When I first heard that wrestler Hulk Hogan was suing the website Gawker for $100 million in damages for posting video clips from a sex tape, I dismissed it as pure silliness. After all, Hogan, the loudmouth, mustachioed 1980s WWE champ, makes for an easy punch line. And he isn’t exactly a sympathetic character — for instance, he’s been known to make racial slurs.
But, on closer look, the trial raises important questions about privacy and consent, in the celebrity world and beyond. In a nutshell: In 2012, Gawker Media posted portions of a secretly-recorded tape from 2006 or 2007 that showed Hogan having consensual sex with Heather Clem. She’s the former wife of Hogan’s then-best friend Todd Clem, a shock radio DJ who filmed the encounter without Hogan’s knowledge or consent. Hogan (whose legal name is Terry Bollea) is suing Gawker Media for $100 million arguing that his privacy has been violated. Gawker’s defense is that Hogan had publicly talked about his sex life and the existence of the tape, including on Howard Stern’s radio show, which meant it wasn’t a secret.
Gawker also says that the exposure is just the reality of life in the digital age, and that Hogan’s public persona and fame made the footage newsworthy. “You have to own up to it and do it with as much grace as you can. Just don’t fight it,” was the advice Gawker founder Nick Denton offered to public figures who might have secrets leaked online.
When it comes to uncovering material that is scandalous or controversial, “newsworthiness” is loosely defined. That’s as it should be, to protect journalists from being censored when they expose the hypocrisies and secrets of powerful people, like, say, a big city mayor who smokes crack. It’s harder to make the “news value” argument, though, when the person being exposed is famous but not particularly powerful and their secret is not about anything illegal or corrupt.
Hogan’s case reminds me of the 2014 hack of iCloud accounts of several female celebrities including Jennifer Lawrence and Gabrielle Union, and the subsequent leak of their private, nude photos. In a Vanity Fair interview, Lawrence called it “a sex crime” and “a sexual violation.” At the time, many blamed those women for the breach: if they didn’t want those pictures made public, they shouldn’t have taken them in the first place. That sounds an awful lot like Gawker’s case for posting Hogan’s sex tape — once a celebrity opens the door to their private life, they shouldn’t expect it to ever be closed again.
The idea that past private actions imply consent to future public exposure is a dangerous one — not just for celebrities. We’ve seen this play out in rape trials and harassment cases, where women are shamed for their sexual histories, or in revenge porn, where intimate photos are shared to humiliate ex-lovers. We’ve also seen how traumatic it can be to be exposed online without consent in the case of sports journalist Erin Andrews, the victim of a stalker who posted nude photos of her on websites. In a recent trial, Andrews revealed that her bosses at ESPN added to her trauma by insisting that she do an interview about the incident, even after she told them she wanted to put it all behind her.
Hulk Hogan seems an unlikely ally to these women and certainly an unlikely champion for the rights of victims of sexual harassment and abuse. But that’s exactly why we need to take his case seriously. He should be able to decide how much of himself he wishes to expose and when he wants to expose it. As cartoonish and outrageous as Hogan may be, his right to privacy is no joke.