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In Memory of… (Bullying, Rape, Slut-Shaming, and Rape Culture)

541166_467460256628136_1991560879_nWhen I was twelve years old, I was bullied.  A lot.  One night, my mom had left to go to a party and I was in the house alone.  I spent the evening in my room, probably reading a book or drawing.  When my mom got in, she came down the hall almost angry and demanded of me what the hell all the stuff on the garage door was.

What stuff on the garage door?, I asked.

She led me outside.

In the orange street light glow, the garage door had been completely defaced – Christmas tree flock was sprayed all over it, spelling out “Bitch” and “Cunt” and “Skank” among other things.  In a surreal touch, the person or persons who had done this had also cut out pieces of pink and blue construction paper in little circles and taped them (carefully, with a loop of tape on the back) to the surface of the door as well.  The front yard tree had been thoroughly draped in toilet paper.

I started to shake.

Not only had I just been humiliated completely, and terrorized—because I knew that the people who had done this were likely the ones who threatened every day to beat me up, who followed me down the street as I walked home from school, shouting insults and theories on my sex-life and who I was attracted to and what they would do to me if I made the mistake of standing up for myself or making eye-contact—but because this had all happened and I hadn’t even known it.  I had been in the house the whole time, awake, and this person or persons had come and scrawled these hateful, terrifying things all over the front of my house and I hadn’t even been aware.

My mom demanded to know who had done this—I just shook my head.  I didn’t know.  Even if I had, I could not have told her.  To speak of the bullying would be to admit how afraid I was, how unpopular, how I lived every day in fear and in the belief that somehow it was all my fault, that I was wrong and bad and stupid and ugly and all the things these fellow students told me every single day of my school life.  I couldn’t tell my mom because I was already getting bad grades.  I was already disappointing her.  I was already wrong and bad.  This would just prove it, make it worse.  And now she was angry because I hadn’t even been alert enough to realize someone was vandalizing the house.  In retrospect, she was probably afraid, too.

When I was twelve years old, I went to therapy—not for this incident, or the bullying per se, but because of an isolated (thank goodness) molestation incident.  I found out years later from my mom that the therapist once described me as having the lowest self-esteem of any child she had worked with.

I never tried to kill myself, although the thought crossed my mind.  Thankfully, I was able to come through that terrible time, make it to high school, eventually build up a social circle, adapt to what was socially expected of me, and eventually to heal.

Some people are not so lucky.

And some people suffer far FAR worse.

I am thinking of someone in particular right now.  She has been in the news a lot.  And she is dead.  She is dead because the humiliation and the fear were too great.  She took her own life.

Her name was Audrie Pott.  She lived in California’s Bay Area, not too far from where I grew up.  She was just 15 years old, and what happened to her is infinitely worse than a little garage door domestic terrorism.  You see, she was at a party where there was a lot of drinking.  She also drank.  Lots of girls do—and guys.  But in her case, three teen men decided that her being passed-out drunk was an invitation to rape her.  And they did.

And then… they wrote on her unconscious body, took photos, and shared the photos with others at the school.

Let me say this again: they took a girl who was incapacitated with drink, raped her repeatedly and WROTE ON HER BODY, then shared the photos.

The report says the attackers pulled off her shorts and partially removed her bra, exposing her breasts, the newspaper reported. Markings were found on her chest, legs, back and near her genitalia.

“They wrote ‘Blank Was Here,’ on her leg,” said family attorney Robert Allard, not using the actual name because the suspect is a juvenile. “They marked her.”

“The whole school knows… my life is ruined,” she wrote on her Facebook page.

Eight days later, Audrie hanged herself.  Her suicide is not unique.  Earlier this month, Rehtaeh Parsons, a 17 year-old Canadian girl, also endured continuous bullying from classmates after being raped at a party.  She hanged herself as well and died several days later after being removed from life support.  And in Steubenville, Ohio, two teen football players were convicted of raping a nearly passed-out 16-year-old girl at a party. A teammate testified that he videotaped one of the suspects penetrating the girl with his finger.

