Unwanted attention

Photos of 18-year-old Allison Stokke are all over the internet, and she doesn’t like it. Did she pose naked for a boyfriend who made the images public? No, Stokke’s conduct was entirely innocent.

The Washington Post is sympathetic to Stokke’s point of view:

In her high school track and field career, Stokke had won a 2004 California state pole vaulting title, broken five national records and earned a scholarship to the University of California, yet only track devotees had noticed. Then, in early May, she received e-mails from friends who warned that a year-old picture of Stokke idly adjusting her hair at a track meet in New York had been plastered across the Internet. …

The wave of attention has steamrolled Stokke and her family in Newport Beach, Calif. She is recognized — and stared at — in coffee shops. She locks her doors and tries not to leave the house alone. Her father, Allan Stokke, comes home from his job as a lawyer and searches the Internet. He reads message boards and tries to pick out potential stalkers.

Here is a montage of images that I found on the internet:

Allison Stokke photos

The photo that created the initial stir is second from the left. It was taken by a journalist and posted on a track and field Web site. Some time later, it was picked up by a sports blog which receives about a million hits per month. The Post writes, “Within days, hundreds of thousands of Internet users had searched for Stokke’s picture and leered.”

But surely that characterization of the public response is excessively negative. Admittedly, some people leered:  the sports blog commented, “Meet pole vaulter Allison Stokke. … Hubba hubba and other grunting sounds.” But some of us — even the males among us — can appreciate the photograph without leering.

Have Stokke and her father overreacted? I’m curious what other people think.

I can see why Allison worries that some disturbed “fan” will track her down and approach her. It’s also important to emphasize that Allison didn’t voluntarily give up her privacy. She isn’t a movie star or a professional athlete making millions of dollars per year from her celebrity. She’s just a high school athlete who participated in public track and field events, without soliciting this kind of attention.

On the other hand, Stokke’s reaction says something about her own temperament:

Stokke read on message boards that dozens of anonymous strangers had turned her picture into the background image on their computers. She felt violated. It was like becoming the victim of a crime, Stokke said. Her body had been stolen and turned into a public commodity.

This is such a negative interpretation. Stokke is receiving the sort of attention that other people actively court, eschewing the risks:

More young people are putting more personal information out in public than any older person ever would — and yet they seem mysteriously healthy and normal, save for an entirely different definition of privacy. From their perspective, it’s the extreme caution of the earlier generation that’s the narcissistic thing. Or, as Kitty put it to me, “Why not? What’s the worst that’s going to happen? Twenty years down the road, someone’s gonna find your picture? Just make sure it’s a great picture.”

And after all, there is another way to look at this shift. Younger people, one could point out, are the only ones for whom it seems to have sunk in that the idea of a truly private life is already an illusion. Every street in New York has a surveillance camera. Each time you swipe your debit card at Duane Reade or use your MetroCard, that transaction is tracked. Your employer owns your e-mails. The NSA owns your phone calls. Your life is being lived in public whether you choose to acknowledge it or not.

So it may be time to consider the possibility that young people who behave as if privacy doesn’t exist are actually the sane people, not the insane ones. For someone like me, who grew up sealing my diary with a literal lock, this may be tough to accept. But under current circumstances, a defiant belief in holding things close to your chest might not be high-minded. It might be an artifact—quaint and naïve, like a determined faith that virginity keeps ladies pure.

(ht, Shifted Librarian, for the link to the New York Magazine article)

Bottom line, I am sympathetic to Stokke. She didn’t ask for the attention (unlike the youth profiled in NYmag) and no one likes to feel that events are spinning out of their control.

But the attention is positive, except in the minority of cases where it is crudely sexual. Stokke isn’t in the same position as (for example) the chubby teenager doing a Star Wars light saber routine, who became the object of worldwide ridicule.

In Allison’s position, the healthiest response would be to make your peace with all this attention (since you can’t stop it anyway) and look for the upside. Opportunity is knocking at Allison’s door — or so it seems to me. But I’m open to other opinions.


