An Introduction to the series:
This series examines the deployment of sexual violence online—referred to in this article as (cyber)sexual violence—and its misrepresentation in mass- and social-media through an intersectional analysis highlighting the roles of sexism, racism and ageism in the production of sexual violence in online spaces.
Part I examines the hyper-publicized suicide of Amanda Todd in which the Internet served three functions: a battleground between her and her abusers (peers and pedophiles alike); a tool and location through which Amanda could articulate her struggle in a YouTube video; the primary location through which her suicide and exploitation could be exposed to the world.
Part II focuses on the suicide of Felicia Garcia and outlines the commonalities and divergences in mass- and social-media’s approaches to this tragedy, juxtaposing her representation with that of Amber Cole’s. Part II also examines the role of racism in the portrayal of young female victims of (cyber)sexual violence.
Part III moves away from the media and analyzes another facet of how the ageism/sexism cocktail manifests itself: the “Respect Yourself” campaign, an extremely problematic youth-aimed programme injected into schools with the goal of teaching potential victims to avoid being victimized. Part III also contains a brief conclusion.
Part I: Amanda Todd & Why We Need To Quit Calling it (Cyber)bullying
Four months ago, 15-year old Amanda Todd of Port Coquitlam, British Columbia, hung herself, just one month after posting a video entitled “My Story: Struggling, bullying, suicide and self harm”.
The 9-minute black-&-white clip featured Todd holding up a series of flashcards in which she relayed her heartbreaking struggles against the intense backlash that followed the unauthorized distribution of sexually explicit pictures that she had sent an online friend. This backlash included several defamatory Facebook pages featuring sexually explicit photos, as well as consistent emotional abuse on- and off-line that Todd was unable to escape, despite moving schools three times. Amanda confessed that this treatment culminated in her first suicide attempt wherein she ingested bleach, and was taken to the hospital to be “flushed out.” Her peers reacted by mocking her online for not having succeeded in her attempt. In fact, a Facebook page entitled “RIP Bleach Consumed by Amanda Todd” was still active weeks after Todd’s eventual death.
The daunting power of social media, so instrumental in breaking this young woman down, became the means by which her story went viral after her death: mirrored videos of “My Story: Struggling, Bullying, Suicide and Self Harm” have garnered over 20 million views on YouTube, the “RIP Amanda Todd” Facebook page currently has over 351 thousand “likes,” and is becoming the 6th most popular trending topic on Twitter just two days after her death.
Traditional mass media, of course, also flocked to this story. Though there are notable exceptions, the dominant angle quickly became evident with headlines proclaiming, “Port Coquitlam teen driven to death by cyberbullying,” “Amanda Todd tragedy highlights how social media makes bullying inescapable,” and “Vancouver area teen kills herself after posting YouTube video about her being bullied.”
Indeed, the attention ultimately culminated in an anti-bullying forum held by BC Premier Christy Clark in November.
“Bullies need oxygen, and their oxygen is attention. And if we don’t give them attention or if we give them negative attention and we call them out on what they’re doing, they won’t do it. And we can save other potential victims out there,” she told the Vancouver Sun.
It’s worth nothing that October 2012 was “Bullying Prevention and Awareness Month,” providing a ready-made, youth-centered context that amplified the relevance of Amanda Todd’s story to politicians and the media, and strengthened its viral presence in popular discourse. That being said, the media and British Columbian government’s decisions to reduce Amanda Todd’s suicide to a case study on the effects of what the Vancouver Sun calls “an insidious extension of… schoolyard bullying” erases the accountability of a society which, across all age groups, is deeply lacking in a sincere, widespread, uncompromising valuing of sexual consent. Combined with a culture of deep disdain towards the sexual agency of women, this ethical void produces the circumstances in which tragedies like Amanda Todd’s and Felicia Garcia’s are bound to happen.
These attitudes—that may take the form of “slut-”shaming, or expressing hostility, disdain or judgement based on perceived sexual “promiscuity”—are expressed in and through online mass- and social media. They are both reflected and reproduced in the societies and cultures that consume them. Again, people of all ages—from young teens bashing Todd and Garcia on Tumblr to the creators of “slut”-shaming programmes such as “Respect Yourself”—participate in this process.
However, in misrepresenting this violence as “bullying,” the politics of sexism and racism are conveniently erased, instead promoting a narrative that absolves non-youth of responsibility in producing the conditions in which (cyber)sexual violence proliferates.
In short, (cyber)sexual violence is not a “youth” problem, an “Internet generation” problem or a “bullying” problem, nor is its misrepresentation in online mass- and social-media properly explained through common narratives against (often racialized) “slut”-shaming. Rather, its prevalence and misrepresentation is the result of a disastrous intersection of sexism, racism and ageism.
