Britney Spears alleged in a court hearing this week a significant amount of coercion at the hands of her conservators, including her father Jamie Spears. Spears’ strict guardianship-type arrangement, which has been in place since her mental breakdown over a decade ago, received widespread attention for its unfairness after Hulu aired “Framing Britney Spears,” an episode of the New York Times Presents documentary series, in February. In March, Congressmen called for the topic to be given a Congressional hearing, citing Spears’ predicament and other potentially abusive court-ordered conservatorships. The hashtag #FreeBritney has since gone viral highlighting the pop star’s 13-year-long conservatorship that until now was less openly discussed by the pop star herself.
“I have a lot to say,” she began. What followed were statements that were even worse than many could have imagined—including that Spears has been unable to make personal health decisions such as to have her IUD removed or choose the therapist she sees, due to threats of being punished or sued by those serving as conservators of her estate.
Here is a brief rundown on the truly problematic issues Britney Spears mentioned in her comments—some of which bring up society-wide problems that deserve greater attention.
Refusal to remove her IUD
"I have an IUD in my body right now that won't let me have a baby, and my conservators won't let me go to the doctor to take it out," Spears said. "I wanna be able to get married and have a baby." The announcement took the world by storm. Twitter reported that more than 50,000 tweets mentioned “IUD” in a 24-hour span.
The statement has rightfully caused an uproar over the Internet and in news outlets. That a birth control intrauterine device could be forced on someone against their will is unconscionable. Not only does it inhibit a woman’s freedom, but an IUD also is not a neutral medical intervention; like any pharmaceutical drug or device, the IUD exposes women to side effects and adverse health risks as well.
Planned Parenthood head Alexis McGill Johnson released a statement, saying, "We stand in solidarity with Britney and all women who face reproductive coercion. Your reproductive health is your own - and no one should make decisions about it for you. Every person should have the ability to make their own decisions about their bodies and exercise bodily autonomy."
While Johnson’s sentiment sounds nice, there’s reason to believe that, when it’s not regarding high-profile women like Britney Spears, Planned Parenthood and other contraceptive providers are not as much champions for bodily autonomy as they may want to suggest. The fact is many women face roadblocks to having their IUD removed, not due to conservatorships, and few contraceptive providers are doing anything about it.
Because IUDs are long-acting reversible contraceptives, many birth control providers and insurance companies are biased toward encouraging women to keep the IUD inserted for the full length of time that it can be used, which can be up to ten years. As a result, when women speak out about health complications, bad side effects, or simply change their mind, many report that their provider refuses to remove it or tries to convince them not to. A study published in February 2020 in the international reproductive health journal Contraception reveals that many women seeking to have their intrauterine device removed often face delays, excuses, or exorbitant fees from their healthcare providers—all efforts to dismiss patients’ requests instead of complying in a timely manner.
I hope that, as Britney Spears’s voice is bringing great attention to the problem of coerced birth control, countless less-famous women who want their IUDs removed are affirmed in their autonomy as well.
Similarities to trafficking: nonstop work, no breaks, no freedom, and withheld pay
In her statement, Spears went on to compare her forced living and working arrangement to sex trafficking:
“I worked seven days a week no days off, which in California, the only similar thing to this is called sex trafficking. Making anyone work, work against their will, taking all their possessions away—credit cards, cash, phone, passport card and placing them in a home where they, they work with people who live with them.”
While a comparison to sex trafficking may seem extreme to some, Spears is not wrong that what she describes is akin to forced labor in human trafficking, and, if she is equipped to bring her conservators to court one day, that just may be legally proven.
To be clear, the definition of sex trafficking in the United States is any commercial sex act that involves force, fraud, or coercion, or any commercial sex act with a minor; most people who have been sex trafficked are forced into prostitution against their will or as minors, and often without seeing the money exchanged. The larger umbrella term, human trafficking refers to the use of force, fraud, or coercion to obtain any type of labor or commercial sex act. From Britney’s testimony, it most certainly sounds like her labor conditions may have involved force, fraud, or coercion.
