Two years ago, MaryAnn Sahoury should have been basking in the glow of new motherhood with her baby girl. She had overcome several Booby Traps–including not wanting to breastfeed in the first place–that threatened to keep her from a priceless and precious experience, and she was thrilled to be breastfeeding. She was a success story and a woman who deserved to be celebrated as a positive role-model and example. Which is why, at four weeks postpartum, her lactation consultant invited her to participate in a web-tv parenting episode sponsored by a major media company designed to educate and empower moms about breastfeeding. Wanting to inspire and give back to other moms, she agreed.
MaryAnn had no reason to fear that participating in this video could potentially lead to a massive invasion of her privacy and permanent damage to her reputation. The online channel for whom MaryAnn demonstrated breastfeeding is part of a leading and trusted media and marketing conglomerate in the family/parenting media industry. But several months after filming, MaryAnn learned that this same footage of her breastfeeding her month-old daughter, along with her full name and her daughter’s name, was appearing on dozens of pornographic websites spliced in with sex-act scenes.
Discovering that a gesture born of love and compassion for other moms had been corrupted into something so violative and vile was devastating. MaryAnn has spent the last two years embroiled in an painstaking, time-consuming, and emotionally- and financially-draining effort to attempt to have all original and altered content removed from the web and to repair the harm done to her and her daughter’s name. Although most of the videos have now been removed, and MaryAnn has successfully “buried” negative associations with her name, the footage continues to pop up, and she has been stalked online by one of the perpetrators. She instituted legal action against the media company in 2011.
The question of how all of this could have happened is one for the courts. But the larger issue, we think, is how outrageously unfair it is that vulnerable new mothers, like MaryAnn, are forced through a gauntlet of cultural and institutional Booby Traps trying to breastfeed, and then are subjected to further discrimination, harassment, and now it seems, invasions of privacy and injury to reputation, once they get there. And all of this occurs over the tactful and necessary exposure of a breast to feed a baby. This is the lens through which we believe this incident should be viewed–the lens of the Booby Traps. Having to deal with being disgraced and impugned for breastfeeding at time when you should be enjoying your baby and adjusting to a new life is so unjust we are at a loss for words.
We also want to set the record straight – breastfeeding on camera is not the problem. Just because child pornographers want your kid’s photos doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t post innocent and cute pictures on Facebook (but you should use caution and judgment). The sick acts of others are beyond our control. But they are NOT beyond the law. Vulnerable new mothers and babies are a population that should be afforded maximum legal protection and maximum cultural embrace.
We interviewed MaryAnn so that she could tell her story of heartbreak and disgrace and so that we could warn other mothers that there’s a new kid on the block of Booby Traps – violations of privacy rights. What happened to MaryAnn was not her fault, and it could happen to anyone. MaryAnn’s most sincere desire is that her ordeal might lead to helping others avoid the same fate; that mothers posting breastfeeding videos online to help other mothers will be careful not to disclose their or their babies’ full names, that media companies will better protect mothers, and that they will act swiftly and comprehensively to fully squash any harmful consequences from an unintentional or intentional breach of privacy.
BFB:What was the purpose, as you understood it, for the web tv episode? I understood that I was making the video for a breastfeeding episode to be shown on cable tv and their website. I knew that the segment for the show was going to discuss some of the pitfalls that are associated with breastfeeding and what were some of the best ways to overcome these challenges. At the same time, I was aware that I would be demonstrating a live nursing segment with my newborn baby, and that this video was to be used for educational purposes. I also understood that they were only going to be using my first name and that of my baby’s.
BFB: Why did you agree to be filmed for the segment? Originally, I was a mom who was not sure I wanted to breastfeed. My sister in law talked me into taking the Simply Breastfeeding class with lactation consultant Shari Criso while I was pregnant. I hadn’t even walked out of the door of the class and I already knew I wanted to exclusively nurse my baby. My commitment was so strong and I was instilled with so much confidence to do it, I knew I would breastfeed no matter what challenges I may have faced. I was so motivated, empowered, and inspired by my own success that I wanted to share that with other moms. I knew that if people could identify with me and my challenges, and see what strong commitment and support can do for me as a nursing mom, that they would also see that they could be successful with breastfeeding also. It was my way to give back because I was so blessed with such amazing support.