While this last term is more often associated with the systematic and institutionalized discrimination against elderly people, many activists fighting against ageism acknowledge that it also affects youth because they are as well excluded from the capitalist workforce, including mass-media. It’s time that we, as the young adults most affected by (cyber)sexual violence, speak back to this harmful discourse. But first, let’s examine Amanda Todd’s own take on the events precipitating her suicide.
Amanda’s Suicide: Blame “Bullying”?
In the 9-minute long, black-&-white video Amanda posted online just weeks before her death, she didn’t speak. Instead, she held up flashcards detailing her ordeal: “I got a msg on facebook… Don’t know how he knew me… It said… If you don’t put on a show I will send ur boobs… Christmas break, knock on my door at 4am… It was the police… my photo was sent to everyone.” A year later, this same person created a Facebook page featuring her naked breasts as the profile picture, and added all her peers at the school she transferred to in order to escape the impact of the initial violation. “[I] cried every night, lost all my friends and respect people had for me… again… then nobody liked me…name-calling, judged…” Amanda hooked up with “an old guy friend” who then stood by and watched, presumably unharmed, as his girlfriend humiliated and beat Amanda in front of her third school. After her father found her lying alone, hurt and freezing in a ditch nearby, he drove her home. It was then that Amanda drank a bottle of bleach. Subsequent to being treated in an emergency room, Amanda described the ways in which her peers degraded her online: “ ‘she deserved it… I hope shes dead…6 months has gone by… she should try a different bleach… I hope she dies this time and isn’t so stupid’. ” They also tagged her name on Facebook to pictures of bleach, chlorine and ditches.
There’s no doubt that the “name-calling,” “being judged,” and public beating were highlighted as the media’s focal points of Amanda being “bullied,” a term used by the young woman herself. However, there’s also an abundance of events and factors leading up to Amanda Todd’s suicide that would best be described as “sexual violence.”
The still unidentified pedophile person first sexually exploited Amanda when he manipulated her into sending him pictures and webcam footage of her bared breasts – legally defined as child pornography given Amanda’s age – and later attempted to use these images as leverage to coerce her into “putting on a show.” When she refused, he violated her yet again in posting these pictures on Facebook against her will. Finally, though a high school-aged youth does not quite possess the maturity and status of power necessary to be held accountable as an adult perpetrator, it still stands that every single adolescent who knowingly accessed, promoted and redistributed sexually explicit photos of Amanda Todd is nevertheless guilty of additional acts of sexual exploitation.
Given the common knowledge of these legal facts, it is intellectually dishonest—not to mention ethically dubious—for the media and government of British Columbia to attribute Amanda Todd’s suicide to the common sins of “schoolyard bullies.”
Instead, it is imperative that we resist this narrative and recognize “My Story: Struggling, bullying, suicide and self harm” for what it really is: a brave public disclosure of a young woman’s struggles against repeated, unchecked sexual exploitations at the hands of a sadistic pedophile, but also at the hands of her peers.
When we reframe the violations committed against Amanda as instances of sexual violence instead of (cyber)bullying, it becomes clear that Amanda’s “hook up” with her “old guy friend” is also worth further scrutiny. Was Amanda’s consent legitimate considering her psychologically/socially vulnerable state and the power imbalance that reared its ugly head when it was Amanda, not her “friend,” who was publicly shamed and attacked for the affair?
There is also little doubt that this young man’s girlfriend capitalized on Amanda’s fragility so that she could inflict physical violence upon her without consequence.
The reasons for this have roots in a culture that was more than ready to blame the victim.
This draws our attention to the dynamics and values present outside the demographic of young teenagers. These values and dynamics enabled a whole school to watch a 15-year-old suffer a public beating. In short, when we eschew the euphemism of “(cyber)bullying,” we gain a much larger scope and deeper sense of nuance in examining the dynamics and actors that drove a desperate, traumatized young woman to commit suicide.
And in the public’s reluctance in adopting this lens, we are reminded that this is not the first time a young woman’s life was crushed by sexual violence, and are assured that this might happen again. No one wants to address the ease with which a pedophile could pass on his torch of sexual degradation to the same youth we’re trying to protect. In the coverage of Amanda’s story, the media proved that it would rather pat itself on the back for decrying the actions committed by a handful of teenage “cyberbullies” than take this opportunity to examine its very grown-up role in promoting a culture that devalues the lives and dignity of sexually expressive young women.
So few recognize the function of “slut-”shaming in creating a hierarchy in which some women’s bodies and consent are valued more than others. So many are eager to excuse sexual violence committed against those who’ve been determined to be in the lower rungs.
And even further down those rungs of respectability than Amanda Todd, I will argue, there was a young woman named Felicia Garcia of Staten Island, New York.
To be continued in Parts 2 and 3