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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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