With a series of high-profile news cases of teenagers raping teenagers much of the surrounding circumstances is recorded evidence. And in similar cases teenage girls being pressured to take naked pictures of themselves that are later turned against them and they’re harassed to the point of suicide. These aren’t acts of intimacy of sexuality –they’re acts of abuse and violence that use sex as a weapon. That’s what rape and sexual exploitation are by definition, and that’s not in dispute. But for some reason, a large chunk of the population is still blind to the cultural power dynamics that perpetuate this behaviour as not just acceptable but to the benefit of rapists. Many people, most of them who would likely never commit such an act themselves, deny that in our society there is an embedded rape culture.
Girls like Rehteah Parsons, the 17 year old Nova Scotian who recently took her own life, are receiving widespread media attention as victims post-mortem. Suicide isn’t a sudden decision. It’s the last resort after looking for help, and making attempts to escape ongoing trauma. When rape or sexual manipulation are caught on camera and spread amongst the victim’s peers, the torment is not just the reminder that such a thing happened. It’s embarrassment –embarrassment because a victim is shamed into thinking if she didn’t want this to happen she shouldn’t have let this happen. It’s victim blaming and made immeasurably worse by the coulda-woulda-shoulda lecturing of the poor girls and ESPECIALLY worse by how FUNNY and JUICY and AMUSING it all is to the other children.
What makes other children react this way to visual evidence of a cruel violation of another human’s dignity? Is it “kids are cruel” as a natural part of development? Is it because “boys will be boys” and girls should know better that a horny teenager can’t keep his hands off of girls? Calling this “bullying” lumps it in with stealing lunch money and vandalizing lockers – which are disrespectful and dehumanizing and must be called out on to deter further emotional abuse –but the multiple examples at Rehteah’s level that continue to sprout out all over this continent are clearly CRIMINAL BEHAVIOUR that is either ignored or condoned. They are STALKING and HARASSMENT and ASSAULT and RAPE and CHILD PORNOGRAPHY which are all VERY ILLEGAL, and yet they’re dismissed along with other mean teenage behaviour, and apologists abound to defend the perpetrators and perpetuators.
Teenagers want to have sex, and most of them are going to try. This is the excuse that pops up everywhere in public dialogue that holds victims accountable for what they should already know, and should already be prepared to avoid or defend against. But sex is turned into a measure of popularity, which makes obtaining it a matter of power, and that pushes it out of the sexual realm and into the category of violence that happens to use sex as a weapon. That’s what rape is – violence using sex (which frames it in a way much different from sex using violence). It’s the symbol of power that drives people to record these acts, and with children having easy means to do so (camera phones) and distribute widely (social media) it’s happening more and more – all being perpetuated by rape culture.
The peers who are disgusted at this treatment feel like they lack the means to change this, and that calling out on this behaviour will put them at risk. School authorities think it will make them look bad if the youth they’re educating are doing such horrible things. Parents deny that their children are doing wrong. And so there is no support or refuge from the haunting devastation except death itself.
When I was in high school there was barely a means of doing this. Digital cameras were scarce and of crappy quality, so getting photographic evidence risked going through someone else’s hands in a lab. But I was once in that position – in a photo lab, able to see the kinds of pictures people were taking – when I saw some pictures of a drunk young woman passed out at a party having her breasts pulled out of her bra and dildos being shoved in her face. The coworker of mine who was printing the photos asked for advice on what to do about it – our company reserved the right not to print photos that violated policy or decency, and we had an obligation to report what was illegal. The young woman wasn’t underage so it wasn’t child pornography. In the end, after discussing it, we decided simply not to print them. We didn’t report the photos, the person who dropped them off to be developed, or the other people in the photos committing these acts to the police because we didn’t know if it was in our place to do so. Looking back I wish I had. There wasn’t a victim blaming mentality here, but there was passive acceptance that nothing would be done about this because most people would say it’s what happens when young women get drunk around young men.
That’s one regret, from about eight years ago, that I now look back at and wish I had done something then and there. It wouldn’t have likely stopped the crime behind the Steubenville rape trial, or the systemically sanctioned abuse of Rehteah Parsons because it was just a handful of photographs taken at a university student’s party in the middle of Canada. People would’ve dismissed it as “girls/women shouldn’t get drunk” back then just as they do now. But I wish I had started to give a greater shit at an earlier time so I may have made some difference in enlightening someone to what’s very, very wrong about this behaviour. I don’t know whatever happened to that young women after these photos were taken. They were digital, so they didn’t need to be printed to be spread, and I wonder how far they got and how they changed her life decisions. That’s another consequence of these crimes – as commentators speak of the tragedy that star high school athletes now have a criminal record holding them back, nobody thinks about how big of a blow a girl’s self confidence takes when she’s abused, and how that deters her from reaching a potential that was just starting to shape itself. Even those who don’t succumb to the conscious choice of their own demise lose a substantial part of their own lives. And their loved ones lose them, their community loses them, and society loses them – and so much more.