In the first episode of The Scarlet Letter Reports, I sit down with feminist media critic and founder of Feminist Frequency, Anita Sarkeesian.
In 2012, Anita launched a Kickstarter to fund a web series examining sexist portrayals of women in video games, called Tropes vs. Women in Video Games. This trigged a massive, coordinated harassment campaign against Anita, led by an anonymous, online community of gamers. The barrage of harassment coincided with the Gamergate campaign against Zoe Quinn, which only intensified the amount of doxing, threats, and online abuse.
Anita faced horrific levels of harassment—from bomb and death threats at events to having her face and the faces of family members photoshopped onto pornographic images. While most women have not experienced the intensity of harassment that Anita endured, she is also the first to say that none of this is unique to her—it’s an extreme version of what most women and girls deal with just by existing on the internet. The difference is in degree, not kind. Men claim a majority stake in the internet and gaming community, and women—especially young women—encounter sexist and sexualized online abuse at much higher rates than men.
But despite years of harassment, Anita decided not to let anyone else take away her voice. She still runs Feminist Frequency and continues to speak out on issues around sexism, video games, and online harassment. “I’m still going through it, and I’m choosing to be a human again. I’m choosing to live again,” she said.
As someone who has also received numerous death threats, and is subjected to daily harassment by anonymous trolls who shower abuse on me as vigilante punishment for a crime I didn’t commit, I know what it’s like to face a grueling uphill battle just to have a presence, like everyone else, on the internet.
Games and the internet can be a liberating, creative outlet for many. The question is: how can we make sure it can be that way for everyone? How can we be free to express ourselves and be free from harassment? And, what is the cost of having a voice?
In this episode of The Scarlet Letter Reports, I tell the story of how my own character was assassinated in the media when I was arrested and put on trial for a crime I didn’t commit.
In 2007, I was just another twenty-year-old college student studying abroad in Perugia, Italy. One night, a local burglar named Rudy Guede broke into the apartment I shared with three other young women, and murdered the only one of us who was home at the time—Meredith Kercher. For the next eight years, Meredith’s murder made international headlines, but for all the worldwide attention the case received, few people have ever heard of Rudy Guede. That’s because the investigators, prosecutors, media, and public focused their attention, instead, on me.
My boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito, and I were hastily arrested. The prosecution and tabloid media cast me as a femme fatale, a sex-crazed she-devil who murdered my roommate in a drug- and/or jealousy-fueled rage during a sex game gone wrong. It didn’t matter that I had zero history of violence or mental illness or criminal behavior, and that exactly zero DNA evidence placed me at the scene of the crime. The prosecution and the tabloids had already created “Foxy Knoxy”—a figure onto which people could project their fears and fantasies, particularly those surrounding female sexuality, and that was enough to convict us.
Raffaele and I survived four years in prison and eight years on trial. In March 2015, we were found innocent by the Italian Supreme Court. To this day, I combat harassment and attacks on my character on a regular basis. I get through it by thinking hard about the forces that lead to our dehumanization, how those forces affect other individuals in similar situations, and what we can do to stop our lives and our identities from being stolen from us.
I sit down with model and actress, Amber Rose, who founded the annual Amber Rose Slut Walk, in this episode of The Scarlet Letter Reports.
We use “slut” as a blanket label for women we want to delegitimize by weaponizing their sexuality against them. Ever since Amber dated Kanye West, many have written her off as a “slut” and a “gold-digger;” she has been defined by the media and the public as a woman whose success—and whose very existence—is dependent upon the men in her life. After their break-up, Kanye promoted that characterization, saying, “If Kim had dated me when I wanted, there wouldn’t be an Amber Rose” and that he “had to take 30 showers” before becoming intimate with Kim.
At the same time, Amber herself has not shied away from controversy, and talks openly about how she leveraged her own sexuality to help establish her career. In doing so, she was simultaneously labeled as “nothing but a stripper.” So, Amber decided to reclaim her own narrative, and help other women who had also experienced abuse, harassment, and victim-blaming through her annual Slut Walk.
Amber understands that women should be allowed to embrace their sexuality without being shamed for it or defined by it. I understand what it’s like to exist in this controversial space. My frankly vanilla sex life was twisted out of recognition by my prosecutor and the tabloid media and the image of that invented succubus (“man-eater,” “she-devil,” “Luciferina”) was used in court to convict me of a crime I didn’t commit. And that was only possible because the tabloid readership salivated at the idea of a feminine monster, a hyper-sexualized femme-fatale.
