On slut shaming, victim blaming, and sexuality bullying

(Originally posted here.)

While Amanda Todd’s suicide itself was tragic, what bothers me the most is that I’ve heard this story before. In its wake, there’s been some discussions that have started about cyber bullying, online trolls, and vigilante justice. But there’s a bigger issue here that no one’s willing to talk about: the sexual nature of the bullying this young woman experienced. The same kind of bullying that took place among other young women who have taken their own lives- Phoebe PrinceSamantha KellyRachel Ehmke. The same kind of bullying that led to my friend’s suicide when she was only 16. I’ve been struggling for days, knowing that I couldn’t just sit by silently while I watched this all too familiar story unfold all over again. And I’ve realized that I need to talk about the sexualized bullying that either no one notices, or no one has done anything to stop. It’s the kind of bullying that nearly cost me my life.

We’ve heard a lot about the bullying and suicide of a horrific number of male students who were bullied about being gay (regardless of their sexual orientation), and the It Gets Better project did a wonderful job of drawing attention to the issue. But what I’m talking about is a little bit different. It’s the kind of bullying that girls do to other girls. Sexualized bullying is when there’s something about the bullied- the (sexual) attention and interest that she gets from men, or the way her body has developed- is the reason she’s been targeted. It’s calling a girl a slut because the boy the bully likes has a crush on the victim. It’s verbally or physically attacking the victim’s body to make her ashamed, and sending the message to others that because of these labels, she’s somehow less of a person than anyone else. That she doesn’t deserve the same kind of respect or dignity. I suspect that this may be the flip side of the homophobic bullying that too many teens experience, but there’s no good information I’ve found on it.

What is it that these bullies do that cuts so deep? You could call it what’s been referred to as “slut shaming.” Basically, it’s the systematic way that our society makes women feel guilty, or ashamed, or humiliated because of some perception that she may have engaged in some kind of sexual activity (or activity that made it seem like she may be somehow sexually inviting or may one day want to engage in sex). And even though we don’t talk about it that explicitly, it’s there in our society all the time. Like the idea that the way a woman dresses will affect her chances of being attacked. And like the fact that a police officer saw fit to share this safety tip with women in Toronto a year and a half ago (That’s actually what gave rise to the international Slutwalk movement).

But why is this term so hurtful? It’s because we’ve grown up knowing that “slut” is the opposite of what you want to be. It’s a word that’ll get you the wrong kind of attention from men, a word that defines you as somehow fundamentally less worthy than a woman who is not considered a slut. That exists for all of us. Unfortunately, it’s a lot worse in those pre-teen years. It’s not a time when women are recognized for their intelligence, or their talents, or their compassion, or their skills, or their ambition. Instead their identity is linked to their physical attributes. So let’s follow the logic for a minute: if your entire self-worth is tied up in your appearance, and you’re led to believe that the way you look makes you worthless, then yeah, you can bet that your self-esteem, fragile as it already is, is going to take a hit.

It also goes one step further though. Laurie Penny of The Independent put it so much better than I could, explaining that “it has somehow become axiomatic that if a woman has the temerity to exist in the public space, particularly as a sexual being, then she is fair game. She deserves to be bullied. She has asked for it.” Take what happened when a woman decided to speak up at comedian Daniel Tosh show this summer when he went on a roll about rape jokes. When she yelled “rape jokes aren’t funny”, he countered with “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like, 5 guys right now? Like right now? What if a bunch of guys just raped her?” What’s worse is that even after Tosh apologized for what he said, this woman continued to be bullied in the media.

Unfortunately, all a young woman has to do is be labeled, let the rumor spread around a bit, and in the eyes of her peers, she’ll be transformed into someone who doesn’t deserve respect. With many of the girls that I wrote about above, their bullies would probably justify their slut-shaming as the result of something she had done (she was dating an older guy, she was talking to guys on the internet, she wore tight jeans). But sometimes it’s simpler even than that. Google some of them, look through their pictures. These are beautiful girls, the kind of girls that would undoubtedly make some of the other girls feel insecure. For me, it was because I was tall with big breasts, and looked much older than I was. And to exist like that meant that there were some fundamental assumptions people could gather about me that changed the way they treated me. In short, big breasts meant I was slutty, and if I was slutty, I didn’t deserve the same respect as others.