13 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. JewishAtheist
    May 31, 2007 @ 10:29:04

    I feel bad for her, too, but there’s not really anything that can be done about it. It’s going to get a lot worse for privacy than it is now. Imagine the resolution and ubiquitousness of cameras — still and video — 5 or 10 years from now.

    On the other hand, her attractiveness will surely open a lot of doors to her. I’m sure she’s at least as good an actor as Jessica Alba, and in the same ballpark, looks-wise.


  2. Mary P
    May 31, 2007 @ 12:32:06

    Her horror at the lascivious attention is natural, given her age. Teenage girls have little idea of the power of their sexuality. Yes, they know themselves to be sexual – certainly by Allison’s age – but they don’t have any perspective on it. To have boys their own age smiling at them is one thing; to know that “old” men of thirty are also finding them attractive is beyond gross. And to know that thousands of strangers are doing God knows what with your picture has got to be unnerving, to say the least.

    But while I feel for her, there is, as JA says, little that can be done. She is a strikingly beautiful young woman, in the peak of health and vitality. Whether she’s been aware of it or not, I can’t imagine she hasn’t been causing naughty thoughts for some while. They’re a problem for Allison now only because she knows they’re happening.

    However, thoughts are free. People are allowed to think whatever they like. It’s only when people act on inappropriate thoughts that there is any real recourse – and, thankfully, the vast majority of people don’t act on those fleeting thoughts.


  3. Knotwurth Mentioning
    May 31, 2007 @ 13:15:56

    Actually, Star Wars Kid was pretty awesome! As the article you linked to pointed out, if he was 40 pounds lighter, he would have been considered slightly dorky but nonetheless pretty good at what he was doing. Instead, because of the girth, everyone’s sitting there taking digs at him.

    As for the public image thing, the bigger problem is that there are those out there who could potentially use the images as motivation for something far worse. It’s easy to say that because 999 999 out of a million viewers think she’s simply a pretty high schooler who is athletic, she shouldn’t worry. But history has proven that that one person could pose a pretty big problem to her if he/she should happen to be in the right place at the right time under the right circumstances. Overreaction on the part of the family? Yes. Hiding in the bedroom is over the top. But nonetheless, if you are entering the realm of the famous, one has to take precautions, because God knows that if there weren’t bodyguards surrounding Jessica Alba, she’d be pretty damaged pretty soon.


  4. Jamie
    May 31, 2007 @ 16:37:04

    I’m sympathetic to her case too. Although I’m sure most of the people viewing her photos are entirely innocent, not all of them are going to be innocent. And the fact that there’s nothing she can do about it doesn’t mean she shouldn’t be upset. I understand why she thinks it’s scary.

    However, if she were THAT worried about the attention, I’d think she might have changed her clothing a tad. It’s not like there’s NOTHING she can do to discourage leering.


  5. addofio
    Jun 01, 2007 @ 10:22:33

    I’m a bit more strongly sympathetic to her case even than most of you seem to be. It’s not obvious to me that people have a right to use pictures of other people in any way they please just because they took the picture, and it’s certainly not obvious to me that they have a right to expose a person to this kind of widespread public attention just because they want to. I’m realistic–I know that what I’m saying amounts nearly to heresy in this celebrity-obsessed culture–but it seems to me that it would not be unreasonable for a journalist to seek permission from the subject of the picture to use it in that way –given that she’s under age and given that it was not taken while she was performing athletically. Clearly the point of the picture is sexual and not athletic prowess.

    I know that’s not going to happen–I’m just saying I think it would be more ethical. A person should have some choice in whether or not she wants to be exposed to this kind of attention. And if she doesn’t–what, it would kill people to respect that? It’s not like there aren’t, as was discussed above, thousands of beautiful young women and girls who are more than happy to be gazed at and admired for their sexual attractiveness. The harm to the public of being deprived of this one image, it seems to me, would be less than negligible.

    However, the genie is out of the bottle, and I agree that she’s going to have to come to terms with the situation now as best she can. We can only hope no real harm comes to her as a result of all the publicity.


