Britney Spears' exploitation reveals the misogyny of a society that has normalised sexual assault in schools – Susan Dalgety

“It’s a man’s, man’s, man’s world”, sang James Brown in a song Rolling Stone magazine once described as “biblically chauvinistic”.

Singer Britney Spears has the support of women the world as she takes legal action over a legal conservatorship (Picture: Gabe Ginsberg/Getty Images)
Singer Britney Spears has the support of women the world as she takes legal action over a legal conservatorship (Picture: Gabe Ginsberg/Getty Images)

Brown’s hit was released two generations ago, but in the last few days, even a cursory scroll through newspaper headlines reveals a world that is as misogynist and dangerous for women and girls as it has ever been.

Labour politician, now an MP, Kim Leadbeater, was abused while campaigning on the streets of Batley and Spen, where her sister, Jo Cox, was murdered only five years ago. A screaming man, spitting hate, was filmed harassing Leadbeater, egged on by a group of snarling young men.

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The mini-mob chased her to her car where she sought refuge. "Is it any wonder that people, particularly women, don’t want to enter politics when stuff like this happens,” she said later.

Leadbeater may have got the last word – for now. She won the by-election by the narrowest of margins, but she required police protection during much of the campaign and memories of her sister’s death – gunned down by a right-wing extremist – will surely haunt her as she takes her place in the House of Commons.

The haunted face of Britney Spears dominated the internet this week. The singer, whose decades-long career has earned her family a fortune, has been under a conservatorship for nearly 13 years, following a mental health breakdown.

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Her father and a firm of accountants control her every move. Literally. In an attempt to escape the legal arrangement, she gave evidence in court a few days ago where she revealed that, at 39, she does not even have the right to make decisions about her own body.

“I have an IUD [contraceptive device] inside of myself right now so I don’t get pregnant,” she explained. “I wanted to take the IUD out so I could start trying to have another baby. But this so-called team won’t let me go to the doctor to take it out because they don’t want me to have children – any more children.”

Spears, it seems, was considered fit enough by her guardians to headline three very lucrative residencies at Las Vegas in the last decade, but not competent enough to choose her contraception.

Her legal battle continues. The judge in her case has just denied an earlier request to remove her father from his role but cannot make a final judgement until Spears files a formal petition to end her ordeal. But she has the support of women the world over in her battle for her very soul, including soul legend Dionne Warwick, who made a video message in support of her sister artist.

"Give her back her rights. Give her back her life. Set her free," she demanded.

But it wasn’t Britney Spears who was tasting freedom this week. In a cruel twist, worthy of a Harvey Weinstein production, former TV superstar Bill Cosby was released from prison on a technicality after a judge ruled his 2018 conviction for sexually assaulting Andrea Constand was not legally sound.

In recent years, 60 women have claimed that Cosby had drugged and attacked them, and his prison sentence was regarded by many as vindication for his predatory behaviour. Not anymore, as he settles into his Philadelphia mansion to enjoy his retirement.

Britney Spears remains a prisoner. Bill Cosby is free. It’s a man’s, man’s, man’s world indeed.

But perhaps the most shocking headline of all was in this newspaper. “Rise in sexual harassment in Scottish schools needs urgent action on access to porn...” said the headline. The text was worse. Personal testimonies on the website of Everyone’s Invited, a movement committed to ending rape culture, reveal a distressing catalogue of abuse in our country’s playgrounds, with stories of sexual harassment and assault from more than 120 Scottish schools – including 17 primary schools.

The very fact of a girl’s sex makes her easy prey for giggling schoolboys to explore their burgeoning sexual fantasies. Girls are not seen as equals by their male peers, but sexual objects to be poked and prodded, their bodies nothing more than camera fodder for boys to salivate over.

There are many factors at play. Popular culture is much more overtly sexual than it was even 20 years ago, with femaleness reduced to little more than pouting lips and high heels. Even as girls outstrip boys academically, the pressure on them to be pretty as well as clever is immense.

And easy access to online pornography has distorted teenagers’ understanding of sex. Porn objectifies women, glamourising rape and abuse. Girls grow up believing that a boy strangling her during sex is a sign of his passion, not a perversion. Submission is sexy.

The UK Government recently scrapped the roll-out of part three of the Digital Economy Act 2017 which would have helped protect children from accessing pornography online.

Scottish Labour MSP Rhoda Grant, backed by MSPs from across the party divide, has called for Westminster to change its mind. “Access to some of the most violent forms of illegal pornography normalises violence against women and girls,” she said when tabling a motion at Holyrood in support of age restrictions. And a poll by charity Care shows 80 per cent of adults want an age limit of 18 for access to porn sites.

Britney Spears first became a household name when, in 1998, at the age of 16, she released a video for her single …Baby One More Time. In it she appeared dressed as an adult man’s fantasy of a ‘sexy’ schoolgirl, St Trinian’s for the digital age.

Just as now, men decided teenage Britney’s fate, transforming her from a jolly Disney girl into a sexual parody. Her exploitation reveals a popular culture with misogyny at its heart, one that has normalised sexual assaults in our children’s schools. Britney Spears is now fighting for her life. It’s time we stood up for our girls.

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