But it wasn’t just the kids at school. To a certain extent, it changed the way that adults perceived me as well. Somehow, the development of my secondary sexual characteristics meant that I was someone who would have sexual encounters willingly. And this is exactly what’s been happening over the past two weeks. What do you think would have happened if Amanda Todd was less attractive? What if she had been overweight, or homely, or just looked young for her age? Would there still be people- ADULTS- who attach their real names to their opinions in the debate over whether she deserved what she got? I know it’s a horrible thing that I’m asking you to consider, but it’s become so entrenched in our society that these judgments are made without conscious attention. In one of my favourite articles of all time, William Simon and John Gagnon wrote that “community outrage at the rape of an elderly women or a female child is often greater than an even more brutal rape of a “mature” women, despite, or because, the inappropriateness of the object bespeaks its greater pathological origins and often precludes even the suspicion of initial complicity on the part of the victim.” Put another way? By appearing sexual, whether it was intentional or not, she was asking for it.

One of the reasons that I think it’s so important for you to hear my story is because it comes as a surprise to most. The reactions are usually, “but you’re so smart”, “but you’re so strong”, “but you’re so confident”. I fall outside the lines of what you expect someone who has been bullied to look or act. Similarly, the girl who put me through hell for years didn’t look like a bully. You know the story about the big, mean kid who isn’t very smart or doesn’t have many friends? That definitely wasn’t the case here. Michelle* was kind of small, had friends, and was very smart- something that the teachers always made sure that she knew. I don’t have the source, but I remember reading in a textbook a few years ago that bullies weren’t socially awkward or slow- but actually pretty savvy. And unfortunately, the teachers can find it easier to side with the bully.

And though there had always been bullying, and in grade grade five it had taken a very sexual tone, it was when we moved up from a school of 200 kids for 5 grades, to 700 for only 3 grades that things got much worse. Since I was in the language immersion stream, I didn’t get a chance to get away from the same kids I had been with since kindergarten. But I quickly became a target for the rest of my grade.

In school, the term “sexual harassment” basically entails everything from having lewd pictures up in your locker or making dirty jokes to being cornered and coerced into sexual acts. And while I certainly agree that all of those can be bad, there are different degrees of it. But the only thing that I’ve ever really schools differentiate is cases of rape. Mind you, if a teacher tried to do to a student what other students did, that would be treated as much worse, and the teacher would be charged criminally without a second though. But among students, , I’ve never experienced them being too concerned about what they considered “sexual harassment”, even if it was against the law. The reason that I’m telling you about this distinction is because when we talk about “sexual harassment” in the schools, people usually think of the milder forms of harassment- the stuff that might look like inept flirting or “boys being boys” or playful. The stuff that, at least to the adults in my school, wasn’t serious. So when I went to the vice principal to report what a student had done to me at the end of my 6th grade, it could be stretched to fit into the category of sexual harassment, and wasn’t really taken seriously. And the fact that I had dared to report the violation that I had experienced? Well, that just wasn’t acceptable to my classmates, and the bullying intensified.

You can read the details yourself if you want, but suffice it to say that things were bad, and got increasingly physically violent. When I finally made a very serious threat to kill myself in grade seven, my parents finally took my pleas seriously and allowed me to change schools.  And changing schools did help- for awhile, at least. I wasn’t bullied and I made friends. I starting debating (and as it turned out, I was pretty good at it), developed an interest in politics, and even got to do a co-op placement on Parliament Hill. But I had also started spiraling into a serious depression. I started to hurt myself.

But once I had gotten a bit of help, I knew that I was supposed to be doing better. No one really considered the role that my experiences from middle school could be having on me (myself included). At this point, I was several years removed from those experiences, had just started my last year of high school, and I kept telling myself that things would be fine once I got out. And I figured that since I’d gotten some high-quality help, if I couldn’t deal it was because of some failure on my part. So I didn’t tell anyone how dark things still were, and one morning woke up and snapped. I decided that I’d had enough, and took a lethal dose of pills.