  6. mcswain
    Jun 03, 2007 @ 14:34:21

    Back when I was Stokke’s age, I remember my mom saying she didn’t want to walk downtown with me anymore because of all of the rather obnoxious male attention. And trust me, in comparison to this gorgeous young lady I was very much a plain Jane. Personally I would rather have had the internet attention than catcalls from construction workers and honks from acne-faced boys’ pickup trucks, but any such attention can make a lady uncomfortable.

    Most women I know, regardless of how attractive they are, have some story about unwanted attention from some time in their lives. Part of growing up is learning to handle it gracefully.

    And I must say, sometimes when we get older and that kind of attention no longer comes our way, we sometimes miss it. Someone should interview Ms. Stokke again when she hits middle age. 🙂 She might be looking for copies of that picture…


  7. Stephen
    Jun 04, 2007 @ 08:55:28

    An interesting range of responses. I’d like to reply to a couple of the comments:
    It seems to me that it would not be unreasonable for a journalist to seek permission from the subject of the picture to use it in that way.

    Allison seems to have no control over the image. The sports site that stirred up all the fuss has taken the photo down, but at the request of the photographer (copyright violation). I suppose Allison approved the publication of the original photo, and the photographer controls the image after that — but I’m speculating.

    Clearly the point of the picture is sexual and not athletic prowess.

    Actually, I disagree with this dichotomy. Human responses are typically complex, and it is impossible to pull the various strands apart. Allison looks athletic and sexy, both at the same time. Moreover, she looks like a woman and she looks like a child at the same time.

    At least, she looks like a child to me, because I have children her age. Which illustrates the point that different viewers will respond differently, which is not the photographer’s responsibility. Allison herself presumably saw nothing wrong with the photo until some people reacted in a way she hadn’t anticipated.

    It’s precisely when our responses begin to overlap and blur that moral ambiguity arises. In my view it is completely legitimate for the photographer to take the picture simply because it is a striking image. He or she is not responsible if some viewers respond at a crudely sexual level (as if sex is the only dimension the photo has).

    It’s easy to say that because 999 999 out of a million viewers think she’s simply a pretty high schooler who is athletic, she shouldn’t worry. But history has proven that that one person could pose a pretty big problem to her if he/she should happen to be in the right place at the right time under the right circumstances.

    Yes, but life is full of miniscule risks. Every time we get into a car or onto a plane, we take a risk as big as the risk Allison has been exposed to here. We’re so used to such day-to-day risks that we don’t think about it anymore — we’re no longer conscious that there’s any risk involved.

    We assume those risks voluntarily, which is an important distinction: Allison didn’t volunteer for the risk here. Even so, the risk is of a magnitude that we live with and ignore every day of our lives. I think the opportunity this attention presents for Allison is far greater than the risk it presents to her.

    Still, it’s easy for me to say! Women have to be much more alert than men to these sorts of risks, unfortunately.


  8. juggling mother
    Jun 04, 2007 @ 16:19:25

    She put herself in the public domain when she performed publically. I assume she knew there were people watching? I expect she also knew there were people taking photos – and she probably had the option of refusing to allow it (we have a law to that effect here – not sure about the US). Did she think those photos would never be developed. Sports people expect to be ogled – they are performing for the public, and the public will watch for a large variety of reasosn – only a small minority are particularly interested in the skill required by that sport! She should be pleased that she has gained the fame. The pictures have not been doctored, they are not of her doing private or intimate things, they do not show her doing anything wrong or shaming. She should be pleased that she has got the attention and make use of it!


  9. 49erdweet
    Jun 05, 2007 @ 01:05:44

    Thanks for refuting addofio’s photo interpretation assumption, stephen. She’s competing in a pole vault competition, for crying out loud. Only a perv should assume ‘sexy’ over ‘athletic’ from that – I would hope.

    As she matures she should learn better how to handle this type of attention. I believe her initial response is more from shock and naivety, than repugnance. But I could be wrong, of course. (After all, I am male).



  10. Knotwurth Mentioning
    Jun 05, 2007 @ 15:15:25

    Interesting little blurb I came across about her father through Digg. Apparently he’s kind of hypocritical in his reaction to his daughter’s image being publicized. Doesn’t mean that SHE should suffer for it, but if this article is at all accurate (and, although it seems to be from a biased angle, it seems to have its facts lined up), then it’s a sort of poetic justice, I suppose.


