In the last year, there have been numerous reports about high school girls who were allegedly raped by their classmates. Equally disturbing has been the response of many students in both blaming and bullying the victims through texting and by posting images of their sexual assaults online. This phenomenon highlights the horrifying evolution of social media bullying by making public one of the most traumatic events a person is likely to experience.
One of the latest teen rape cases making international headlines is that of 17-year-old Rehtaeh Parsons of Halifax, Nova Scotia.
According to her family, Parsons was gang-raped by four boys in 2011 when she was 15-years-old. In a move uncomfortably similar to the Steubenville, Ohio rape case, one teen used a camera phone to take a picture of one of the boys allegedly assaulting her. Afterwards, the image was distributed to a number of other students and went viral.
Instead of the image causing outrage, Parsons was labeled a slut. Anonymous male students started sending her text messages asking her to have sex with them. The messages kept coming for months.
A subsequent criminal trial of the students brought no charges against the boys due to a lack of evidence, leaving Parsons suicidal, according to her mother, Leah Parsons.
On April 4th, Parsons hanged herself in her home, her parents removed her from life support on April 7th.
Sadly, blaming the victims of sexual assault is not a new or uncommon phenomenon. Yet the growing use of social media to publicly shame victims has made the practice exponentially more damaging and traumatic as victims discover explicit images of themselves distributed online, and learn that people throughout their school had seen the images as well.
Since the initial Steubenville, Ohio rape case started to make national headlines late last year, a growing number of similar sexual assaults in which students distributed images of girls being allegedly sexually assaulted, have been brought to the public’s attention.
In September 2012, 15-year-old Audrie Pott committed suicide after she discovered explicit photos of her posted online by three 16-year-old male friends who allegedly sexually assaulted her while she was passed out at a house party.
In another recent case, in Torrington, Conn., 18-year-old football players Edgar Gonzales and Joan Toribio, were charged with raping two 13-year-old girls. After one of the girls came forward to report the alleged rape, she started receiving messages on Twitter blaming her for her promiscuous behavior.
One tweet published on HLN read: “wanna know why there’s no punishment for young hoes.”
Another tweet: “Sticking up for a girl who wanted the D and then snitched? have a seat pleaseeee.”
Why are teens bullying sexual assault victims and what can be done to stop it?
Part of the reason why teens bully peers who have been sexually assaulted is simply denial that a friend or classmate could be capable of such a heinous act. Instead, teens blame the girl, accusing her of being overly promiscuous. While teens may be fully aware of the psychological damage that distributing explicit images would cause, they do not recognize the girls as victims.
Complicating the matter is the fact that many teens are voluntarily distributing explicit photos of themselves in the form of sexting. One study found that a third of teens are sexting their peers (sending nude photos via phone or email). The same study also found that girls who sent nude photos of themselves also were more likely to take part in risky sexual behaviors like, having multiple sexual partners and using drugs or alcohol before having sex.
This association with sexting and promiscuity could explain why rape victims become targets for bullying even when their assaults are photographed or recorded. With so much voluntary sharing of sexualized images, teens may not stop to think that what they are seeing is in fact sexual assault.
There is evidence to suggest that teens are not nearly as good at recognizing signs of sexual abuse as they should be. One national survey found that 66 percent of young women and only 46 percent of young men said that they would recognize signs of sexual abuse among their peers. An act that an adult would see as an assault, may not be as clear-cut to a teen.
As with any other type of bullying, normal scruples tend to get lost as more people become involved in targeting the victim. While individual teens may have the common sense to recognize that distributing explicit images of a classmate is wrong, the effects of the pack mentality can lead students to target a rape victim simply because that is what everyone else is doing. The ability to remain anonymous online emboldens bullies to say whatever they want about the person, without any fear of reprisals.
How do we stop this from happening again?
Parents and educators can lead the change by altering how they discuss rape and bullying with teens.
While there is a tendency to think about rape as a violent crime that is perpetrated by strangers, in fact 38 percent are committed by a friend or an acquaintance, and 66 percent are committed by someone the victim knows.
Teens need to be more aware that just because a victim may know or even be friends with her attacker does not mean that what happened to her was not rape or sexual assault.
Teens also need to know how sharing explicit photos of a classmate could get them in legal trouble for distributing child pornography. At the same time, both the educational system and the federal government need to standardize punishments for students who post and share explicit images so that both educators and law enforcement have clear-cut ways of cracking down on students who are disseminating these images.
Finally, parents and educators need to put greater emphasis on teaching boys about appropriate sexual behavior. While many girls learn from an early age that they could easily become the victim of a sexual assault, especially if drugs and alcohol are involved, boys are not taught that they could easily become rapists. Even if boys know that rape is illegal, they are just as likely to view rape as a violent act done to an unknown women. Boys may not think that groping or having sex with a friend while she is too inebriated to give consent falls also constitutes rape and can land them in jail.
While there is no way to completely stop sexual assaults or teen bullying, raising awareness and consistently holding students accountable for both sexual violence and disseminating explicit images will go a long way towards preventing similar tragedies.