Objectified Online: "Nobody Really Sees Me"

By Christine Cupaiuolo — May 29, 2007

They are well-worn platitudes: Image is everything in modern society. Women are nothing but sex objects in our mediated world. Yet I guarantee these familiar phrases will take on a new meaning and depth after you read Allison Stokke’s horror story.

By day, Stokke, 18, is a star track athlete at her California high school and a national record holder in the pole vault. But on the Internet, Stokke has become another objectified young woman who has no control over her image.

The Washington Post has a disturbing front-page account of how the star athlete found herself the subject of unwanted attention. The wave began when a popular sports blog — which also post photos of “hot chicks” — published, without permission, a photo of Stokke that was taken by a sports journalist for a California prep track website. Dozens of blogs and websites either re-posted or pointed to the photo, according to the Post.

“Within days, hundreds of thousands of Internet users had searched for Stokke’s picture and leered,” writes Eli Saslow.

And Stokke, who two years ago successfully got a photo of herself removed from a message board when a fan posted it along with a lewd comment, soon realized that this situation was far beyond her control. A search for her name in Yahoo! revealed almost 310,000 hits, writes Saslow. “It’s not like I could e-mail everybody on the Internet,” Stokke said.

And you can imagine how crude the comments have been. Now Stokke is afraid to leave the house alone and her father, a lawyer, scans message boards each day for potential stalkers. Saslow does a very good job explaining the degree of violation and its effect on Stokke and her family:

For the first week, Stokke tried to ignore the Internet attention. She kept it from her parents. She focused on graduating with a grade-point average above 4.0, on overcoming a knee injury and winning her second state title. But at track meets, twice as many photographers showed up to take her picture. The main office at Newport Harbor High School received dozens of requests for Stokke photo shoots, including one from a risqué magazine in Brazil.

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, critiqued in fan forums devoted to everything from hip-hop to Hollywood.

After dinner one evening in mid-May, Stokke asked her parents to gather around the computer. She gave them the Internet tour that she believed now defined her: to the unofficial Allison Stokke fan page (http://www.allisonstokke.com), complete with a rolling slideshow of 12 pictures; to the fan group on MySpace, with about 1,000 members; to the message boards and chat forums where hundreds of anonymous users looked at Stokke’s picture and posted sexual fantasies.

“All of it is like locker room talk,” said Cindy Stokke, Allison’s mom. “This kind of stuff has been going on for years. But now, locker room talk is just out there in the public. And all of us can read it, even her mother.”

And now the student who was recruited by the nation’s top schools will begin her college career having already been stripped of her privacy.

“Even if none of it is illegal, it just all feels really demeaning,” Stokke told the Post. “I worked so hard for pole vaulting and all this other stuff, and it’s almost like that doesn’t matter. Nobody sees that. Nobody really sees me.”

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