Trigger warning: this article discusses sexual assault, bullying and suicide
Since the release of The New York Time’s Framing Britney Spears documentary that’s captivated the nation, I have noticed that very few media outlets and TV hosts are embarking on apology tours to Britney Spears and other female celebrity public figures for exploiting and profiting off of their trauma, sexualization and abuse.
After watching the documentary, I cried. No, I actually wept. Profusely.
I am not a Grammy award-winning popstar sensation, and I am in no way comparing myself to the legendary icon that is Britney Spears. But as a woman and fellow victim of hypersexualized media coverage, humiliation and attempted character assassination, I felt compelled to speak out on this important issue.
While I feel sorry for Britney, and the way that the media had a cruel hand in shaping her future and reputation, I also know, firsthand, how it feels to have your deepest, darkest trauma exposed while the world stares, laughs, whispers and gawks at you. I wept for Britney because I intimately know how isolating it can feel while the world drools over sexualized headlines designed for clickbait profit.
The Framing Britney Spears documentary raises serious questions about a court-ordered conservatorship that gives Britney’s father complete control over her career and estate. It also exposes a vulturous media that unfairly diagnosed and dissected a woman who was simply trying to build her career while also being a mother.
Disturbing magazine covers from the 1990s resurfaced that criticized the pop star’s mental health, sexuality and mothering capabilities which read, “INSIDE BRITNEY’S BREAKDOWN: Wild partying, sobbing in public, and shaving her head.” While another magazine headline read, “BRITNEY SPEARS: TOO SEXY TOO SOON?” and “BRITNEY’S MENTAL ILLNESS: What’s behind her disturbing behavior, how her sons are doing, and why she won’t get help.”
By the early 2000s, Britney Spears’ purported downward spiral became a “punchline” for late-night television hosts. Jon Stewart joked on national TV that Spears got married to get her first wedding “out of the way…probably in the same way she lost her virginity,” while Conan O’Brien poked fun at her mental health saying, “When Britney got out of the car, people screamed, ‘Hey, look, that bald guy has a vagina!” But it didn’t stop there.
Veteran TV journalist Diane Sawyer is also facing backlash for a brutal sit-down interview with Britney Spears in 2003 in which the popstar burst into tears. Sawyer blamed Britney for causing Justin Timberlake “so much pain,” and then proceeded to tell her that the Governor of Maryland’s wife wanted to “shoot her,” implying that it was Britney’s fault because she was considered a “bad role model to kids.”
Following the release of the harrowing New York Times documentary, Glamour Magazine was one of the only media outlets to issue a statement that read, “We’re sorry, Britney. We are all to blame for what happened to Britney Spears – we may not have caused her downfall, but we funded it. And we can try to make up for that.”
Although I am relieved to witness at least some form of accountability, this half-hearted apology, sadly, comes too little, too late for a lot of women.
Evan Rachel Wood, 31-year-old star of HBO’s Westworld, is one of several young women who have also fallen victim to ruthless tabloid sensationalism. Wood is among the many brave women who recently came forward exposing her abuser as Brian Warner, also known as singer and musician Marilyn Manson. Wood started dating Manson when she was just 19-years-old and he was 38-years-old.
For years, the media committed willful blindness by overlooking Manson’s violent conduct and alleged history of abusing women while her relationship with Manson was tabloid fodder. Wood alleges to have suffered “years of horrific abuse”, claiming the singer groomed her as a teenager and “brainwashed her into submission.”
Like many sexual assault survivors, Wood attempted to take her own life, and, at 22-years-old, ultimately checked herself into a psychiatric facility.
Former White House intern, Monica Lewinsky, also became suicidal following the media onslaught that resulted after former President Bill Clinton admitted to having an affair with Lewinsky when she worked at the White House from1995-1996. America poked fun at her weight, no one would employ her and even charities didn’t want Lewinsky to volunteer.
In March 2020, Tara Reade, a former Senate staffer, accused then-presidential candidate Joe Biden of sexually assaulting her in 1993. She, too, joins a long list of women who was unfairly raked over the coals due to media toxicity. In chapter two of Reade’s new book, “Left Out When the Truth Doesn’t Fit In,” she writes, “There should be a warning label for coming forward about a powerful man. The warning label should read, as follows:
“Side effects: May cause loss of job, housing, career, relationships, and suicidal thoughts. Invokes death threats from others; triggers irrational craving for cheese curds, chocolate and other comfort foods; oh and, causes depression.”
As a fellow survivor of sexual assault, I, too, can vouch for all of the above side effects as a result of my own experiences.
After filing a federal lawsuit against my former employer and the man who sexually assaulted me, the media subjected me to vicious online bullying amid an onslaught of horrifying media headlines. My trauma became the world’s entertainment. I was forced to relive my biggest fear on the world stage, while media organizations ran wild with PTSD-inducing headlines containing words like “slut-shamed” and “revenge porn” and “raped” and “handcuffs” and “owned.”
I was reminded all over again that I didn’t have a choice; I had no control.
Brooklyn-based victims’ rights attorney, Carrie Goldberg, who specializes in sexual privacy violations, says that while “revenge porn” is a popular term used for the nonconsensual distribution of intimate images, Goldberg maintains that the name itself is a misnomer. It’s about consent and privacy.
“Use of the word revenge implies that the victim did something to warrant a retaliation – victims never deserve it,” says Goldberg.