BFB: What assurances did the media company make to you about your and your daughter’s privacy, if any? When I met with the host of the show of the TV show, I was so nervous. I had never done anything like this before so I wanted to know how the process would go. I had concerns about the use of my name and that of my daughter’s and was assured by her not to be nervous, that they would only be using our first names and that it would be showed on cable TV and their website. I was told how the show would run, introducing, discussing, demonstrating, etc. . . . the video shoot proceeded as she said it would and she never addressed me or my baby by our full name. I felt that my privacy was protected and it never occurred to me that this respected and trusted brand would ultimately not keep their promise.
BFB: Can you describe when and what you discovered about the footage after that day? When I Googled my name in July of 2010, it revealed a link which included my full name attached to a pornography site. When I clicked on the link there was the breastfeeding video I had taped with the TV show, spliced in with vile disgusting porn clips of a woman who had similar features as me. It wasn’t one video, it was multiple videos; among dozens and dozens of links all over the internet that now flooded my name and great reputation with this association to pornography. If that wasn’t bad enough, I then find that my daughter, who was only 6 months old at the time, was also connected to pornography as well! I came to find out that the breastfeeding episode that I thought would air on cable TV and their website had actually been actually posted on YouTube, and they were the ones who put my full name in writing which scrolled across the bottom of the screen during that show.
BFB: How did you feel when you discovered that your and your daughters’ rights of privacy had been invaded in this manner? I felt so violated, so exploited, so horrified. I felt like the brand that I trusted in, the brand that prides themselves on enriching the lives of women not only failed to protect me as a promise, but put myself, my daughter, and my family in a position where not only our reputation was compromised, but our safety as well. In addition to that I also felt those same feelings about the anonymous predator that stole this video and included it into pornography. I had been exploited twice, and it hurt so bad!
BFB: What steps have you taken to have the images removed from the web? I was put into contact with the people at the holding media corporation immediately. It took them well over a year to have all of the YouTube videos removed as a violation and infringement of copyright since other users had stolen the video from their channel. We began working together on destroying links and at first they seemed to be helping me. I spent countless, days, hours, minutes, and seconds trying to get mine and my baby’s life back. I sent in requests to have videos and links removed. Sometimes sites would comply other times they did not. The holding company kept in contact with me for about four months, and although there were times where there was a lag in responding, I was assured by them that it was their “top priority.” I asked for reputation management, I never got it. They told me they researched other avenues, and would get back to me. I reached out to them, and waited many months to get the updates they had promised, but an email or call never came. I think they thought if they ignored me long enough, I would just go away. At that point, I contacted an attorney because I couldn’t do this alone. Even with the help of an attorney, I was left with no option but to file this lawsuit to fight for mine and my baby’s rights. Only after I retained an attorney did they agree to assist me in hiring a company to attempt to repair our reputation. I really never thought it would have to come to this, this has been extremely difficult on me and family and this whole situation saddens me greatly.
BFB: Did this ordeal compromise your ability to enjoy breastfeeding, to mother with confidence? The stress of this difficult situation that I was put in compromised not only my ability to enjoy breastfeeding, but it also affected my ability to mother my baby. I was unable to be in the moment, and there were many precious times with my daughter that I missed and I won’t ever get back. My ability to feel like I could protect her was compromised and I felt like a failure. This affected my confidence and ability to be a good mother. I started to blame myself, instead of coming to terms with the fact that we were both victims.
BFB: Has it changed your opinion about breastfeeding in front of others? No, it has not changed my opinion. I don’t feel embarrassed about breastfeeding at all, it is natural, beautiful, and the most wonderful gift you can give your child. I highly encourage and support all mothers to breastfeed wherever and whenever they want.
BFB: What message do you want to send other mothers about sharing breastfeeding photos and images on the web? I don’t want to put moms on alarm; I want them to be aware. What happened to me and my daughter was very unfortunate and wrong on so many levels; however at the same time it was completely avoidable. We need to have more education on what steps we need to take to better protect ourselves and our beautiful babies. What we need are better laws to protect breastfeeding mothers and their babies, and harsh consequences to any individual, group, or corporation who violates them in any way. This is the only way that we will ever be fully protected.
I am so grateful for all of the support I have been given, it has given me courage to not only to fight for justice, but to also make it part of my personal mission. The right support in my life is what has helped me to cope over the last couple of years. My journey moving forward is not only about demanding justice and empowering change for all of us, but it is also my personal path to healing.
A support group for Maryann Sahoury has been formed on Facebook, at http://www.facebook.com/SupportMaryAnn
Click here for a live interview of Maryann Sahoury for the Shari Criso show.
The above is solely an opinion piece. Best for Babes makes no judgment on the culpability of either party in this pending legal action. The media company’s name has been withheld at the discretion of Best for Babes.