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Pam & Tommy to A$AP Rocky: the changing face of the celebrity sex tape

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The new Disney Plus series Pam & Tommy, the eighth and final episode of which airs on March 9 2022, has once again pushed the phenomenon of the sex tape to the forefront of celebrity and media culture.

Actor Pamela Anderson and heavy metal drummer Tommy Lee’s infamous 1995 sex tape, cut from footage the couple took during their marriage and honeymoon, was the first celebrity sex tape to be widely distributed among the public. After the couple’s camcorder footage was stolen from a safe by a disgruntled electrician, copied, then sold on VHS, an ethically and highly legally dubious cottage industry of sorts was solidified.

In the 27 years that have elapsed since the footage went public, much has changed in terms of the technology associated with ‘celebrity sex tapes’, tech-related legal issues around them, and public attitudes of those seen bumping and grinding in them.

With these shifting topics in mind, we’ve charted the history of the celeb sex tape.

Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly (1994)

An early example of how video technology can be misused for revenge porn came in 1994, when Jeff Gillooly released footage from 1990 of his then-new wife Tonya Harding, who would go on to be an Olympic figure skater for the US. The couple divorced shortly before Gillooly sold the tape, and Penthouse magazine published stills from it.

Created long before widespread home internet use and porn tube sites, the nevertheless stands as a warning that if it’s been recorded at any time in history, it can get put online. In early 2022 the footage was easily available on various porn video sites.

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Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee (1995)

050802 n 0685s 002
Photo: Jo A. Wilbourn Sims

After electrician Rand Gauthier stole an Hi-8 tape from a safe in the couple’s Los Angeles mansion, featuring hardcore footage of Anderson and Lee, he did a deal with mobsters to sell VHS copies of it via online ordering. Released at a time long before tube porn sites became widespread, the VHS was widely distributed. But with bootleg copies of the non-sanctioned footage swamping the market, and Gauthier going into hiding as he feared retribution from Lee, the fortune he was expecting did not materialise.

A totemic artifact of the bootleg VHS age, the video showed how just being associated with sex could be toxic for female screen stars, but not quite so much for male celebs. The footage showed the newly-married couple clearly madly in love and enjoying a healthy, respectful sex life, but it helped typecast Anderson as highly-sexualized. The films she starred in that came out shortly after the sex tape, such as 1996’s Barb Wire and ‘erotic thriller’ Naked Souls, played on this, and Anderson struggled to land wholesome roles.

That same year, speaking of the sex tape leak, Anderson told The Tonight Show with Jay Leno: “It’s not funny, this is devastating to us.” Lee, drummer with spandex-adorned heavy rockers Mötley Crüe, was happier to embrace the notoriety the tape brought, saying it made his career.

Fred Durst (2003)

fred durst 1
Photo: Achim Raschka

While Anderson and Lee didn’t see a cent from the direct revenue of their sex tape, in the 2000s some celebrities who appeared in surreptitiously leaked sex tapes started throwing lawyers at the issue. In 2005 Limp Bizkit frontman Fred Durst sued ten website operators for a total of over $70 million in damages, for allegedly posting a homemade sex tape the ‘Nookie’ singer made with a girlfriend.

Durst had reportedly been the victim of hackers who accessed his home computer and copied the sex tape file. A porn film company then contacted him and asked if he would be interested in officially releasing the footage. He declined, and called his lawyers instead.

Paris Hilton and Rick Salomon (2004)

paris hilton
Photo: Roger Casas-Alatriste

Like Anderson and Lee’s sex tape, the tape made by hotel empire heiress Paris Hilton and professional poker player Rick Salomon has reached almost cinematic notoriety. Filmed in 2001 and available online in 2004, some of 1 Night in Paris was shot in night vision when Hilton was aged in her late teens, and resembles the kind of footage you might find in the ‘amateur’ sections of porn tube sites.

Another similarity between this sex tape and Anderson and Lee’s was the disparity in the effect it had on the man and woman involved. Hilton said she felt pressured by Salomon into being filmed, later saying: “That was a private moment with a teenage girl not in her right head space. But everyone was watching it and laughing, like it’s something funny… if that happened today it would not be the same story at all. But they made me the bad person.”

Salomon, meanwhile, filmed himself giving a sort of “commentary” to the footage, and sold copies of 1 Night in Paris through his own video distribution company.

As recently as 2021, Hilton has said the sex tape still causes post-traumatic stress disorder.

Joanie Laurer and Sean Waltman (2004)

laurer joanie 2007
Photo: Pinguino K

The release of 1 Night in China in 2004, shortly after 1 Night in Paris, showed that not all high-profile celebrity sex tapes at the time were the result of male manipulation and deceit. WWF (now WWE) wrestlers Laurer (aka China) and Waltman (aka X-Pac) starred together in this hardcore video, which was officially released by distributor Red Light District Video.

The pair reportedly shared the profits from sales of the video, which clocked in at over 100,000 units. Although the couple split up, Laurer embraced her new career as a porn creator, appearing in further films such as 2009’s Another Night in China.

Kim Kardashian and Ray J (2007)

Kim Kardashian at the nefarious fine jewelry spring 2007 collection and holiday party. shag, hollywood, ca. 12 11 06
Kim Kardashian at the Nefarious Fine Jewelry Spring 2007 Collection and Holiday Party. Shag, Hollywood, CA. 12-11-06

Prior to Kardashian and rapper Ray J’s infamous 2002-filmed sex tape going viral in 2007, the former was best known as a socialite and Paris Hilton’s stylist. Porn company Vivid Entertainment released the footage, and was subsequently sued by Kardashian, who accepted a settlement from the firm. One of the first widely-received sex tapes to be distributed online rather than simply being sold as a VHS via online ordering, Kardashian seized the chance to capitalise on the publicity.

