to be exposed, these tools are only available to "ideal" victims in specific circumstances. These decisions, new laws, and amendments to the Criminal Code are based on the premise that harm is caused by non-consensual distribution; privacy and dignity are violated when images intended for one person are made publicly available. But what if a consent form was signed? What can be done to withdraw consent or stop the distribution of intimate images in such cases? What happens if consent was coerced, not in ways currently recognized by law, like physical force or alcohol, but through more subtle, insidious forms of coercion exerted by heterosexist norms and our image-obsessed society's injunction to show our bodies?
Despite feminist redefinitions of sexual consent that highlight its renewable, affirmative, retractable nature, legal consent to the public distribution of images, whether you are cooking or appear naked, requires only a single, irrevocable instance of consent. You can never change your mind. Recent jurisprudence citing the negative consequences of the circulation of intimate images and comparing it to sexual assault does not apply to you. From a neoliberal, individualist perspective that blames the victim, signing a consent form makes you responsible. But is it not problematic and dehumanizing to consider consent to expose our naked bodies publicly in the same way as...