What was with the y2k sex tape leak obsession?

Before 2014's 'The Fappening' there was Pamela Anderson, Paris Hilton and Kim K. We examine the history and impact of the intrusive phenomenon.

by Tom George
07 December 2021, 11:25am

Stills from the Pam & Tommy trailer

In 1995, a sex tape of Baywatch actress Pamela Anderson and Motley Crew musician Tommy Lee, made on their honeymoon, was stolen and leaked online, ricocheting around the globe. The videotape had been locked in a safe, but a disgruntled electrician who had recently been fired by the couple managed to disguise himself as their dog to bypass security cameras and take it. It’s a wild, unprecedented story that captured the intrigue of the world and became the first ever viral porn film. It’s also a story that’s getting fresh evaluation thanks to Hulu’s highly-anticipated Pam & Tommy starring Lily James and Sebastian Stan. So what was it, beyond mild curiosity, that caused so many people around the world to seek out 39 minutes of stolen X-rated footage from two celebrities? 

When it was first leaked, the sex tape’s main audience was an incredibly small pool of porn buyers. Availability was limited to sketchy sales from car boots and niche porn sites, who offered it to those who purchased subscriptions. “I don’t think Pamela or Tommy ever imagined that such a private moment could be stolen and circulated so rapidly and broadly without their permission,” says Stephanie Patrick, a researcher in celebrity culture, gender and sexual violence, and the author of upcoming book Celebrity and New Media: Gatekeeping Success, which covers the sexual violation of female celebrities in the late 2000s. 

To be honest, why would they? Rolling Stone reports that at the time, only 25 million Americans had internet access anyway (across the world only 40 million people in total were online). There were no easily-shareable video platforms. And yet the tape went viral. It took two years to do so, but after video distributors Internet Entertainment Group bought the original tape in 1997 and played a loop of it continuously on one of their porn sites for five hours straight, they reported a triple fold increase in visitors to their site. By 1998, sales of the tape had made $77 million.

Though Pamela and Tommy both entered into a series of legal battles to have the tape taken down and coverage of it censored, courts sided against them, arguing Pamela’s sexy reputation made the films both public-interest and newsworthy. But the online success of the video was a catalyst for a further string of major celebrity sex tape leaks through the late 90s and early 00s, most notably those starring Paris Hilton, Kim Kardashian and Golden Globe-winning actor Colin Farrell

“There’s an equalising force in the public circulation of a celebrity’s private image or video,” Stephanie says. “The non-consensual circulation allows ordinary people to exert power over celebrities, [and] power dynamics are central to celebrity culture.” This voyeuristic insight into the exciting and seemingly-glamorous lives of the era’s sex symbols allowed everyday people to feel like they understood their favourite stars. But until then, it was out of reach. As Stephanie puts it: “The only way of knowing that the ‘authentic’ version [of a celebrity] is actually real is if you steal it.”

In the Pam & Tommy trailer, an accomplice to the electrician who stole the tape says: “Goddamn this is so… private. It’s like we’re seeing something we’re not supposed to be seeing, which is kind of what makes it so hot.” Though stars such as Pamela and Paris often gave us insights into their lives via reality television, this felt like a purposely-framed version of them (Paris Hilton, for example, produced the later seasons of The Simple Life). The public, no longer satiated by these performed versions of real life, now had something intriguing and raw that was supposed to be off-limits; “a more severe version of an unwanted paparazzi shot,” Stephanie says. 

In an era of greater sensitivity to mental health problems, toxic tabloid culture and, most recently, Britney Spears’ conservatorship trials, there’s been a public re-evaluation of the culture that thrived on capturing celebrities at their most vulnerable. After all, the publishing and sharing of these images helped validate the idea that celebrities' bodies were also ours to ogle and consume, even — perhaps especially — when they haven't consented to it. And, like Britney, these intrusive glimpses into famous women's lives were then used to shame them, more so than the men both on camera or involved in the content’s release.

