In the past few months, there’s been a lot of media attention to girls who’ve died by suicide after being raped in public settings (eg. at parties) by multiple assailants, shamed and humiliated by peers, and failed by the adults in schools and justice departments who should have supported them. Audrie Pott was 15 when she took her own life and Rehtaeh Parsons was 17 years old. Parsons’ father wrote in a public statement:
My daughter wasn’t bullied to death, she was disappointed to death. Disappointed in people she thought she could trust, her school, and the police.
Some of the media coverage makes these tragedies seem like technology problems, and in all these cases digital photographs and distribution indeed heightened the slut-shaming both girls experienced. When tragedies like this happen in other parts of the world, people often blame a misogynistic culture that is supposedly uniquely terrible “over there.” When it happens here, it’s much easier to blame technology.
These are not the first, nor will they be the last girls to commit suicide after being raped and then slut-shamed for it. It’s well established in the literature that suicide attempts are strongly correlated with child sexual abuse. These particular cases get so much attention because of the heightened shaming these girls experienced through social media. What’s genuinely new in these cases is not the slut-shaming from peers but the fact that the rest of us can see it. The evidence that is left behind when people socialize online makes once-private locker-room talk and whispers in the hallway public and visible to adults.
My hope is that youth educators and parents who are shocked by what Pott and Parsons’ peers said about them online can understand that what these girls experienced was not an exception but merely a highly visible (and, I hope, extreme?) version of what happens to survivors of rape all the time. Social media lets us see slut-shaming and rape culture in the light of day, but when we talk about these cases we have to recognize that these attitudes are not unique to teens or to a few bad people–they are absolutely endemic in (adult) mainstream culture.
update: Beth Lyons has a great post at Shameless about how the media have been reporting Parsons as a victim of “bullying”–which is really, really the wrong word for what happened to her.