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An illustration of a woman holding a small dog, surrounded by pointing fingers. Efi Chalikopoulou for Vox

Paris Hilton’s sex tape was revenge porn. The world gleefully watched.

What a generation took away from the case of the Paris Hilton sex tape.

As our current fascination with the wronged women of decades past swells, we seem to be resistant to extending it toward Paris Hilton. Britney Spears? Yes. Princess Diana? Of course. Mia Farrow? Sure. But Paris Hilton? Her? Oh, absolutely not.

People have tried to revisit Hilton’s image since her days of ubiquity in the 2000s. Over the past few years, she has participated in two post-Me Too documentaries, both of which featured compelling new material about Hilton and both of which vanished without making much of an impact.

In 2018’s The American Meme, Hilton revisited the experience of having her sex tape released without her consent in 2003, saying that it was like being raped. “I literally could not walk down the street” after the tape was released, she said, “because I felt like every single person had watched it and seen me naked and was talking behind my back.”

In 2020’s This Is Paris, Hilton revealed that as a teen, she was sent to a series of abusive boarding schools where she was beaten and kept in solitary confinement. After reuniting on camera with a group of fellow survivors who knew her before she was famous, she theorized that when she got out of those schools at age 18, she developed her spoiled heiress “Paris” persona as a trauma response.

“This mask I put on, all the extravagance and the photos, all this, it all just stemmed from that place,” Hilton said in This Is Paris, breaking down in tears in her walk-in closet. “When I look around my life, it’s like a cartoon. Like I created this fantasy world cartoon. But the thing is, I don’t even give a fuck about any of this.” Now she’s working on a campaign to shut down the reform schools that abused her.

Both documentaries garnered Hilton sympathetic but muted receptions. “So many people are now famous for being famous, she might now seem more venerable pioneer than contemptible fly-by-night,” the New York Times suggested in 2020. Comedian Sarah Silverman apologized for one of her Paris Hilton jokes from 2007. “For the first time, to me, Paris Hilton seems real,” the Guardian concluded.

Along with that reframing has come a sort of shrugging acknowledgment that, yes, now that we think about it, the way we as a society handled that whole Paris Hilton sex tape thing really was pretty bad. If the tape were released today, Jezebel noted in 2020, “plenty of people would be calling that footage what it actually was: revenge porn.”

No attempt to rehabilitate Paris Hilton’s brand has launched a public reckoning the way the New York Times and Hulu’s Framing Britney Spears documentary did. After Framing Britney Spears, House Republicans called for a new hearing on conservatorships, and a vast sea of recriminations and reevaluations on the media landscape of the early ’00s launched across social media.

None of that happened after This Is Paris, for pretty understandable reasons. Instead, commenters wrote think pieces on why the celebrity socialites of the ’00s shouldn’t get the same kinds of mea culpas from the press that Britney is getting. They also reminded everyone that Paris Hilton is on tape saying a number of objectively extremely racist things, including frequently using the n-word.

“The early 2000s rich-kid path to fame was always parasitic, but it was symbiotic parasitism, with both the spoiled children depending on tabloids to get famous and the tabloids depending on the shitty behavior of the spoiled children to peddle content,” wrote Emily Alford for Jezebel. “While the system was deeply, as the Times called it, creepy, it seems pointless for everyone who profited to start apologizing, or demanding apologies, now.”

The story of Paris Hilton is not a clear-cut tragedy the way the story of Britney Spears is. Hilton’s talent is for publicity and business, not for something clear and visible like Spears’s talent for music and performance, so her story doesn’t offer us a visceral sense of promise consumed and then destroyed.

Instead, when we think about Paris Hilton we just remember that period of the ’00s when she was annoyingly omnipresent, on tabloid cover after tabloid cover, without appearing to have any reason to be so thoroughly everywhere. With that memory comes the knowledge that while Hilton was pilloried in the press, she also courted press attention with abandon.

Most damningly, there is the fact that even as Hilton has asked for the public to reevaluate its treatment of her in the ’00s, she has yet to engage with her own history of racism. All of those things are true.

But the fact remains: Paris Hilton’s sex tape was released without her consent when she was 19 years old. And American pop culture used that fact as the basis of every Paris Hilton joke we would make for the next two decades.

