B.n Christmas 1995, it was fairly well known that there was a “sex tape” of Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee, filmed privately on their honeymoon that year, after a dizzying 96-hour romance. As the star of Baywatch, Anderson was so famous around the world that other famous television shows had stories about her. Lee, the drummer for Mötley Crüe, was also well known, primarily as a sex, drug, and rock and roll poster boy, in part for fantasizing whenever he went onstage.
Their coming together, and their impact, was something of a matter of molecular chemistry; like oxygen and hydrogen, each on its own was a powerful element, but combined they were culturally more powerful: her eroticism slightly neutered by marriage, his trouble-seeking becoming a little safer next to him. of his all-American (actually Canadian) smile.
Let me explain a bit: It was the ’90s. Women, even if they were gay, and definitely not if they weren’t, didn’t ogle or approve of ogling other women’s breasts. Drug-using men with tattoos were not asked to endorse sports brands. The highly anticipated upcoming Disney+ biopic Pam & Tommy shows Lee in a much less flattering light than in his heyday, but he was never thought of as a peach.
The show is a sumptuous affair, dwelling on every lavish detail of his Malibu mansion, Lee’s tattoos, Anderson’s cartoon beauty, but don’t confuse it with wealth porn (which, of course, is TV gold right now). His personality, his rather winning denial and his progressive disillusionment, tell a tense story. It’s ostensibly a prank about the sex tape and its aftermath, but the latent volatility, from Lee but also just about everyone else, creates a suspense deeper than the presence of all these celebrities could ever hope for.
The sex tape, along with a bunch of guns and jewelry, were stolen from Lee’s safe at her home just before Halloween 1995. By Christmas, it was in an annual Daily Mail digest, so everyone knew, but nobody. He had seen it Fair Play: It wasn’t until 1996 that the pair realized the tape was missing, but more was at stake. In ways that would not become clear until much later, this was a period of tectonic shifts: from old to new media; from old to new versions of celebrity, privacy, image and branding; and from old norms around sex, pornography, exhibitionism, and voyeurism to new ones that have yet to take hold.
A lot of what used to make sex sleazy was in the details. The lines between normal and perverted, clean and dirty, were drawn by consumer conventions; if this thing you were buying was good, you could buy it in a good place. Similarly, to view this sex tape, you would have had to send $59.95 to a Canadian T-shirt company in New York, who would then send you a VHS via Amsterdam. Or if you were in the US, you would have to meet a guy who knew the guy who ripped off the original thief, who would sell a copy right into your hands for $175.
None of this was the kind of thing respectable people did. You’d look silly if you hadn’t heard about the sex tape, but to say you saw it, well, you’d at least need a reason. The same can’t be said for the sex tapes that exploded five or 10 years later: Kim Kardashian’s was leaked in 2007, Paris Hilton’s in 2003. There are so many circumstances in which you could have seen them: someone could have linked them ironically. in a chat forum, or you were just browsing. The point is that you wouldn’t need a reason. You could buy anything, anywhere, and often not even for money.
In sexual terms, the fundamental collapse brought about by the Internet age is not so much privacy or the right to be forgotten (as EU law establishes), but a shared consensus about what sexual decency really is. is, who can have it, who can see it, who is exploited by it, who enjoys it. The really amazing thing is how many years have passed without us coming close to a new resolution.
Pam and Tommy’s story is surprising in part because of its naivete. The series, which stars Lily James and Sebastian Stan, is based on a 2014 Rolling Stone article, Pam and Tommy: The Untold Story of the World’s Most Infamous Sex Tape, detailing how, once they discovered the tape was missing, They tried to contain the leak. They sent thugs to harass people suspected of the theft and brought doomed lawsuits against distributors, as if the old rules were still in place and no one could distribute their film unless they had signed a release form. This is not a silly celebrity story; his naivete was echoed in the culture, the subculture, and the law: a sincere belief, even among pornographers, that if he hadn’t signed a film, he could prevent it from being seen.
It was a first world problem, sure, but there was a real crisis in the years that followed about the value of celebrity: if you couldn’t control your own content, you couldn’t monetize it, and if you couldn’t monetize it. that, what actually it was that? Enter Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian, with a thought experiment. They did not personally release their tapes and threatened lawsuits to prevent distribution, but both ultimately benefited from the notoriety, realizing that the rules had changed permanently. If you don’t own the content, but you do own the identity, reverse the equation so that content isn’t rationed and identity becomes overwhelmingly large: instead of protecting your privacy, show everything.
The funny thing about those sex videos is that they don’t really work as porn: Hilton’s is so ugly, Kardashian’s has all the random camera angles. But they’re not supposed to; it is not really about sex but about the body as a means of production: what can it sell? There was considerable debate in the early 2000s about whether Hilton and Kardashian were the puppets or the puppeteers of the new age: in hindsight, I think it was misogynistic. If Mark Zuckerberg had done it, no one would have asked if someone else was pulling his strings; though arguably there wouldn’t have been any mileage on it naked. So there’s that.
Anderson and Lee’s video had a distinctive mood, in that it felt private; it was made by two people, for each other, at a time when mass accidental distribution was not on the horizon. Later, when sex tapes became more common, the question was always whether the subject had cynically posted them or somehow misled them through dishonest means. There was a subset of the manosphere that was always looking for the original Anderson/Lee experience, who didn’t want to be consumers but viewers.
When the big 10 nudes appeared, first at Celebgate in 2014, then at the Fappening in 2017, it was no accident that they were posted on 4chan, the image board of choice for incel and other far-right misogynistic movements. They were nude photos, mostly of actresses, obtained without consent through an iCloud security breach, and the point was that they were of stars you wouldn’t normally see nude: Jennifer Lawrence, Kate Upton. Many of the women portrayed denied the authenticity of the images. The whole thing was about more than just naked bodies, which, let’s face it, in the middle of the last decade, could be found anywhere, it was about hitting women who wouldn’t bother. The Fappening was basically a metaphor for incel identity; men who experience sex not as participants but as thieving, despised, marginal, illegitimate bystanders.
Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee had two children before divorcing in 1998. One detail that reads like a pub-quiz curiosity is that Anderson married Rick Salomon, the other party in Paris Hilton’s sex tape, in 2007. They got an annulment. a year later, but remarried in 2014, divorcing again the year after that. (Anderson is arguably quite into nuptials; she managed one marriage, one annulment, and another marriage to someone different during 2020, which I think puts her sourdough hits to shame.)
However, with regards to her and Salomon, it seems likely that their sex tapes were an absolutely seismic and defining event for both of them, giving them a great deal in common. As interesting as it is, seeing privacy mutate into exposure, the self into image into brand, sex into infomercial, it’s monumentally asymmetrical: for many, a curiosity; two people, essentially the rest of their lives. It is a repair that the world wide web will never be able to do: rectify or even acknowledge the scale of that impact, when a billion eyes turn to look at the same thing at once.