Pam & Tommy captures this too: in the trailer, after Tommy argues that he’s also in the tape spreading across the internet, Pam simply replies, “Not like me you’re not”. Though both appeared in the tape, it was Pamela’s name being splashed across headlines. Women’s sexuality faces far more moral judgement than that of men. We witnessed this again in 2004, when Janet Jackson’s music was blacklisted and her movie roles cancelled after Justin Timberlake ripped off her top during their Super Bowl halftime show performance, briefly showing the former’s nipple. Janet’s name in combination with the event quickly became the most searched term in history. Despite being the perpetrator of the act, Justin largely came away from the incident blame-free and untarnished.

“The celebrity nude photo hack exposes the gendered logics of hacking and certain social media sites, where images of the female body are hunted for sport and stolen intimacy with celebrities constitutes an epic win.”

The public were quick to undermine the agency of sexually-empowered women like Pamela and Janet, readily taking advantage of an intrusion of their bodies whilst also shaming them for it. For other women, their social power is often accused of being hinged to their sexuality no matter what they achieve. How many times have we heard someone dismiss Kim and Paris as only being famous because of their sex tapes, despite both creating impressive business empires?

When Paris Hilton’s sex tape was leaked by her ex-boyfriend in 2003, it soon became the most downloaded content in history. But the shame was placed entirely on Paris. “They made me the bad person, like I did something bad,” she said in her 2020 documentary This Is Paris. Interspersed with Paris’ words are clips of comedians doing sketches and stand-up routines that berated and slut-shamed her for the video, which many assumed was a PR stunt. “It was like being electronically raped. For people to think I did that on purpose…” she trails off. While Paris’ sexuality and intentions were interrogated, no one was questioning her ex or those feverishly consuming the footage. 

However, the 2014 iCloud leak known as The Fappening was a major turning point in our obsession with sex tapes. Nearly 500 private photos were stolen from celebrities' phones through breaches in Apple’s security and spearphishing (texts and emails containing dodgy links intended to steal data). “The celebrity nude photo hack exposes the gendered logics of hacking and certain social media sites, where images of the female body are hunted for sport and stolen intimacy with celebrities constitutes an epic win,” says associate professor Caitlin Lawson of the University of Michigan in a paper on the digital phenomenon. But while social media played a large role in the dissemination of the pictures, it also provided a public platform for celebrities to direct any incoming shame towards the leakers, as well as a space for a discussion to unfold about the ethics of seeking these images out. 

In the years since, many countries have put in place revenge porn laws which have made the leaks of sex tapes and nude images much less likely. The #MeToo movement has also had a major impact on consent and sexual boundaries, as has the work done by sex workers on platforms such as Onlyfans, who have taken back control of porn and it’s gaze and created a more liberated culture around self-made and shared NSFW content. Of course, this culture change is restricted to online discourse. Social media platforms, including Onlyfans itself, remain hostile to sexual expression and the average sex worker still faces a lot of stigmatisation and a lack of legal rights. 

But for those with large platforms and established followings, NSFW content can now quickly be monetised with limited risk. And when this is released without consent, the star is likely to be met with a wave of online support and loyal fans deriding those who dare invade their privacy. When Cardi B accidentally posted her nudes to the feed, #BoobsOutForCardi began trending in solidarity. When Marvel actor Chris Evans posted a screen-recording of his phone gallery that unknowingly also featured a rogue dick pic, the internet turned the whole situation into a meme. Though these were both accidents rather than a breach of privacy, they showcase a changing landscape in which sexuality is viewed on the internet — one where nudes aren’t met with moral judgement. 

If a celebrity sex tape was leaked today, it would still cause a huge, gossip-based stir on the internet. But stars now would also have both legal and social support that women such as Pamela, Paris and Kim didn’t have at the turn of the millennium. While the culture of entitlement to the lives of celebrities still very much exists, hopefully Pam & Tommy will serve as a reminder that when a sex tape leaks, the onus of shame shouldn’t be placed on those who have been exploited, but rather those looking to exploit it. 

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