You don’t have to think that Paris Hilton is a good or admirable or even an okay person to find the circumstances of her sex tape troublesome. You don’t even need to think about how its release affected Paris Hilton to find them troublesome. You only need to think about how it affected an era of American pop culture and all of us who consumed it.

Today’s 20- and 30-somethings grew up in a world that relished a Paris Hilton sex tape joke. Those jokes were in the air we breathed and the water we drank.

Here’s what we learned from them.

When a woman’s privacy is violated, she did it herself, for the attention

Paris Hilton shot her sex tape with her then-boyfriend Rick Salomon in 2001, at the age of 19. Titled 1 Night in Paris and dedicated to the memory of the 9/11 terrorist attacks (“we will never forget”), the tape was leaked online by Salomon in 2003, shortly before the December premiere of Hilton’s reality show The Simple Life. It’s shot through a grainy night-vision filter. In it, Hilton repeatedly asks Salomon to tell her that he loves her and that he wants to kiss her.

In April 2004, Salomon began distributing the film through the porn company Red Light District Video. In June 2004, he released it to a porn site.

The tape garnered immediate national headlines, with a very clear takeaway: Hilton, everyone said, had released the tape on purpose, purely for the money and the attention.

There was certainly money involved in 1 Night in Paris, even if we’re just looking at the lawsuits that followed — but Hilton never treated this particular attention as something welcome.

Shortly after the tape came out, Hilton publicly said she did not approve of its release. Salomon sued her for defamation, Hilton counter-sued, and the entire thing was settled out of court, with Salomon agreeing to pay Hilton $400,000 and a percentage of the profits. Kevin Blatt, who brokered the distribution deal for the video, claims that Hilton made more than $20 million from it. For her part, Hilton maintains that she “never received a dime from it” and donated all the money she won from Salomon to charity.

Though Hilton said publicly, again and again, that she did not want her sex tape to be made public, the press treated her claims with amused condescension. It just seemed so obvious to everyone that she must have wanted everyone to watch her having sex, and must secretly be delighted by the fact that so many people had. (It’s not clear exactly how many people did see the tape, but Salomon reported $10 million in revenue in 2004, most of it allegedly from the sex tape.) Why else would she have agreed to be recorded in the first place?

“Are you good in bed?” Piers Morgan asked Hilton for GQ in 2006, before adding, “I guess it’s a rhetorical question because I watched the video this morning for research purposes and the answer is clearly affirmative.” In response, he reported, Hilton “blushes, gasps, but looks delighted.”

A few paragraphs earlier in their Q&A, Hilton repeatedly described the release of the sex tape as a “betrayal,” and the idea that people she meets might have watched it as “a horrible thought.” But Morgan’s interpretation of her gasp supersedes her words: Surely, he concludes, despite everything she said, Hilton must have wanted the tape to be seen.

Morgan’s interpretation was the general consensus among the savvy set in the 2000s. “Though she cried foul when The Tape was released, who could take her outrage seriously?” asked a 2006 article in the intellectual City Journal. “After all, during ‘lovemaking,’ to use another of the euphemisms Paris’s life seems to collect, she wrestled Rick Salomon to the side to make sure the camera was Paris-centered.” The notion that Hilton might have wanted to be center stage in a sex tape intended for private consumption, while simultaneously not wanting the whole world to see that tape, appeared in vanishingly few places.

From the vantage point of the 2020s, the consensus of the 2000s can seem perverse. The pop culture of the time invaded Hilton’s privacy, and then somehow, nonsensically, blamed her for that invasion. She wanted it, the world concluded, because who would say no to attention? Even when that attention is as humiliating as the kind Hilton received?

The same logic underpins the way the 2000s treated paparazzi upskirt photos, of which Hilton was a frequent target. “Are they doing this for attention?” demanded Us Weekly in 2006, over a low-angled photo spread of Hilton, Britney Spears, Lindsey Lohan, and Kate Moss all exiting various vehicles, with bright yellow stars splashed over their crotches to indicate that the paparazzi crouching in wait to aim cameras up their skirts had caught these women without underwear on.

Yes, Us Weekly concluded: 84 percent of its readers had voted that the issue at hand was indeed these women’s unquenchable thirst for attention, not the industry that pushed its workers to aim cameras at other people’s genitals without their consent.

In a sidebar, the photo spread included upskirt jokes from prominent comedians. “Ladies, you need to cool it,” went one from Amy Poehler. “Nobody wants to see your baby factory.”