The reality show Keeping up With the Kardashians launched in 2007 and ended in 2021. While Ray J’s fame soon drooped, Kardashian basically invented the concept of the online influencer, launching brands with the help of her Instagram followers, which in early 2022 numbered nearly 300 million.

Kardashian’s management of the video publicity influenced a partial tide-turning with regards to public perceptions of women who appeared in such videos. During her early fame period she was much-criticised for promoting a superficial, beauty-obsessed lifestyle, but she has since been lauded as a stellar businessperson and has studied law.

When asked in Keeping up With the Kardashians why she made the sex tape, she said: “Because I was horny and I felt like it”.

Tulisa and Justin Edwards (2012)

One of the most disturbing sex tape incidents to take place within British media culture happened in 2012, when singer Tula Paulinea Contostavlos, aka Tulisa, became a victim of revenge porn. Having risen to fame with the musical group N-Dubz, she’d had solo success and was a regular on mainstream British television. Then her ex-boyfriend Justin Edwards, aka rapper Ultra, put a home-made video showing Tulisa performing an intimate act online.

It came at a time when making sex tapes with smartphones was commonplace for the young, digital-native generations. And it was a lower than low form of revenge porn from Edwards, who sold downloads of the video for $5.99.

While the video came after the woman-shaming days of the Anderson and Lee tape, the move showed that such videos could still be devastating for female celebrities. Tulisa said that after the video was released she became suicidal, and attributed her subsequent decline in career success to it. She took Edwards to court for invasion of privacy and got a formal apology from him.

While Tulisa said her mental condition declined due to the video being released, with her career then suffering, some other explicit photo leaks from female celebrities around that time did not lead to the same trajectory. In two separate incidents, in 2014 explicit selfies taken by singer Rihanna and actress Jennifer Lawrence were leaked online, allegedly after hackers breached the stars’ cloud storage.

Although the Lawrence said the leak was traumatic, neither her nor Rihanna’s careers and public personas seemed negatively affected in the way that those of some famous women had. Lawrence remains one of Hollywood’s most respected and successful stars, while Rihanna’s success in music and on screen similarly continued unabated.

Hulk Hogan (2012)

hulk hogan
Photo: Petty Officer 1st Class Kristin Fitzsimmons, USN

While many porn tube sites have been accused of copyright breaches and other content abuse, Hulk Hogan’s sex tape lawsuit showed that in the mid-2010s the internet wasn’t simply a wild west of consequence-free content distribution. Especially when an entrepreneur billionaire with a grudge is involved.

In the tape Hogan, real name Terry Bollea, was seen having sex with his friend’s wife and making racial slurs. He sued the website Gawker for publishing the video, with the wrestling star’s legal efforts secretly bankrolled by billionaire businessman Peter Thiel, who held a grudge against Gawker for outing him as gay and criticising him.

The suit came after Gawker published the video under the headline, ‘Even for a minute, watching Hulk Hogan have sex in a canopy bed is not safe for work but watch it anyway’, and it quickly racked up millions of views.

A judge ordered Gawker to pay $141 million in damages, after Hogan rejected a $10 million offer to settle before the case went to trial. The verdict led to Gawker’s closure, with Thiel’s objective of destroying the site was achieved.

Joel Dommett (2016)

British comedian Joel Dommett might well be the least famous person on this list (arguably aside from Ray J), but the leaking of his sex tape highlighted a frightfully of-the-times scam. It came after Dommett began messaging with an attractive-looking Twitter use named ‘Staci Taylor’, who then asked him to take part in a video sex session with her.

By 2016 both purely-online relationships and video sex were considered normal behaviour by many Millennials like Dommett, so he promptly agreed, logged on to a video session with ‘Staci’, then started pleasuring himself. Soon Dommett realised that the video footage he was watching of ‘Staci’ was pre-recorded, rather than the live session he’d been expecting. Two years later he received a message from another Twitter account, saying they had explicit images of him.

Dommett had been catfished, but refused to pay a ransom when the catfishing Twitter account asked for payment to not release the content. The video duly went online, but Dommett made hay out of the incident, writing comedy lines about it and talking about being a catfishing victim openly in the media. The only people shamed were the catfishers.

A$AP Rocky (2019)

asap rocky 2013
Photo: Chad Cooper

In 2019 what looked like smartphone footage of rapper A$AP Rocky having sex with a woman started doing the internet rounds, with Rocky’s blasé response highlighting how the sight of explicit consenting celebrity sex isn’t a prompt for public shaming (or even public caring) anymore. At least for male hip-hop stars.

Rocky’s face wasn’t seen in the footage, with fans claiming to have identified him via his tattoos. The rapper tweeted: “my penis and I woke up 2 the alarming disturbance of a video clip 2day. As his defense attorney we’re prepared 2 deny any slow strokes or lack of killin the p***y. A long list of women can attest too. The real punchline is seeing ppl who never f**ked him rate him.”

There’s nearly 400 thousand likes for that tweet, so far.

Read next: Demi Lovato joins celebrity sex toy market with gender-neutral ‘Demi Wand’

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