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How the Rise of the Internet and Social Media Influenced the Coverage of Sex Scandals and How we Approach Them

If there’s one thing we know that sells in entertainment and media, it’s sex. Sex sells. It always has and it always will—unless, of course, the general population is forced to undergo a procedure—in some sort of dystopian universe—that makes them not horny. Until then, the Marilyn Monroes and Brad Pitts of the world will be generating chatter, infiltrating headlines, and sending box office sales into the stratosphere, and there’s only one thing that seems to make more of a bang in the news than who’s banging whom—tragedy. The only thing the public gets off to more than the actual act of sex—sex scandals.

We all know the stories of Monica Lewinsky, Roman Polanski, Kim Kardashian, Kevin Spacey, Aileen Wuornos, Epstein—among others. What is it that sets them apart from each other? How have gender, power, money, fame, time period, beauty, race, political corruption, historical occurrences, and media influenced sex scandals, how we approach them, and how has the coverage of them been used to effectuate change?  

At a recent family party in New Jersey—where many of us convened after not having seen each other in—God knows how long—my grandmother approached me and shifted the otherwise cheerful and lighthearted vibe of the reunion.

“When I was growing up, it was a happy time”, she asserted, “you could leave your doors unlocked. People weren’t kidnapped. They weren’t raped.”

“People weren’t raped?!” I cast aspersions on the validity of her statement. “Grandma, if anything, they were raped more!”

“You’re in a very argumentative mood.” 

“I’m not in an argumentative mood, you just provoked me”, I rebutted. “People were most definitely raped. We just didn’t have as much media coverage of it. News didn’t travel as fast. We weren’t as online. When you were growing up, women had only relatively recently gotten the right to vote, so speaking out against men was frowned upon.”

“Ok, fine. When I was growing up, it wasn’t the norm.”

“Are you insinuating that it’s the norm now?”

This conversation did more than just stir the pot at my cousin's graduation party; it caused me to heavily consider how the rise of the internet and social media influenced the coverage of sex scandals and how we approach them. As a result, I decided to compare three sex scandals from different periods of time in an effort to evaluate how the evolution of the internet affected the aforementioned topics. 

If you’ve ever set foot in the Richard Rodgers Theater—any time since the musical Hamilton took over Broadway, accumulating Tony awards left and right and infiltrating the playlists of pre-pubescent teenage girls, you may know a thing or two about The Reynolds Pamphlet. 

When he was at the height of his influence as treasury secretary, the founding father had an affair with his 23-year-old mistress, Maria Reynolds. Soon enough, Hamilton was confronted by the husband of his mistress and blackmailed into paying him $1,000 of hush money—that’s 100 bills with Hamilton’s very own face on it (which is equivalent to around $25,000 today). Her husband, James Reynolds, was later imprisoned for a government scheme, and an untrue rumor circulated that Hamilton was involved in illegal speculation with Reynolds. In an effort to clear his name, he clarified the real reason he had ties to Reynolds and published the letters between the two of them and the details of his extra-marital affair in a document called the ‘Reynolds Pamphlet’, which James Monroe sent around. This all took place 5 years after the affair had ended. While he successfully repudiated the allegations of any illegal activity, he simultaneously irreparably tarnished his reputation and family life—ruining any chances he had at becoming president during the Election of 1800. All this to say, because of the lack of social media (and other forms of media), Hamilton’s affair would have never been publicized if he, himself, had not published the letters and details of his affair—years after it ended. If paparazzi, TMZ, and Twitter had been in existence at the time, chances are the public would have been in the know about this scandal before Hamilton even had enough time to leave Maria’s room that first night. However, if he had not published the letters between Reynolds and himself, he very may well have been the third president of the United States instead of Thomas Jefferson.

Chances are if you’re not living under a rock large enough to cover all of Hollywood, if you’ve ever been outside, or if you’ve ever talked to anyone about anything, you know who Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee are—and chances are if you know who Pam and Tommy are, you’re familiar with the scandal surrounding their leaked sex tape in the 1990s. 

The newly-married couple filmed a 54-minute home video including 8 minutes of intimacy and then stored it away in their safe, where they assumed it was—well, safe. However, a vindictive contractor whom they had recently fired from working on their house stole the safe in 1995. It wasn’t until a few months later—January 1996–that they noticed the safe missing. In March they filed a lawsuit against Penthouse Magazine, which obtained a copy of the tape. 2 months later, Penthouse published photos from the tape alongside a story on the couple, but it wasn’t until November 1997 (after the court denied the couple’s request for an injunction) that the actual video was posted to a website called “Club Love” where anyone with a subscription could view the couple’s once-private and intimate tape. The couple settled a lawsuit against those that posted the tape on the internet a month later—as an attempt to finally put an end to the legal dispute. Elle writes, “The couple figured that if the tape was distributed online, at least it wouldn’t be sold in stores; but they didn’t realize the power of the internet then”. In February, Anderson filed for divorce, and by this time, the tape was widely available on VHS, DVD, and CD-ROM.