While most states in the U.S. have passed laws that criminalize the sharing of nonconsensual pornography, unfortunately, it is still considered legal in six states. Goldberg, author of Nobody’s Victim: Fighting Psychos, Stalkers, Pervs, and Trolls, was a target of revenge porn herself from an ex-boyfriend, and has since transformed her traumatic experience into a powerhouse law practice that helps those in similar situations. When asked what progress needs to be made in this area of the law, Goldberg didn’t hold back.
“Criminalizing the conduct is not enough. We need law enforcers who know it’s illegal, investigators who can competently collect the evidence and with budgets to do so, prosecutors willing to make new precedent, and judges adept at handling these cases in court. The areas where more progress is required is in getting more states to give victims a private right of action in civil court against offenders.”
Goldberg added, “We also need platforms that publish and make money from doing so, to be legally responsible for the harms they facilitate. We need to roll back the decrepit 1996 legislation (Section 230 of the Communication Decency Acy) that prohibits victims of online abuse from holding the platform responsible.”
While the words “revenge porn” were unfairly attached to my name due to the retaliatory, heinous actions of the man who abused me, so were the words “slut” and “shame,” which led me to seriously question the media’s overuse of the phrase “slut-shamed.”
Isn’t it high time the media permanently retires the phrase “slut-shamed,” which implies the woman is a slut, and was “asking” to be sexually assaulted? Use of the phrase is a form of judgement, harassment and bullying that has no place in society, especially when referring to victims of sexual assault.
Countless articles about my trauma came with zero “trigger warnings” attached to them, which is a common, respectful practice and code of conduct among survivors of sexual abuse. Trigger warnings help fellow survivors to avoid fight-or-flight mode that occurs when they are exposed to words or imagery that reminds them of their trauma. Studies have shown that trigger warnings are also helpful to combat veterans and students who are recovering from mental illnesses, eating disorders, and suicidal tendencies.
But alas, no trigger warnings were issued on my behalf. Below is a cringeworthy compilation of present-day media headlines that I was forced to endure while the world had a front-row seat to my pain and suffering:
After reading these deeply violating, tone-deaf headlines about my trauma, is it any wonder why survivors of sexual assault stay silent for weeks, months or even years? Is it any wonder why victims have nervous breakdowns, and are often afraid to speak the truth due to potential media fallout and retaliation?
Even worse, these aren’t just ignorant headlines written from the ‘90s teen pop era… these are present-day, very real headlines that will live with me for the rest of my life. And society is watching, retweeting, and allowing it to happen in real time. This is the sort of retaliation that women, like myself, are subjected to for simply standing up for what is right.
Daisy Coleman, who was featured in the 2016 Netflix documentary Audrie and Daisy, stood up for what is right. The documentary features two teenagers who were ruthlessly cyberbullied after learning that their sexual assault crimes against them were caught on camera.
Despite relentless bullying, Daisy was a fearless advocate for survivors after co-founding SafeBAE, an organization dedicated to sexual assault prevention among middle and high school students. Tragically, she was found dead by suicide at the age of 23-years-old on August 4, 2020.
Audrie Pott also died by suicide at the age of 15-years-old after being sexually assaulted and had nude photographs of her shared online without her consent.
Mandy Moore, star of NBC’s This Is Us, recently shared a screenshot to her social media from a reporter who canceled on her interview after she declined to talk about an abusive relationship from her past.
Are you noticing a trend? Cyberbullying, sexual harassment, revenge porn, sexual assault, tabloid sensationalism and fear of retaliation is, in large part, to blame for the severe mental health crisis happening among many women in America. And it’s only getting worse.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, mental health is continuing to worsen among young adults with 75% reporting anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts since the onset of the Coronavirus pandemic.
A recent NBC news headline reads, “The revelations about Paris Hilton, Britney Spears, and Evan Rachel Wood seem to have spurred a wave of reassessments, causing many to reconsider their perceptions and reckon with celebrity-infatuated culture.”
While I am hopeful that this newfound, revelational shift following the release of the Framing Britney Spears documentary will nurture a healthier, more empathetic society, I cannot take the media’s promise to “do better” seriously, while simultaneously reading present-day, dehumanizing headlines about my own abuse.
I recently disclosed to a reporter who wanted to pursue a story about me that I feel like my trauma has unfairly become “entertainment.” While the retaliation and incessant media coverage on my sexual assault was starting to have a significant impact on my mental health, I stressed to the reporter that “I am a human being,” first and foremost.
To my relief, the reporter responded, “You matter first. Not a story.” That, of course, turned out to be a blatant lie.
As a journalist, woman, fearless advocate and survivor of sexual assault, I dream of a world where reporters prioritize victim’s privacy and livelihoods over clickbait headlines for profit. Because while you quench your self-serving thirst for “shock” and “awe” stories that garner thousands of “likes”, “shares” and “retweets”, we, the survivors, are the ones that truly suffer long-term, if not permanent, ramifications.
If there’s anything the Framing Britney Spears documentary taught us, as a society, we have a moral obligation to break this toxic pattern of hyper-sexualization and exploitation of women and their abuse for clickbait profit.
The time to restore humanity and decency in journalism is long overdue.
We owe it to Britney Spears. We owe it to Evan Rachel Wood and countless other female celebrities. We owe it to every victim who has suffered severe retaliation, mental breakdowns, character assassination, and attempted suicide as a result of such reckless behavior.
Don’t just talk the talk, media. Walk it. Do better, because the world is finally waking up and we are holding you accountable.
If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255). You can also reach out to the Crisis Text Line, a free, 24/7 confidential text messaging service that provides support to people in crisis when they text 741741.