There are few people who understand the plight of Stormy Daniels quite the way I do. In 2013, BuzzFeed outed me as the woman who exchanged explicit texts with Anthony Weiner, linking me to the sexting scandal and changing my life forever.
People tend to assume that the women involved in scandals like these are reveling in the situation — or, as Newsweek wrote about Daniels, “making good use of her minutes of fame.” If you do any interviews or do anything to profit, you’re seen as an opportunist, as countless viewers deemed Daniels after her “60 Minutes” appearance last weekend. “Many of the women thrown into the spotlight by an unwise liaison with a politician have gamely exploited their notoriety,” according to a piece in The Washington Post about how I was “enjoying” the attention.
What people don’t see are the stress, threats and harassment that come with being associated with a sex scandal, especially if you’re a woman. There’s so little to be gained by revealing the sexual misconduct of a powerful man, as I tried to do and as Daniels has done.
Weiner had been caught sending graphic photos on Twitter in 2011 and was forced to resign from Congress; in 2013, he attempted a political comeback by running for mayor of New York. In between, we began exchanging messages on Facebook and texting; it lasted less than a year. Meanwhile, an article came out about him in People magazine, saying he was a different man after his Twitter scandal. We were texting at the time — he even asked me to read the article. If he had run for office without claiming to be reformed, I probably would never have revealed our messages. But his “I’m a changed person” thing really hit a nerve with me. It felt phony and wrong, and I felt guilty about being part of it.
He was a hypocrite, I realized, and someone who probably shouldn’t be in any sort of position of power. It sounds cheesy, but I thought I was doing the right thing when, several weeks into his campaign, I sent our texts to the editor of the website the Dirty. (Considering all the creepy stuff he did with teenage girls, including one as young as 15, I now believe that even more strongly.) My name was supposed to remain out of it.
Once my identity was revealed by BuzzFeed a few days later, though, I was no longer a person. I was a headline, a punchline, anything but a human being with feelings. I received a barrage of rape and death threats. I remember one particular email: “You deserve to be raped, you menace to mankind.” I had a cyberstalker who somehow was texting me from fake email addresses; the texts came all through the night. I was called a liar and a fame whore, despite the evidence I had and the fact that I never sought fame — I had turned over those texts with the promise of anonymity.
I saw in a recent article about Daniels that reporters went to her home town, and I felt so bad for her, as I know exactly what that is like. Journalists harassed my friends, family and random people from my past. People showed up at my apartment and slid business cards under my door — and I live in middle-of-nowhere Indiana. Local media went to my dad’s workplace looking for a comment, which was mortifying. Reporters tracked down the woman my father had been married to 25 years before I was even born and went to her house to talk about me. They went to a drive-through taco stand and interviewed people, asking for stories about me. Guys claimed to have dated me. People I’d never met were saying how horrible I was.
I watched male TV pundits from the left and the right display their misogyny in full force. I considered myself very liberal before this scandal; I watched MSNBC day and night. (I still have liberal ideals but am more of a political orphan these days.) After the news broke, I heard Thomas Roberts on MSNBC say I was “bats---.” My dad called me crying because a late-night TV host had dubbed me a stupid ho. He heard so many comments like that about me, on late-night shows and on the news, that he broke down emotionally. I had to shield myself. I allowed myself to watch only “The Daily Show” — John Oliver was subbing for Jon Stewart at the time, and he didn’t make the same predictable low-blow jokes that the other comedians made, so I felt safe watching that. It was hard not to watch the news, because I had been a political junkie.
The attacks on my appearance hurt, though I had to try to brush them off. I had been dealing with an eating disorder when I was talking to Weiner. By the time our texts were made public, I was in therapy and had a great psychologist. In the process of getting healthy, I gained a little weight because I was no longer starving myself. I was happy with how I looked. But after the scandal broke, everyone commented that I was “so much fatter” now.
I thought about killing myself. People saw me in interviews making jokes and being self-deprecating. It probably looked like I was having fun. But that’s how I deal with things. Yes, Daniels appeared on “60 Minutes,” but that doesn’t mean she enjoyed it, either.
People might wonder why I didn’t disappear. But I couldn’t afford to go into hiding and not work. I come from a low-income, poverty-level family. Hiding was never going to be an option, and neither was keeping my job as an administrative assistant at a law firm. I knew I wouldn’t find work in a conventional field now that my name was associated with all this sexual stuff. (Yes, Sydney Leathers is my real name, the one I was born with.) Part of me thinks my life would be easier if I changed my name — for job applications, college applications — but then I think: It’s my name. I can’t imagine being called anything else. And it’s frustrating to feel like I have to change my identity. I didn’t murder anyone, though sometimes I’m treated as if I did. I never even met Weiner in person.
After the scandal, I was offered opportunities in the adult-film world, and I took them. Sex work has been a way for me to pay for my associate’s degree without student loans. Before I finished my degree, I was required to do an internship. I interviewed at a local TV news affiliate (I studied broadcasting, with plans to go into production). Beforehand, a man from the station called me and acted like he was interested in hiring me, but when I went in to the interview, he clearly wasn’t. He just wanted to gawk at me in person. I had such a hard time finding an internship that one of my professors, who has been so supportive, had to give me one on campus.
Any money I’ve made from this situation is not worth the extreme pressure and scrutiny I’ve faced. Nothing compensates for the threats I’ve received and how unsafe I’ve felt, and I am convinced that no one would enjoy the kind of “fame” that comes with a political sex scandal.
When you’re talking about Daniels now, please consider that she is a person, not a punchline. She’s someone’s mother, someone’s daughter, someone’s wife. Of course, we shouldn’t have to say “Think of your daughter!” to make sure women are viewed as people, but if that’s what it takes to spark compassion, then maybe it’s okay. Using “porn star” instead of her name in headlines is dehumanizing. A woman is more than her porn career. She is a human being who deserves empathy and respect. Anyone who bashes a woman who takes her clothes off for a living but shrugs at shady politicians who are in bed with lobbyists might want to examine their misogyny.
Daniels is obviously very strong, as her clever Twitter retorts demonstrate, so I’m not suggesting we pity her. We should commend her. It takes bravery to put yourself on the line and challenge rich, powerful men. And considering who she’s up against, we all owe her some gratitude.