  11. Stephen
    Jun 05, 2007 @ 15:53:13

    Thanks for the link. But in my view, Feministing is totally out of line, accusing Mr. Stokke of having a double standard.

    Stokke is a lawyer, and he was defending people who were accused of a crime. That’s his job. It’s how the legal system works: everyone is entitled to a lawyer to speak on his behalf, even if he has been caught committing a sex crime. Even after a conviction, his lawyer is responsible to plead for a lighter sentence.

    In other systems, the accused is not entitled to a defence. But that isn’t a system that I would want to live under.

    I find the Feministing links interesting for another reason. If Stokke has defended sex perverts of one sort or another, he has seen the worst human beings can sink to. I am therefore more sympathetic to his reaction to Allison’s picture being spread all over the internet. After doing his job for a few years, I’d probably think that disgusting perverts are the rule, rather than the exception.


  12. addofio
    Jun 08, 2007 @ 21:49:33

    I think I’ll continue in my role of curmudgeon, just for the heck of it.

    The picture under discussion does not show her performing athletically, it shows her reaching up to rearrange her hair. That’s, as I understand it, the one that was “plastered across the internet.” So I stand by my point that the point of the picture was sexual, not athletic. It’s not the one of her clearing the vault that hit the internet; it’s the sexy pose.

    And I just don’t get why people feel it’s up to anyone but Allison to decide how she feels about it. To say she “should” be flattered, or “should” appreciate the publicity, or “should” find the risk negligible to me just says the persons making those statements believe they would feel that way under the same circumstances. Which is fine if true–but speak for yourself, in that case.

    And I’ll go further–in my experience when people tell me I “should” feel in a particular way, it’s because it would be more comfortable or convenient for the speaker if I did feel that way. In this case, it smacks too much of men telling women that they “should” be flattered by whistles and catcalls from construction workers when walking down the street (of which, in my youth, men did indeed try to convince me). I understand some women do feel that way–but many do not, and I don’t see that it’s up to anyone else to tell any given woman how she should feel about such attention–and most especially not up to men to tell them how to feel. Yes, Allsion’s beautiful. Yes, many men can and I am sure have enjoyed looking at her in a purely innocent and appreciative way, or at least with no evil intent. But why “should” she welcome even that kind of attention from millions of men she does not and will never know? If she does, fine. But if she doesn’t–I think it’s not asking too much for that to be respected. What exactly, guys, would you be giving up to concede that to her, and to forego the picture?

    And one other point, just to be thoroughly curmudgeonly–having people take pictures of you at a public venue, and perhaps circulating them locally, is one thing–having the picture hit the world-wide exposure on the internet, completely outside your control or influence, is another. Why should a high-shchool athlete assume she must give up all consideration for her privacy in order to participate in a track meet? It may well be the wave of the future–it may be inevitable–but inevitability doesn’t make it OK.


  13. Stephen
    Jun 08, 2007 @ 23:05:52

    Thanks (I mean it!) for expressing support for Allison’s point of view. I think someone needed to do that, but most of have been critical of her.

    I expect this post will continue to attract a certain amount of traffic for a while, so I also think people should continue to comment even if the post is getting a bit stale now.

    I would like to clarify that my purpose here was not to find fault with Allison or her family. The purpose is to explore the broader issue, a loss of privacy in the internet age. The rules are changing, and it behooves us to be conscious of those changes and even to resist some of them — as you are trying to do.

    Today I read an article on Google’s latest product, Street View. It raises privacy issues similar to those we’re discussing here. Apparently, in Europe, one of the considerations is whether you profit by publishing someone’s photo on the internet. Presumably the sports blog that drew attention to Allison’s photo is making money from their site, whereas the original track and field site may not have been profit-oriented.

    In the end, we’re getting into questions of law here. The internet is akin to the wild west; societies will establish legal protections eventually. It is cases like Allison’s that force people to grapple with the issues and find a way forward.


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