In the wake of these terrible, unconscionable assaults – all at parties, all with teens – I hear many people over and over say, “How could those boys have done something like that?  They must be sick!”  “Monsters!  Sociopaths!”

Sadly, I do not think that’s the case.  I think the reality is even worse—that the culture we live in places so little value on empathy, so little value on women’s bodies and lives, so little value on treating others with respect and kindness, that these horrific, unforgivable acts of violence and humiliation are “simply” progressions of “everyday bullying.”  And, in fact, the family of Audrie claims that a year before the rape, they had spoken to the school, trying to get the school to take action because Audrie was being bullied.  No action was taken.  The school denies the meeting even took place.

How far can bullying go?  What are the intersections between bullying, sexual harassment, and a rape committed on an unconscious girl?

When I was a tween, my classmates came in the night, when I was unaware, to my home.  They terrorized and humiliated me, marked me publically as a subject of scorn by defacing my garage door for everyone to see.  The bullying was sexual in nature, defining me in those terms entirely.  In the vast scheme of things, and certainly in comparison with these terrible cases I am talking about now, that act is of miniscule impact.  And yet, it is part of a continuum of disregard for the emotions and well-being of others that leads, in its extreme, to raping another teen, writing on her body to mark her publicly as an object of scorn, and then passing photos of this around to friends.

I did not commit suicide over what happened to me.  But I thought about it.  And I endured considerably less than Audrie Pott, or Rehtaeh Parsons, or the many teenaged girls who have been raped at parties, by their classmates, where they should have been safe and then were criticized and made fun of by classmates who chose to see them as sluts rather than their attackers as criminals.

When we attempt to brand the rapists in these stories as sociopaths or monsters, I believe we miss an even more frightening and likely possibility—that these are “normal” teens, caught up in a culture and society that does not teach them to value the lives, emotions, or worth of other people.  A culture that ultimately leads them to believe there’s not much difference between writing humiliating phrases on a bathroom wall and writing them on the body of the girl they just raped.  A culture that asks the victim of rape, “Why did you go to that party?  Why were you drinking?  Didn’t you know better” instead of asking the rapist, “Why did you think that assaulting an unconscious girl, writing on her body, and passing those photos around was an ok thing to do?”

As of today, the three boys accused of raping Audrie have been returned to their homes and families, wearing ankle bracelets to monitor their movements.  They are out and about in the world.  Audrie is still dead.  They hadn’t even been expelled from their school for the rape.  The school claims it had no authority to do so—all it could do was kick them off the football team.  For the three teens accused of raping, writing on and passing photos around of an unconscious girl, their life has changed: they don’t get to play football anymore.  For the teen who was raped, her life has ended.

Rape Culture is defined as a concept used to describe a culture in which rape and sexual violence are common and in which prevalent attitudes, norms, practices, and media normalize, excuse, tolerate, or even condone rape.”

Audrie, Rehtaeh, and other girls who are raped are not only victims of the individuals who rape them, but also victims of Rape Culture – a culture that spends more time shaming the victims of the crime than it does bringing consequences to the ones committing it.  A culture, where instead of receiving help and support from their peers, they are instead slut-shamed, bullied, made fun of, and hounded literally to their deaths.

At Tri-Valley Haven, our educational department focuses on attempting to change the culture inside schools.  We do presentations at high schools and junior high schools, we form clubs such as My Strength for boys and Be Strong for girls, attempting to engage the students themselves in social change, in challenging the beliefs and stereotypes that support and condone bullying and rape.

Change cannot happen too soon.

For Audrie and Rehtaeh and many others, it is already too late.

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13 Comments

  1. A beautifully written piece on a deeply disturbing topic. Thanks for being willing to “go there” in terms of sharing something so personal.