This was considered by many to be the first viral video. It was 1993 when the internet became accessible to the public—with the launch of the World Wide Web, but it wasn’t until a couple years later it became popularized in households and its capacity was understood. The tape was stolen in 1995 and did not actually become viral until late 1997. 

While Hamilton’s scandal was also only publicized years after it occurred, there are a few things that set this apart. In addition to this being 2 years after (as opposed to Hamilton’s being 5), this ordeal was in the news before it became viral—Penthouse had published the stills from the tape, and there was an ongoing legal wrangling surrounding it, so it’s not as if the scandal just emerged out of nowhere after years, like Hamilton’s did. On top of that, what Anderson and Lee did was not inherently scandalous; nobody was harmed or unfaithful in any way, so if it had not been for the rise of the internet, they would not have been caught amidst a career-altering scandal. Neither its creators nor the public were aware of the danger of the internet at the time of its birth, but Oppenheimer didn’t mean harm when creating the atomic bomb either. 

If you’ve ever worked in the entertainment industry or were alive during the ‘Me Too’ movement—which just about anybody who can read was—I’m sure the name Harvey Weinstein is a buzzword. 

Weinstein was a powerful and successful Hollywood producer with influence over the entire entertainment industry. In October 2017, he was dismissed from his production company and expelled from The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences after over 80 women accused him of sexual misconduct. As of today, more than 100 women—including some of the world’s most well-known actresses—have accused Weinstein of sexual misconduct (ranging anywhere from harassment to rape). 

In May 2018, Weinstein was arrested and charged with rape and in New York, and in February 2020, he began his 23-year prison sentence after being charged with more counts of rape and sexual assault. In December 2022, he got 16 years added onto his sentence after being convicted of more charges. 

For years, Weinstein served as a symbol of the ‘Me Too’ movement and of justice and policy change. Many others were influenced to speak out about being sexually harassed by other well-known and powerful figures in the entertainment industry. Policy change was enacted not just in the entertainment industry but in other areas all throughout America. Many states—including California, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, and Virginia—banned the use of nondisclosure agreements to cover up sexual harassment. claims “In the United States, discussions on sexual harassment and related retaliation increased by over thirteen hundred percent since 2017”. Hollywood producers began hiring more female writers than they did before the scandal, but most importantly, countless sexual predators became held accountable and men became held to higher standards—not just in terms of predatory behavior but the language they used to describe women and sexual situations.

With the rise of social media, the ‘Me Too’ movement significantly grew in prominence. The movement began in 2006 when an activist first used the phrase “me too” on her Myspace account to share her story as a victim of sexual assault. After Weinstein’s allegations became public in 2017, the movement gained momentum. More than 200,000 people tweeted that same phrase in a day—after actress Alyssa Milano did in response to the Weinstein allegations (not to mention more than 12 million women responding to her tweet sharing their own stories). The next day it was tweeted more than 500,000 times, in addition to the hashtag being used by more than 4.7 million people in 12 million different posts in a single day on Facebook. Many of these stories spanned decades back, which my grandmother seemed to be unaware of when we got into our dispute. Needless to say, if we only had the Reynolds Pamphlet, it seems unlikely that change so radical would have occurred. 

If you think about it, our founding fathers—not Washington and the aforementioned Hamilton but Zuckerberg and Gates and Jobs, among others—fostered liberation and declared independence for many (including women and victims of sexual assault) by giving us platforms to have vital conversations and consequently enact change. The rise of the ‘Me Too’ movement—in a way—was women’s declaration of independence from the men whose shackles silenced them for ages.

All this to say it was both heart-wrenching and unfathomable when Weinstein’s conviction was overturned this very April—less than two months ago—in the state of New York. It felt like years of progress were undone, and many women I know in the state of New York feel significantly less safe. It appears that power, wealth, race, and gender may still play a role in the justice system—even with a chronically-online society.

When it comes to sex scandals, the internet and the popularization of social media is a double-edged sword. It can beneficially be used to shed light on sexual predators, catalyze the traveling of the news, and foster important colloquies (especially amongst younger generations). The ‘Me Too’  movement led to so much reform, policy change, and justice for so many which would have never made this much of a bang (pun not intended because that would be in poor taste) without the popularization of social media. On the contrary, it can be detrimental to the Andersons and Lees of the world—whose personal lives and careers were irreparably damaged—despite them harming no one and being unwilling participants in an infringement of privacy. 

Whether you like it or not—social media isn’t going anywhere and neither is the public’s libido. Therefore, all we can do is keep fostering important conversations that draw attention to these issues, ask ourselves and each other what we can do, and pray that the government does a better job of holding people accountable than they recently did with Mr. Weinstein.

Written by Lucy Geldziler

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