Society has gentle epithets for the man who victimized Erin Andrews.
He was an unwanted admirer and a peeping Tom. The names sound almost playful. Like it’s a joust, a tit-for-tat, back and forth between the sexes. Only, in Andrews’ case, the cad stepped over the line secretly recorded the sportscaster and “Dancing with the Stars” cohost naked. Millions of other cads ogled the video images online.
That’s how some would like to downplay the ramifications. But it doesn’t go far enough.
Andrews’ attacker, Michael David Barrett, delivered an explicit, personal threat to women everywhere, but especially to those in the public eye. You exist for my pleasure, your rights to privacy be damned.
Barrett may not possess the mental capacity to grasp the full reach of his crime. That’s the crux of the problem: Millions of people don’t. So they feasted on this man’s spoils, clicking on the video of Andrews he shot through a peephole in her hotel room at the Vanderbilt Marriott in Nashville as she undressed.
In 2010, after pleading guilty to stalking Andrews and uploading the video to the Internet, Barrett was sentenced to 30 months in prison and three years’ probation. His confinement is over, but the damage he did continues.
Here’s what his crime means to women.
Without anyone physically touching you, you can be assaulted. You can have your dignity shattered, your personality altered, your sense of peace and purposefulness surrendered. All someone needs to do is secretly snap a few photos of your naked body, a few sexually compromising shots and angles, and release it on the Internet.
Perpetual molestation is achieved. Forever. What you lose can never be reclaimed because the images have been launched; they are free to anyone with an Internet access to be downloaded, shared and visually groped.
During Andrews’ $75 million civil suit this week, a witness for Vanderbilt Marriott, where the viral recording was made, admitted that the video was played while he was out with friends for dinner. He’d just left the courtroom hours before.
Andrews’ stalker had nearly 17 million eager accomplices. That’s how many times the video has been viewed, according to an estimate of an expert at the trial. The hotel is accused of negligence because Barrett learned Andrews’ room number, and was allowed to check into the room next to hers. Then he altered the peephole in the room’s door to record her.
No doubt the publicity of the trial’s outcome will draw more clicks.
It illustrates how distant we are from shutting down these attacks of non-consent.
Indeed, American society is barely beginning to address the truth about physically violent sexual assaults, cases where women are raped and hurt. Too many people are still befuddled by the fact that most such attacks are by someone the woman knows; her date that night, a man she considered a friend, someone that she had a few drinks with in the hours prior. He might even be her husband.
The questions asked in cross-examination are: What was she wearing? How many drinks did she consume? Did she kiss him? The fingers are first pointed directly at the woman, not the man.
The reason is that women’s bodies, but not men’s, are considered somewhat public property. So when a video surfaces, people look, not even thinking that they have no right to do so.
Andrews testified about what the attack did to her ability to trust, about the insecurity and humiliation it inflicted, about how she feels she must obsessively check the Internet. For this, she was grilled by defense lawyers about the many product endorsements she has gained since the incident — as if falling into abject poverty and depression are necessary proofs of her victimhood.
Some have insinuated that Andrews used the resulting publicity to drive her personal brand. That she manufacturing the furor for notoriety. After all, isn’t that a trope? The sex tape that launches a minor star’s career.
What an old ploy! Doubt the woman, put her in place, a subjugated spot where she can’t even express the emotional harm done.
Now some accuse Andrews of not being tough enough. Of being a complainer.
She’s tough enough. Erin Andrews earned spot in a field not traditionally friendly to women. She’s a sportscaster, one of the few women to rise to the highest ranks. She’s talented and competent.
Sure, most people realize Barrett’s huge intrusion. We get that part of the crime. We’re mortified by his behavior even.
And yet, 17 million people and counting felt that they had a right, an invitation, to click and view what only Andrews should be giving permission to see.
Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star. Readers may write to her at: Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 64108-1413, or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Photo: Erin Andrews at the 2012 premiere of What to Expect When You’re Expecting in New York. Wikimedia Commons.