    Reply
  2. Reblogged this on Yoga Pants & Wine and commented:
    Reblogging this because(a) I think this blogger is amazing and (b) because…just…well, read it.

    Reply
  3. Thank you so much! I don’t always feel like I should share tons of my personal life on a work blog, but in this case, I really felt like it did help bring some clarity to the topic, or a “way in” to the subject matter. I pondered how I wanted to discuss it for a week, actually, before I wrote this piece and decided that yes, I really needed to “go there.” 🙂

    Reply
  4. kim

     /  April 25, 2013

    A very powerfully written piece. My heart aches for humanity.

    Reply
    • Humanity can do some terrible, cruel things. Humanity can also do wonderful, beautiful and kind things. The goal must be to nurture a society that promotes the best in us.

      Reply
  5. I have been so upset by recent national news stories. As an advocate and a Prevention Instructor, I want to “figure out” how to stop sexual violence. It often starts with us breaking the silence and sharing our own stories…

    Reply
    • Breaking the silence and sharing our own stories is, I believe, always a good place to start. It’s amazing how, when stories are shared, we realize how universal our experiences can be… both the positive ones and the negative. And that hopefully can, at the very least, build the empathy needed to then take action. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could build a culture of empathy?

      Reply
  6. Kevin F.

     /  April 25, 2013

    I remember back when we were in High School that you told me the story about the kids vandalizing your garage. What has stood out in my mind when I think about your story, and I have thought about it, is how I wasn’t able to assign proper gravity to it when I was younger. Some of that might have been me being insensitive, but I think more than that was an unstated feeling that being bullied and picked on was just a normal mundane part of life.

    This recently hit me when I was watching the movie Bully. One of the kids in the movie was routinely bullied on the bus. What was so heart wrenching about his story for me, is that he couldn’t really distinguish between a bully and a friend. He wasn’t outraged because he thought this kind of abuse was normal.

    I think one of the worst parts of rape culture is that it teaches us to expect rape. It teaches us to not be horrified by it. It goes even deeper than blaming victims; rape culture tells us that there MUST always be victims, and that this victimization is somehow funny or sexy.

    What strikes me beyond twisted about the young men who committed these crimes is that they thought they were funny.

    At the same time, I totally agree with you. These boys aren’t sociopaths, monsters, or devils. They are just boys like any boy out there. If it weren’t for Facebook postings and texts they might never have been caught and would have grown up to be outstanding men in the community who had a common secret of their “indiscretion.” That scares me a lot more.

    Reply
    • Hey, Kevin! Thanks so much for the comment. Sorry I did not get a chance to approve it until now. That’s the danger of running a work-blog. Sometimes I am away from work when a good comment goes through. I think your points are really strong in this: you scared ME when you talked about “upstanding men in the community who had a common secret of their ‘indiscretion.'” That just rang so very, very true to me. Not to get terribly political here, but it reminds me a bit of the whole Romney scandal in the last election where it came out that he had been part of a pack of boys who held down a classmate they thought was gay and forcibly cut his hair off. There is someone who was definitely part of the bullying culture who was later such an upstanding man in his community that he ran credibly (depending on one’s point of view) for president. Is he the only presidential candidate who had ever bullied someone while in school? Probably not. Have we ever had someone who committed a rape running for public office? Almost assuredly. Like you said, it is part of the “unstated feeling that being bullied and picked on was just a normal mundane part of life.”

      It does make me reflect on the intersections of “Rape Culture” and “Bully Culture” and “Gay Bashing Culture” and “Racist Culture.” We truly all are interconnected on a web-work of “us and them.” The tricks and nastiness that one group uses to oppress another group has its reflections and direct corollaries to the tricks and nastiness used by another group against another target group.

      “No man is an island…” the expression goes. But of course, when it comes to systematic oppression in any context, the intention of the oppression is to make one group “the continent” and “part of the main” and to isolate the ones considered undesirable to the status of lonely little islands, far apart, far from help, and barely able to peek above the waves.

