Book review: Toxic by Sarah Ditum

Are you feeling brave today? Fearless, even? Sure? Then grab my hand and I’ll take you back to the early noughties. But I hope you don’t scare easy, because the new millennium was a terrifying time for young women. The term abuse of power wasn’t yet in every day parlance. There was scant awareness of class advantage or white privilege and the victims of sex abuse were treated more like criminals. Toxic is the right word. And for famous women in the public eye, it was absolute, pure, undiluted poison.

Exploring the story of nine celebrities who came of age in the noughties (Britney, Paris, Lindsay, Aaliyah, Janet, Amy, Kim, Chyna and Jen), Toxic by Sarah Ditum lays bare the dangers that befell famous women. The upskirting, the revenge porn and the sexual predators, all in plain sight. I look back now and wonder what we were all thinking? How could R. Kelly marry a 15-year-old Aaliyah and it be mistaken for anything other than rape? How can a revenge porn video of Paris Hilton be treated as a smutty joke, rather than the sexual violation it so clearly is?

Unsurprisingly Toxic makes for bleak and sober reading. Although the author focuses on celebrities, all those who lived through the noughties have their crosses to bear. Be warned: while reading this book, a lot of unpleasant memories from my own life resurfaced. Feeling uneasy with the banter at work events; believing that boundaries around my body wouldn’t be respected; try to navigate an office where mental health and misuse of authority were both taboo. And the same type of memories may well surface for you.

The antidote to toxicity

If there is any treasure to be mined from the pages of Toxic by Sarah Ditum it’s that, as a society, we’ve learnt. Hopefully, we all know better now. I’m relieved when I think of all the progress in this area. Upskirting is now illegal, revenge porn too, and there are now signs on the London underground pointing out that any type of rubbing/staring/gyrating won’t be tolerated.

A diversity in body shapes is celebrated and I, among many others, am working hard to improve mental health services. I often see the word woke used in a disparaging way by the right wing press, but really it’s just a basic form of kindness. One that was missing in the early-to-mid 2000s.

Life in 2024 is far from perfect for women. I’m a counsellor and I know the pressures are too numerous to list. But around issues of consent and power, it feels much more aware than it was in the nasty noughties. So, if you finish this book feeling wrung out, wanting a shower and despairing at abuse which went unchecked…take heart. Hopefully, in years to come, Toxic by Sarah Ditum will serve only as an unpleasant reminder of a blessedly bygone era.

Invasion of Paris: Paris Hilton was one of the first celebrity survivors of a serious sexual offence, who was treated like a criminal back in the noughties.

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