Hilton herself seems to have thoroughly internalized this particular lesson. In 2017, when asked about the women who had accused her “old family friend” Donald Trump of sexual assault, she had a simple response. “I think that they are just trying to get attention and get fame,” she said.

Women’s bodies and sexuality are inherently humiliating

Part of what made the Hilton sex tape so scandalous was the way it seemed to intrinsically, through its very existence, humiliate Hilton — and by extension, it threatened to humiliate anyone compared to her. For a period in the ’00s, assorted hot young blondes felt it necessary to explain to the press that they themselves were nothing like Paris Hilton and her shameful sex-tape-having ways.

“Do I look like a fucking Hilton sister?” Sienna Miller demanded of W magazine in 2004, adding, “Yeah, and check me out on the Internet having sex.”

“I don’t go to clubs,” Blake Lively told Seventeen magazine in 2008, responding to charges that she and Hilton were similar, “I don’t party, I don’t dance on tables, and I don’t like sex tapes.” Three years later, Lively’s nudes would be posted online without her permission.

The very suggestion that a woman might have a body that could have sex, and that this sex could potentially be exposed to the public, with or without her consent, was held to be inherently shameful. So no one could blame either Miller or Lively for wanting to avoid ever being compared to Paris Hilton — not when the world was talking about Paris Hilton the way that it did.

In 2004, South Park released a Paris Hilton-centric episode. Titled “Stupid Spoiled Whore Video Playset,” the episode features South Park’s girls becoming obsessed with Paris Hilton.

In their quest to emulate her, the girls purchase the DIY sex tape kit she’s selling, Stupid Spoiled Whore Video Playset (“Show the whole world what a slut you are!” goes the jingle). It includes everything the girls need to mime having partnerless sex in front of a camera through a night-vision filter, à la 1 Night in Paris. When one girl protests that such activities are demeaning to their gender, the other girls bully her.

In the climax of the episode, Paris Hilton herself challenges Mr. Slave, a local math teacher in a sadomasochistic relationship, to a “whore-off.” (The real-life Hilton did not participate in the episode.) Paris attempts to win the contest by publicly masturbating with a pineapple, to wild acclaim, but Mr. Slave manages to beat her by inserting her entire body into his anus. Over the credits, Paris crawls through the slimy insides of Mr. Slave’s body, struggling fruitlessly for escape.

In 2009, the Guardian put “Stupid Spoiled Whore Video Playset” on its list of best TV episodes of the decade, declaring it “a surreal odyssey that just got weirder and weirder … without ever losing sight of the point they were making about the role models we choose.”

The point South Park was ostensibly making was that very young girls should not feel pressured to emulate sexualized adults. In its attempt to make that point, however, it mostly argued that Paris Hilton, by virtue of having her sex tape made public without her consent, had given up any right to respect. She was unlikable not because of a documented history of racism or pettiness or meanness, but because she was a “whore.” She was the victim of a sex crime, which meant that her body was shameful, and that was what made the humiliations of the whore-off funny.

Importantly, she was stupid, too. But that’s its own lesson.

Women who are the victims of sex crimes are stupid

Paris Hilton has been pushing back against the idea that she is stupid for about as long as she has been famous. She frequently protests that people confuse her with the character she invented for her reality show The Simple Life, in which she presented herself to cameras as a ditzy blonde. Still, the world has been resistant to giving up the idea of Paris Hilton’s stupidity, in ways that are oddly intertwined with the fact of her sex tape.

“She’s unbelievably dumb, and so proud of how dumb she is. She looks like a tranny up close,” Tina Fey told Howard Stern of Hilton in 2006, a year after Hilton guest-hosted Saturday Night Live, on which Fey was the head writer at the time.

Fey’s beef with Hilton at the time was that Hilton had refused to perform a sketch that would have gently poked fun at her sex tape. This refusal, in Fey’s joking riff, became linked to the idea of Hilton’s alleged stupidity: Only someone unbelievably dumb would let a sex tape get out and then refuse to make fun of it. “She was awful,” Fey said. “People never come in and say, ‘I’m not doing that.’”

Also in 2006, Pink parodied 1 Night in Paris in the music video for her song “Stupid Girls.” “What happened to the dream of a girl president? She’s dancing in the video next to 50 Cent,” Pink laments, before filming herself crawling across a mattress and flipping some Hilton-esque extensions behind a night-vision filter.