      Reply
  7. Cynthia

     /  May 6, 2013

    I am grateful for your writing and sharing and telling of your own experiences. I am so touched and moved by your personal story and I am sick and furious by the current events.

    I do want to say as a parent of teens, it is very clear to me that teens more often than not feel that going to an adult to report bullying does not help. Even worse, the teens I am surrounded by usually feel that involving an adult worsens the situation. This is just one small piece of the many parts leaving bullied youth feeling isolated and alone with no way out.

    Reply
    • Hi, Cynthia!

      Yes, I agree that there is definitely a code of silence with teens when it comes to reporting to parents or other adults that it is very hard to break through. And, sadly, it can be equally true that for some teens, there really are no adults that can be trusted to handle the issues they confront in a way that is constructive for the teen within the framework of teen society and pressure. Also true is that even for teens who DO have supportive adults, their perception may still be that they can’t tell for any number of reasons — that the adult will be angry or disappointed, that they fear the consequences, that they fear reprisal from peers, etc. Another really daunting item I just read about was a situation in a local school where the child did report cyber-bullying and the school, instead of acting to help the child, simply told them to let it go and forget about it. That was especially frustrating for me since one of the things I have told teens in my presentations is that IF they are cyber-bullied/sexually harassed, even if this is not happening “on campus”, if the bully is a fellow student at the school, they can report it and the school will take action. And yet, someone reported and the school official in question instead tried to sweep it under the rug.

      Like you say, there are so many aspects to the bullying problem that can hinder a teen or child from seeking help, obtaining it, and finding a way out of the situation.

      As a parent of teens, are there any things in your experience that have been helpful or illuminating to you on how to approach this problem?

      Reply
  8. Hi Carolyn,
    I found your blog as I am doing a little research for some articles about gender-specific dress codes, slut-shaming, and rape prevention. I’m also the mother of a 10 year old boy and the sister of an 18 year old young man. All three of us have had to deal with bullying.
    As a kid, I had wonderful parents — especially my mom — who would stand up for me if ever I asked. But I’d seen her try to go to bat for my older sister without success, so when it wasn’t related to academics, I didn’t go to her. I’m not sure whether that was right or not.
    When I realized my son was being bullied, I went to his teacher. But she denied it — said my child was just as involved if not more so. I was furious. But we dealt with it by finding a buddy who would always hang around with him during recess and after school. There is strength in numbers.
    As far as doing what I can to make sure that my son respects girls, I think the key is not hiding behind youth. Little kids, even babies, get raped. We want to protect our kids from that information, but the reality is we also want — we NEED — them to know what is going on and what they can do as soon as they realize something isn’t right. We (his father and I) let him watch a lot of prime-time TV shows (like Big Bang Theory, Modern Family, and Parenthood) that some parents deem inappropriate because they generate questions that we might not know how to bring up on our own as parents. And it probably helps that my siblings are spread out in age so that I’ve got a 10 year old who’s heard several different versions of “be careful, use protection, and be safe” that I have told my sisters and brother.
    I think the biggest mistake other parents can make is thinking that their kid is still a little kid and they don’t need to worry about talking to their kid until puberty hits. In reality, our kids don’t live in bubbles and we have to be ready to talk about bullying, fairness, diversity, and safe sex all the time. We have to be ready to answer questions the minute they’re asked — and we can’t pause out of embarrassment. We have to be willing to address uncomfortable things — because the alternative of being too late is much too big a risk.

    Reply
    • Hello, phylcampbell! I am sorry I did not reply to this earlier–I was away last week plus some on a work conference. Thank you so much for your thoughtful commentary. I am sorry that your son has been bullied and I am glad that you are involved in helping to mitigate that and navigate the system. I think you are so right that we as adults and parents need to be willing to address uncomfortable things, precisely because the uncomfortable stuff is very often the important stuff.

      Thank you again for the comments and best wishes to you! 🙂

      Reply

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