The ultimate sex tape scandal: How Pam and Tommy’s stolen video shook the world | Television
BBy Christmas 1995, it was common knowledge that there was a “sex tape” of Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee, filmed privately during their honeymoon that year, after a 96-hour whirlwind romance. As a Baywatch star, Anderson was so world famous that other equally famous TV shows had storylines about him. Lee, the Mötley Crüe drummer, was also extremely well known, primarily as a sex, drug and rock ‘n’ roll poster boy, in part for moonlighting whenever he took the stage.
Their union, and its impact, was a kind of molecular chemistry affair; like oxygen and hydrogen, each, on their own, was a powerful element, but combined they were together culturally more potent – her eroticism slightly neutralized by marriage, her trouble-seeking made a little safer alongside of his all-American (actually Canadian) smile.
Let me decompress a bit: It was the 90s. Women, even if they were gay, and certainly not if they weren’t, didn’t ogle or allow ogling of other women’s breasts. . Men who took drugs and had tattoos weren’t asked to endorse sports brands. The highly anticipated upcoming Disney+ bio-series, Pam & Tommy, shows Lee in a much more unflattering light than he was in his prime, but he was never considered a peach.
The show is a lavish affair, dwelling on every luxurious detail of their Malibu mansion, Lee’s tattoos, Anderson’s cartoon beauty, but don’t confuse it with wealth porn (which is, of course, TV gold right now). Her personality, her rather winning denial and her budding disillusionment, tell a tense story. It’s ostensibly a hug on the sex tape and its fallout, but the simmering volatility — from Lee but also from almost everyone else — creates deeper suspense than the presence of all those celebrities would let you expect.
The sex tape, along with a load of weapons and jewelry, was stolen from Lee’s safe at home just before Halloween 1995. By Christmas, it was in a Daily Mail summary of the year , so everyone knew it, but no one had seen it. Fair play – it wasn’t until 1996 that the couple even realized the tape was missing – but there was more. In a way that will only become clear much later, this was a time of tectonic shifts: from old media to new; from old to new versions of fame, privacy, image and brand; and from old norms around sex, pornography, exhibitionism and voyeurism to new ones that are still unsettled.
A lot of what made sex shady was in the details. The boundaries between normal and perverse, clean and dirty, have been drawn by consumer conventions; if that thing you were buying was nice, you could buy it in a nice place. Similarly, to watch 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 should know a guy who knows the guy who ripped off the original thief, who would sell you a copy straight from your hands for $175.
None of this was the kind of thing respectable people did. You’d look weak if you hadn’t heard of the sex tape, but to say you’ve seen it, well, you’d at least need a reason. The same couldn’t be said for the sex tapes that exploded five or 10 years later — Kim Kardashian’s leaked in 2007, Paris Hilton’s in 2003. On a chat forum, or you were just navigate. The thing is, you wouldn’t need a reason. You can buy anything, anywhere, and often not even for cash.
In terms of gender, the fundamental breakdown wrought by the internet age is not so much that of privacy or the right to be forgotten (as foreseen by EU law), but a shared consensus around what sexual decency does is, who has the right to have it, who has the right to look at it, who is exploited by it, who benefits from it. What is truly astonishing is how many years have passed without us getting closer to a new resolution.
Pam and Tommy’s story is amazing in part because of their naivety. The series, starring 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, which details how, once they discovered that the tape was missing, they sought to contain the leak. They sent thugs to harass people they suspected of theft and filed doomed lawsuits against distributors as if the old rules were still in place and no one could distribute your movie unless you have signed a release form. This isn’t some dumb celebrity story; their naïveté found an echo in culture, subculture, and law—a sincere belief, even among pornographers, that if you hadn’t signed a movie, you could keep it from being seen.
It was a first world problem, of course, but there was a real crisis in the years that followed regarding the value of fame: if you couldn’t control your own content, you couldn’t monetize it, and if you couldn’t monetize that, what in fact has been this? Enter Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian, with a thought experiment. They did not personally release their tapes and threatened legal action to prevent distribution, but both eventually cashed in on the notoriety, having realized that the rules had changed permanently. If you don’t own the content but you still own the identity, flip the equation, so content isn’t rationed and identity becomes obliterating: rather than protecting your privacy, show everything.
The funny thing about these sex tapes is that they don’t really work like porn – Hilton’s is very fey, Kardashian’s is all random camera angles. But they’re not supposed to; it’s 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 puppeteers of the new era: in retrospect, I think it was misogynistic. If Mark Zuckerberg had done it, no one would have asked if anyone else was pulling his strings; although arguably, there would have been no point in him being naked. So there is this.
Anderson and Lee’s video had a special vibe, in that it felt private; it was made by two people, for each other, at a time when accidental mass distribution was not on the horizon. Later, when sex tapes became more common, the question was always whether they were cynically released by the subject or tricked by dishonest means. There was a subset of the manosphere that was still looking for the original Anderson/Lee experience, that didn’t want to be consumers but voyeurs.
When the big 10s nude-dumps arrived, first in 2014’s Celebgate and then in 2017’s Fappening, it was no coincidence that they were posted on 4chan, the prime image board for the incel and other far-right misogynistic movements. They were nude photos, mostly of female actors, obtained without consent via an iCloud security breach, and the fact was, they were stars you wouldn’t usually see naked: Jennifer Lawrence, Kate Upton . Many of the women depicted have denied the authenticity of the images. The whole thing was about more than naked bodies — which, let’s face it, in the middle of the last decade you could find anywhere — it was about sticking it to women who wouldn’t get upset. The Fappening was essentially a metaphor for incel identity; men who experience sex not as participants but as thieving, despised, marginal, illegitimate observers.
Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee had two sons before divorcing in 1998. A detail that sounds like a pub-quiz curiosity is that Anderson married Rick Salomon – the other part in the Paris Hilton sex video – in 2007 They got an annulment. a year later, but remarried in 2014, divorced again the year after. (It’s safe to say Anderson is very fond of nuptials; she’s had a successful marriage, an annulment, and another marriage to someone different in 2020, which I think puts your sourdough successes to shame.)
When it comes to her and Solomon, however, it seems likely that their sex tapes were an absolutely seismic and defining event for both of them, giving them a huge amount in common. As interesting as it is, watching privacy turn into exposure, self into branding, sex into infomercial, is monumentally asymmetrical: for most, a curiosity; to two people, basically the rest of their lives. It’s a repair the World Wide Web will never be able to make: rectify or even acknowledge the magnitude of this impact, when a billion eyes are all on the same thing at once.
Pam & Tommy is on Disney+ from February 2.