Britney Spears, sexy virgins, and bodily control
The singer’s abortion story raises questions that highlight the exploitation that has haunted her career.
A sneak peek of Britney Spears’ upcoming memoir has revealed that she had an abortion after getting pregnant with Justin Timberlake back in 2000. The excerpt makes it clear that she would have preferred to go through with the pregnancy. “If it had been left up to me alone, I never would have done it,” she writes. “And yet Justin was so sure that he didn’t want to be a father.” She says that Timberlake “definitely wasn’t happy about the pregnancy” and that he said they “weren’t ready to have a baby in our lives, that we were way too young.” Spears writes that it was “one of the most agonizing things I have ever experienced in my life.”
It’s not clear whether Spears is alleging that she was coerced into having the abortion or whether her decision resulted from weighing the reality of becoming a mother without an enthusiastic co-parent. Regardless, her abortion story adds fuel to the recent reconsideration of Timberlake’s behavior toward Spears, especially in the wake of their split in 2002. It also raises questions about bodily autonomy that underscore the same troubling dynamics that have been essential to her story and celebrity: the control and exploitation of her body and sexuality.
Let’s start with Timberlake’s behavior: In 2002, shortly after their breakup, he infamously released the single Cry Me a River, along with a music video featuring a Spears lookalike, which drove rumors that she had cheated on him. While promoting his album, a radio DJ asked Timberlake whether he had “fucked” Spears, who had publicly vowed to remain abstinent until marriage, and he responded with laughter, “Okay, yeah, I did it!” In 2006, he responded to Barbara Walters’ question about whether they had abstained from sex with, “Sure,” before descending into giggles.
As recently as 2009, he was poking fun at Spears’ claims of abstinence in a skit for SNL, where his character delivered a line about dating a “popular female singer” and claiming to be abstinent while, “privately, he hit it.” There are other examples, but let’s leave it as this: Timberlake violated her privacy and slut-shamed her, all while promoting himself. He used her body and sex appeal for his own gain.
There are painful echoes of this in what Spears’ father allegedly did throughout her 13-year-long conservatorship. In a statement during a hearing in 2021, Spears compared her grueling performance schedule under her conservatorship to sex trafficking. She also spoke of “my precious body, who has worked for my dad for the past fucking 13 years, trying to be so good and pretty. So perfect.” Her forthcoming memoir goes into more depth: "If I thought getting criticized about my body in the press was bad, it hurt even more from my own father," she writes. "He repeatedly told me I looked fat and that I was going to have to do something about it.”
What’s more, Spears alleged in recent years that a conservatorship “team led by her father… prevented her from having her IUD removed because the team did not want her to have more children,” as the New York Times put it.
With Spears’ father, we’re talking about explicit allegations of abuse, exploitation, and reproductive control. That isn’t the case with Timberlake. His misogynistic and opportunistic shittiness in the wake of their breakup is a far cry from a 13-year-long conservatorship; and the nuances of choice and consent surrounding Spears’ abortion are currently extremely hazy (TMZ is running an article with a subheading emphasizing that “Both Agreed To Have An Abortion”). What is totally clear, though, is that both men personally benefited from her body and sex appeal; and, in her own re-telling, it’s these men’s wishes and interests with regards to her body that take center stage.
That combination of exploitation, sex appeal, and enforced passivity feels like a heartbreaking reflection of the very nature of her fame. In the early days of her stardom, she was cast as a sexy virgin. Her brand paired suggestive lyrics and a sexualized schoolgirl uniform with public pledges of abstinence until marriage. She was portrayed as sexy but not sexual. As Evelyn McDonnell, author of Women Who Rock, put it in a years-ago Refinery29 article about the ‘90s and ‘00s era of purity culture: “Selling Britney as a virgin also made her a non-participant in the sexual pleasure that was clearly a part of her appeal,” she said. “From the very beginning of her career, she lacked agency; in a sense, her lack of agency was exactly what was being peddled.”
Spears was sold as desirable and pleasing to the male gaze. Crucially, she was not sold as a woman who desired and experienced pleasure herself—no, that would have been too threatening. The very concept of virginity, and the idealization of “purity,” are forms of sexual control; they are part and parcel of the sexual double-standard and the virgin-whore dichotomy, which enforce passivity—being sexy but not sexual. These frameworks demand the constant monitoring and containment of women’s bodies and sexuality.
When Timberlake answered a question about “fucking” Spears in the affirmative—when he fueled rumors that she was a cheater—he pushed her off the pedestal of purity. She was portrayed as a hypocrite for having premarital sex, rather than, more accurately, a victim of the impossible bind required by these punishing sexual frameworks. It was the start of her public downfall.
Now, Spears has revealed that she got pregnant and had an abortion in this same period, when her sex appeal absurdly hinged on her alleged virginity. It’s a powerful toppling of that purity pedestal. This time, on her own terms.