The world changed, if only a little, on July 17, 1988, in a hotel room in Atlanta, Georgia.

The world changed, if only a little, on July 17, 1988, in a hotel room in Atlanta, Georgia. That was the night Rob Lowe pressed the red button on his camcorder to kick off what we now call the celebrity sex tape.

He was there for the Democratic National Convention, to support Michael Dukakis. Ted Turner gave a party, then Lowe, Judd Nelson and Ally Sheedy went to a nightclub called Club Rio on Luckie Street (and that joke is too obvious even for me). He went back to his hotel with two Atlanta hairdressers: one was 22, the other 16, which was the legal age of consent in Georgia, although he said later he had no idea she was that young. Who did what to whom is disputed, but they filmed it. When he went to the bathroom, according to his version, recounted in People magazine two years later, they disappeared with the tape. A few weeks later he received a lawyer’s letter informing him that the mother of the 16-year-old had the tape and was threatening to sue. Lowe’s lawyers called it an extortion attempt, but he settled out of court with the girl and her father – not the estranged mother.

The scandal almost destroyed Rob Lowe, according to his own account. The reaction was entirely negative, a threat to the way the public saw him as an actor. Producers said he would be difficult to hire because everyone would be thinking of the sex tape. Lowe spent four days holed up in his home in Los Angeles, besieged by reporters; he eventually escaped by crawling down a ravine on all-fours to get away. He now says the scandal saved his life: he hit bottom in his abuse of alcohol and pills, got sober, and restarted his career with spectacular success. Redemption followed humiliation, but there was still a strong sense of shame attached to the act.

He was able, eventually, to develop a sense of humour about it. In fact, he co-stars in a new film called Sex Tape, opening July 17, in which Cameron Diaz and Jason Segel, playing a couple with children, discover that the sex tape they made in jest has been stolen and released on the internet. Lowe plays her boss, who may be involved in the leaking of the tape.  His humiliation has now become a comedy. 

The world in which Lowe made that tape no longer exists. Celebrity sex tapes are now common, and some people leak them deliberately to get noticed, or to revive a sagging career. They have become mainstream and much less shameful or embarrassing. Why is that? Is it not still mortifying to know that half of the western world can download and watch your pale, flabby bottom in the midst of the most intimate act? When did shame disappear? 

At the same time, celebrities and stars have become even more vulnerable. There is a lot of money to be made in getting one to have sex with you. Even better if the celebrity bonks your friend while you film it with a smart phone. That way, you own the tape, because you filmed it. The question of ownership becomes crucial when making a deal with a porn company to release it on DVD, or the internet. Todd Carney’s recent outrage, while not a sex tape, illustrates how the world has changed, now that everyone carries a high resolution camera in their pocket.

Lowe’s tape would not have been possible without the invention of the camcorder, released by Sony in 1983. This made home sex taping easy and cheap. The internet exploded ten years later, and access to pornography with it. As bandwidth grew and computers became movie players, a perfect storm of sex and celebrity was born.  The rise of porn, its availability on any computer, appears to have normalised the idea of the sex tape, removing a lot of the shame. The way a sex tape impacts on careers has changed completely. It has become a path to stardom and money – lots of it.

Paris Hilton was a little known actress and socialite before she got it on with Rick Salomon, her then boyfriend, on tape in 2003. The tape was leaked on the internet just before her new Fox reality show debuted. Both sued the company that released the tape and both lost. They then signed an agreement to share the profits. The New York Times reported that the tape had sold over 600,000 copies by 2006. Ice-skater Tonya Harding and husband Jeff Gillooly went the same route with their leaked sex tape – eventually selling it themselves. Pamela Anderson and her then-husband Tommy Lee organised the release of their tape, in 1998. She has the distinction of having appeared in two sex tapes: the second, with singer Bret Michaels, was released on DVD in 2005, after it had been freely available on the internet for some time. Kim Kardashian’s career took off after her 2003 tape with Ray J was leaked in 2007. She sued Vivid Video, then settled for a reported $5 million. E! signed her to do a new reality show soon after.

Hilton, Anderson and Kardashian thus established a new career path. Fame and infamy turned out to be the same thing and equally marketable. These ‘stars’ could make millions by being themselves, just without their clothes on. No acting required. No shame either.