Bottom line? It was serious- I was unconscious for 8 hours, my heart nearly stopped, and I ended up in the hospital for two months. It was finally towards the end of the stay, five years after I had changed schools, that my doctor acknowledged that the depression could have been the result of post traumatic stress. Finally, there was some kind of recognition that what had happened to me. . . it wasn’t okay, and there was a reason that I wasn’t okay with it.

When I went back to school, I was told by my guidance counselor to “face the facts,” that there was no way I was going to graduate. As it turns out, I’m a pretty stubborn person, and there was no way I was going to let her be right. I don’t know how, but I graduated on time, with honours, and was even the recipient of one of the department awards. I defied a lot of expectations when I went away to university, but even more when I actually did well. I’m sure it won’t come as a shock to you at this point in the story, but once the problem had been properly identified and worked through those experiences, I could be a functioning member of society. I don’t think I could have ever understood just how much better I could feel, because I didn’t understand how deeply these experiences affected me. And I found my voice. I was a senator, worked and volunteered with tons of different student groups, and even put myself in the middle of a facebook debate about rape jokes- something that reminded me that even as adults, peers can be bullies. The difference is, now I can take it. And even though it still seems surreal, I started grad school this fall.

But there’s something here that you need to understand…I made it out to the other side of things, despite how much was in my way. I’m not really sure how, or why, but I got to survive. Two of my friends took their own lives during my last winter in school, one of them definitely related to bullying. The other had just been accepted to the University of Guelph, the school where I ended up doing my undergrad, just days before she died. Every fall, I’ve struggled with the fact that I was still there, and she wasn’t. I knew that it could have so easily been the other way, and I struggled with the guilt that I wasn’t doing anything to change things for people who shared my experiences.

The scars from bullying…they can fade. But I don’t know if they can ever really go away. I’ve talked to others who have been bullied who 10, 20, even 30 years later can’t talk about it. And I get that. The ongoing bullying- whether it’s homophobic, or sexualized, or ableist, or racist, or whatever other reason peers may have decided to victimize you- it spends a lot of time teaching you that you don’t deserve the same respect that others do. It shows you that people can and will do what they want, even if its only purpose is to hurt you. It undermines every single positive thought you have about yourself. They actively work to keep anything from making you feel good about yourself.

There’s one thing about Amanda’s story that’s letting people let themselves off the hook for their own bad behaviour when they were younger. Somehow, we seem to be under the impression that somehow the cyberbullying is the cause of the increase in suicides, not what continues to happen day-to-day in school. When I learned that some of her bullies continued to make fun of her after her death, I was appalled. But the thing is, I don’t think this is an indication that people are that much meaner than before. Having an online medium makes it easier for more people to get involved (so you can support each other, much like people do when they gang up to bully you in person), and people can band together to target one person. And that’s exactly what happened when we moved from elementary to middle school- suddenly, there was a whole new population of people to recruit to bully me. The result of this kind of group mentality is that no one thinks there’s anything all that wrong with what they’re doing, because then everyone’s doing it. The reasons for slut shaming have changed (most notably by the emergence of webcams and the ability to send inappropriate pictures), but the slut-shaming itself hasn’t. I’m confident that if pictures weren’t available, the kids would have found another reason to target her. What’s happening now isn’t a new problem brought on by cyberbullying. It’s the same problem that we’ve been too afraid to talk about for years.

But we can’t keep this skeleton hidden in our closets anymore. Otherwise, 10 years from now when one of the many completely preventable suicides garners international attention and there’s nothing else to blame, we’ll be getting the “we didn’t know it was a problem” excuse from schools again. But we can’t wait for this to happen on its own, when we’re faced with ever growing problems in society that are being fed by people who grow up learning that a woman’s body is there for someone else’s pleasure (or to allow others to cause her pain). We have a society that has become so focused on victim blaming and slut-shaming that it doesn’t even register with us any more.

I don’t know what the solution is, but we need to spread the message that this kind of behaviour isn’t going to be accepted anymore. I’ve opened up an incredibly painful part of my past to try and raise awareness about the issue, but I need your help. What I’m asking you is to consider what I’ve said. Share it with others so they might be able to reflect on what I’ve said. But the most important thing is to talk about this sexualized bullying. The kind of bullying that made it okay for society not only to ignore Amanda as the victim of sexual exploitation and relentless bullying, but to publicly shame her even after her death.

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