Is Amber “guilty” for leveraging her sexuality as a part of her identity? Or are we guilty of reducing her to merely a sexual object, and punishing her for being out of our control?
In this episode of The Scarlet Letter Reports, I sit down with sexual assault survivor Daisy Coleman, who co-founded SafeBAE, an organization that educates students in middle and high school about sexual assault.
In January 2012, Daisy’s mother discovered her 14-year-old daughter unconscious on the front lawn, hair frozen to the ground, wearing only sweatpants and a t-shirt. She had been dumped there in the night by 17-year-old Matthew Barnett.
Daisy claims that Barnett had encouraged her on to drink until she blacked out. It was only when her mom took her to the ER the next day—for frostbite—that doctors confirmed Daisy showed signs of having been raped.
Daisy reported the assault to local law enforcement, and though detectives brought Barnett in for questioning, they soon dropped assault charges against him, citing insufficient evidence. Overnight, Daisy’s small town had cast her as a “lying slut.” She was relentlessly and ruthlessly bullied at school and online. The harassment became so severe that her family had to move towns and Daisy attempted suicide twice. “I got so tired being told to shut up,” said Daisy. “I was told to quit talking about it. And so that’s when I decided I need to speak out about it, and other survivors started coming forward to me, and I realized this isn’t just happening to me.”
Daisy’s plight of victim blaming, though extreme, is not uncommon. For too long, our adversarial justice system has exacerbated rape culture and the trauma of sexual assault by subjecting victims to malicious and misogynist scrutiny, which, in turn, is exacerbated further by social media.
As someone who has experienced wrongful conviction, I know first hand what it’s like to be prosecuted in a hasty, unsubstantiated case, as well as subjected to malicious, misogynist scrutiny and public shaming. The question is: Is it possible to investigate victims’ claims with care, and prosecute sexual assault cases with caution, without setting victims’ up to be shamed and blamed? What is the cost victims pay when they speak up, and why do we continue to find it necessary that they pay any price at all?
In this episode of The Scarlet Letter Reports, I sit down with adult film star Brett Rossi who, in 2015, filed a domestic violence lawsuit against her former fiancé, celebrity actor Charlie Sheen.
At the time, Brett’s allegations weren’t taken seriously by the media or the public. Instead, it became a battle of he said, she said. Although Sheen already had already been accused of abusing women in the past, it was Brett’s credibility that was called into question. Why? Because she works in the sex industry.
Tabloids labeled her the “porn star girlfriend” and treated her as little more than a gaff of the ever-lovable Charlie Sheen. “I am once again an invisible entity,” she said, remembering how she was cast by the media at the time, and how that impacted how she saw herself. “I am a ‘porn star,’ a ‘sex symbol,’ I’m ‘disgusting,’ I’m ‘pathetic.’ When you hear people tell you what you are every single day, you just start to believe it.”
While I was on trial for a crime I did not commit, just being a normally sexually active female was enough for prosecutors and the tabloids to strip me of credibility and value. So I have an inkling of what Brett has faced, trying to maintain her credibility while working in the legal sex industry. We live in a world where as many as one in three women in the US experience domestic violence in their lifetime—a world where women are more likely to be killed by the men they sleep with than by all other types of assailants combined. Why is it so hard for society to believe that a porn star could be one of these victims?
In this episode of The Scarlet Letter Reports, I sit down with actress Mischa Barton who, in 2017, filed a lawsuit against her ex-boyfriend for secretly recording the two of them having sex and subsequently selling the sex tape to porn sites. Though Mischa eventually won her case, the revenge porn lawsuit put her most personal, intimate self in the center of the media’s attention.
This also was not the first time Mischa found herself the subject of media scandal. For years, her private life has been combed for any and every misfortune and mistake, and the tabloids have scrutinized her sexuality, body, and even mental health. And today she knows the revenge porn case may also continue to haunt her. “Yes, it will always be there—an aggravation, an annoyance, a shame that could potentially rear its ugly head again,” she said, explaining how women continue to be harassed even long after a case may be considered resolved.
As someone who was also thrust into the public spotlight for something I didn’t do, I have to ask: Why is this considered an appropriate way to treat female public figures? In my experience, you learn to live with a very particular form of dread, knowing just how much your notoriety puts you at risk.
I never asked for the spotlight and Mischa did. Does that matter? Why is it that a non-consensual sex tape will ruin a woman’s reputation or career but rarely a man’s? Why do we feel a false sense of entitlement to the private moments of people who’ve crossed into public life?