As Britney’s story is bringing mainstream attention to unjust working conditions, I hope more people suffering from human trafficking will be equipped to find support, fold back the layers of trauma they’re suffering, and take steps toward freedom. The National Human Trafficking Hotline can be reached by phone at 1-888-373-7888 or by texting “HELP” or “INFO” to 233733.
Just how much of Britney’s sexual persona has been coerced?
In her plea to be removed from the conservatorship, Spears exclaims, “my precious body has worked for my dad for the past f***ing 13 years, trying to be so good and pretty. So perfect because he works me so hard when I do everything I'm told.”
At another point, Spears shares that she was told to do a certain dance move, which she refused, and that her conservators made a huge stink about it and “punished” her by informing her therapist who insisted she be put on a heavy drug as a result. I can’t help but wonder, what was the nature of the dance move that Britney refused?
It is no question that Britney Spears’ popstar persona includes a sexualized image. If among the forced working conditions Spears faced, if she was instructed to do acts of a sexual nature, things get a lot stickier. At the very least, it contributes to the continued questioning many have of our cultural acceptance of objectifying imagery as liberating.
As recent news on PornHub has revealed, there is much coercion going on behind the scenes when it comes to the production of sexy videos online, and there have been exploitative elements found in stories of former TV personalities as well. As Holly Madison shared in her book Down the Rabbit Hole, all her moves were monitored and she was given strict curfews. “Many people assume Playboy was my blessing, but most don’t know it was also my curse.”
As I wrote in 2016 regarding the research of Peggy Orenstein in her book Girls and Sex:
Many girls today think female artists and celebrities who portray sexualized images of themselves “are taking control...of a hypersexualized industry that too often exploits women.” But as Orenstein notes, all we know is that they "are being marketed as taking control."
Yes, a woman can pose nude on a cover of a magazine, and it appears to be her choice alone, but as Orenstein points out, “Those performers still work within a system that, for the most part, demands women look and present their bodies in a particular way in order to be heard, in order to be seen, in order to work." These performers are "spinning commodified sexuality as a choice, one that may be profitable but is no less constraining."
While we cannot speak to Britney Spears’ level of autonomy or coercion in her sexual portrayals in media, suffice it to say all this brings up some questions about what's happening behind the content we’re consuming.
Social media reality vs. illusion
Among the most heartbreaking parts of Spears’ testimony is this:
“I've lied and told the whole world, I'm okay. And I'm happy. It's a lie. I thought I just maybe I said that enough maybe I might become happy because I've been in denial. I've been in shock. I am traumatized. You know, fake it till you make it, but now I'm telling you the truth, okay, I'm not happy. I can't sleep. I'm so angry. It's insane. And I'm depressed.”
On Instagram, Spears apologized to her followers for misrepresenting how bad things have been for her: “I apologize for pretending like I’ve been ok the past two years … I did it because of my pride and I was embarrassed to share what happened to me … but honestly who doesn’t want to capture their Instagram in a fun light,” she wrote.
Too many of us know the problem with how social media can tell a different story than reality, and Spears’ experience certainly amplifies this. Still, she shares that social media hasn't been all bad, and the community she experienced online offered a kind of affirmation of her self-worth. “I feel like Instagram has helped me have a cool outlet to share my presence … existence … and to simply feel like I matter despite what I was going through.”
Despite the challenges of social media, one hopes we all can find the right balance of recognizing our self-worth, despite pressures to make things look “perfect.”
No one owes anything to their abusers
Toward the end of her statement, Spears repeats, “I've done more than enough. I don't owe these people anything.”
We hope all people facing abuse can know that, no matter what your abusers say, you don’t owe them anything. You are worthy of respect, and you can reach out to safe people for support and make a plan to make a better life for yourself. It’s been a long time coming, but this week Spears lifted her voice to advocate for herself and her rights. May her voice heard around the world remind others in coercive situations that they, too, are worthy of freedom.