A week or two before the episode was meant to come out, a stranger direct-messaged me on Instagram with a link to a Law & Order: SVU trailer: “I think this is about you.”
As I watched the trailer, I thought, That literally looks like us. There were two blonde people kissing, wearing dance clothes. It was so obviously cast to look just like me and my ex-boyfriend Chase Finlay, the man who shared revenge porn of me with his friends (opens in new tab), who were also principal dancers at New York City Ballet.
I felt weird about it, and then I felt anxious. You never know how the media is going to portray you, and this was a TV show taking what happened to me (opens in new tab) and making it their own; they could do anything that they wanted with my story.
And then I felt angry, which is how I feel about a lot of things these days. No one at SVU talked to me about my story, or told me that they were making an episode that was so clearly based on what happened to me. The disclaimer at the start of the show states that the episode is fiction, but everyone knows that Law & Order is “ripped from the headlines.” Over the summer, one of the show’s writers had followed me on Instagram. Now I understood why.
I should say up front that I’m a big Law & Order fan; SVU is probably one of my favorite shows. I watch it almost every day, or I used to. I think that the conversation that the show has created about sexual violence has impacted society for the better. But this felt like they took advantage of me, which is a hell of a thing to do to a survivor of sexual violence.
In the spring of 2018, two years after I’d graduated from the School of American Ballet, where I met Chase, I found explicit images on his computer. He’d taken video of me without my consent and shared it, also without my consent, with other dancers and with a company donor. [Editor's note: Finlay maintains (opens in new tab) that Waterbury consented to being photographed nude.] I sued (opens in new tab) Chase, the dancers, the donor, the company, and the school. Chase resigned. The other two dancers were fired, but appealed the decision with the help of their union, and the company offered them their jobs back. The case is ongoing.
After I watched the trailer, I called my lawyers. Are they allowed to tell this story without my permission? Is it even legal? My lawyers said they didn’t think there was much they could do. I mean, SVU has been doing this for 21 seasons. They obviously have a legal way around it. Plus, my lawyers said, in a sense the episode was a good thing. It shows that my case was bad enough to be investigated by TV’s Olivia Benson. Hopefully, they said, it’ll raise awareness about what happened to me.
But that’s the thing about their fiction disclaimer: Anybody watching it who doesn't already know about my case will think that it is completely fictional. That I don't exist and what happened to me didn't happen.
The episode took my experience and spun it into a much bigger crime, a sex trafficking conspiracy that involves a choreographer and an artistic director and company donors who bid on sex with ballet dancers (opens in new tab). As if my experience wasn’t bad enough for 40 minutes of television, and needed to be amped up for entertainment value.
But some things SVU really did rip from the headlines (opens in new tab). The boys who tape the sex, and who disseminate it, lose their jobs but then file wrongful termination lawsuits. The company tries to make amends by hiring an all-female artistic team; after I came forward, City Ballet—which was already without a permanent leader because its longtime artistic director had resigned (opens in new tab) amid separate allegations of sexual harassment and verbal and physical abuse—hired a woman to be their associate artistic director, alongside a man. (The company conducted an internal investigation into the claims made against its former artistic director, and said the allegations weren’t corroborated. It never released the report to the public).
When the episode aired on March 26 (opens in new tab), I was at home in upstate New York with my family. I watched it with my mom and my brother, and within five minutes, I was crying. During the first commercial break, my mom said, “We don't have to watch this, we can turn it off. You don't need to sit through this.” But I wanted to sit through it, because I wanted to know what they were doing with my story—with my life. It was awful to watch, but I felt like I couldn't look away.
It made me think back to when I first found the photos and videos and texts on Chase’s computer. Obviously that was horrifying, but I was experiencing it on my own. Nobody else was judging me or wondering how I got into that situation.
Sitting through the episode was like experiencing it all over again—this time with all the viewers of SVU watching, asking themselves, What the fuck was wrong with this girl? or How could she be so naive? And I just felt so, so stupid all over again. I know I wasn’t, I know that the people who did this to me were preying on young and naive women, but I think I’m always going to be a little bit mad at myself for ever speaking to them in the first place. And sitting there with my mom, re-experiencing it, that sucked. It really sucked.
I know the writers didn’t have to consult me before they made the episode, but here’s what I would have told them if they had: You need to acknowledge that revenge porn is real, and that it’s serious. I wish they’d included a website or a phone number at the end of the episode as a resource for people who have been victimized and want help (I don’t know why they don’t do that for every episode). And I wish they’d given the ballerinas less cheesy choreography, or at least put them in pointe shoes.
If you, or someone you know, has been a victim of sexual assault or harassment and would like help, visit RAINN.org (opens in new tab)
Chloe Angyal is a journalist who lives in Iowa; she is the former Deputy Opinion Editor at HuffPost and a former Senior Editor at Feministing. She has written about politics and popular culture for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, The Guardian, New York magazine, Reuters, and The New Republic. Angyal has a Ph.D. in Arts and Media from the University of New South Wales.
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