“Pretty, will you fuck me, girl? Silly, I’m so lucky, girl. Pull my hair, I’ll suck it, girl, stupid girl,” she sings in the background.

“Stupid Girls” is supposed to be about the scourge of compulsory femininity, and how strong Pink and her fellow smart girls are for pushing back against it. But instead of aiming its vitriol at the system that is trying to enforce that compulsory femininity — the idea that it’s mandatory to be thin and big-boobed and sexually submissive, with long blonde hair — it targets the women like Hilton who have made it a priority to live as the patriarchy tells them to. The thesis of the video is that such women are stupid, and one of the ways that it illustrates Hilton’s supposed stupidity is by having Pink mockingly reenact her sex tape. By the end of the video, the fact that Paris Hilton’s boyfriend sold their sex tape without Hilton’s consent has somehow become responsible for the fact that there has never been a woman president.

That train of logic doesn’t necessarily hold up — but Pink was right about something. Paris Hilton was a good symbol of what girls were taught they were supposed to be like in 2006. And as “Stupid Girls” shows, she was also a good symbol of what girls were taught they were supposed to hate.

Those two ideas sound antithetical, but they’re not. They’re easily reconciled as long as you understand that in American pop culture, girls are supposed to hate themselves.

That’s our next lesson.

Paris Hilton is what you should want to be; you should also hate yourself for wanting to be her

In her heyday of the ’00s, during the period when she was inescapable, Paris Hilton seemed to embody the capitalist patriarchal ideal so thoroughly as to burlesque it. She was so thin, so white, so blonde, so rich: like a Barbie, only real. She was everything girls were taught they should want to be by men who wanted to sell them something.

“She was the ultimate package that corporate America would want to make for itself as a marketing tool,” Jason Moore, Hilton’s former manager, told CNN in 2011, “but it was already made for them.”

Rage at Hilton and the systems she represented came from all directions. The patriarchy that used her to sell an image treated her with disdain and contempt because our culture considers femininity to be both compulsory and inherently humiliating. And people who didn’t want to buy what the patriarchy was selling, who considered themselves too smart and too cool to fall for its tricks, directed their fury at Hilton rather than at the system itself. The counterculture Hilton was being sold to, instead of directing its fury at impersonal, invisible systems like the patriarchy or capitalism, centered that fury on Hilton herself.

Here is a story. In 2009, I was in college, and I was watching an episode of Veronica Mars on which Paris Hilton guest-starred. Every time Hilton appeared onscreen, my friends and I would theatrically groan. Why was she ruining our show like this?

“I feel like I can just see the STDs dripping right off her,” one of my friends said, and the rest of us laughed.

All of us in that room considered ourselves to be feminists. If asked, we probably would have identified as pro-sex feminists.

All of us also believed that Paris Hilton was someone to whom the rules of feminism didn’t apply.

She wasn’t someone like us, who was trying to escape the trap of being a girl in that time, who understood how awful it was to try to live up to the way we were all being asked to be girls in that time. No, Paris Hilton had sold out. She was trying to sell us the patriarchy. That meant she was fair game for judgment.

So we considered Paris Hilton’s body shameful. We considered her sex tape evidence of her shame. We assumed that her body had to be dirty and diseased because of her sex tape, and that we could signify our belief in this tenet by mocking her rumored STI. We believed that by mocking her, we were showing that we had escaped the trap of being a girl. We were too smart to want to buy what Paris Hilton was selling us.

Yet the ways we mocked Paris Hilton proved that we hadn’t escaped, not really. To mock her the way we did, we had to have bought all of what America and its pop culture had sold us: the belief that women are shameful and women’s bodies are shameful and women’s sex is shameful and women’s aesthetics are shameful. We bought all of that, and we convinced ourselves that we had escaped the trap of how awful it is to be a girl. We would never be like Paris Hilton because we knew better — except we didn’t, and when we mocked her, we were only showing all the ways in which we did not truly know better. We were internalizing ideas that in the end we would be forced to turn on ourselves.

The story of Paris Hilton’s sex tape shows how the patriarchy always gets you in the end. No matter how assiduously you identify the girls you do not want to be. No matter how loudly you perform your hate for them. It only ever becomes practice for hating yourself.


Read more: The Purity Chronicles looks back at the sexual and gendered mores of the late ’90s and 2000s, one pop culture phenomenon at a time.

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