While the general public has been slow in drawing connections between the concepts of sexual exploitation and the stories of Amanda, Amber, and Felicia, there has been a rise in programmes—often state-funded—that attempt to stymie (cyber)sexual violence.
Unfortunately, like the online mass media that I’ve analyzed, these programmes often take on the dogma of victim-blaming and “slut-”shaming that enables sexual violence and mistake it for its solution.
This further relieves perpetrators of sexual violence of accountability for their actions—as witnessed happening in the case of Amanda Todd’s “old guy friend,” the football players who violated and tormented Felicia Garcia, and the anonymous youth who recorded the Amber Cole video—while shaming, stigmatizing and blaming victims.
Nothing, as far as I have been able to find, has demonstrated this failure as obviously as the “Respect Yourself” campaign. Led by Cybertip.ca, a subsidiary of the Canadian Centre for Child Protection, the “Respect Yourself” campaign aims its message primarily at young women, discouraging them from posting sexually suggestive or explicit photos of themselves online, participating in cybersex, or looking for hook-ups on the internet. All pieces feature the tagline “Respect Yourself.” For instance, one poster (pictured above) features a cartoon, stern-looking female teacher glaring at the viewer, and reads: “I saw your online pics… and so did your teacher. How far would you go to get noticed? RESPECT YOURSELF.”
Underneath a fake Polaroid shot featuring a desolate teenage girl sitting outside a classroom where two other girls laugh over something they see on a cell phone, visitors can click on “Real-Life Stories” which toe the line between empowering information and victim-blaming/“slut”-shaming.
“Colleen’s” story, “Love Isn’t Forever… But Photographs Are” is the worst offender. According to the 500-word anecdote, 15-year-old Colleen, trusting her new boyfriend Kyle, sent him a variety of nude and semi-nude photos over the course of the month. After they broke up, Colleen “noticed some boys looking at her, whispering and snickering” before hearing her ex called to the principal’s office. After also being called down to the principal’s office, half an hour later, Colleen found out that Kyle, “was facing criminal charges and a $10,000 fine…[for printing] a collection of Colleen’s nude photos and [making] them into a collage, which he then posted in the boys’ locker room. It got worse—the principal had called her parents for a meeting with Colleen, the principal and the guidance counsellor… Colleen said the embarrassment she felt at school was the worst part of the whole experience!”
There are many aspects of Colleen’s story that make it clear that “Respect Yourself” is far more concerned with sexually policing and stigmatizing young women like Colleen than with creating a culture in which (cyber)sexual exploitation is unacceptable under any and all circumstances. For instance, in telling the story from the victim’s point of view, we are encouraged to scrutinize Colleen’s thought process and decision-making instead of holding Kyle accountable to his. In fact, the author refuses to chastise Kyle any further than narrating the legal consequences that he suffered. Contrary to most recent trends in “anti-bullying” campaigning, the bystanders who Colleen noticed snickering at her faced absolutely no further scrutiny or reprimand. Finally, the emphasis on Colleen’s shame and embarrassment, rather than any assurance that Colleen has every right to express herself sexually without this being construed as an excuse to exploit her, solidifies this victim-blaming “lesson.”
These narratives confirm the very same fears that anti-sexual violence advocates work so hard to assuage: that victims of (cyber)sexual exploitation should be blamed for daring to explore their sexuality, shamed for “disrespecting” themselves through her sexual experimentation, and even outright glared at by the teachers responsible for their safety while in school.
This conundrum is even more heartbreaking when we consider that, unlike Colleen’s ex-boyfriend, many of those who exploited Amanda, Felicia and Amber never faced any sort of consequence, legal or otherwise. No doubt that the promise offered by Colleen’s story of hearing about her assailant’s arrest would have sounded especially hollow to Amanda Todd, considering that after moving to three different schools, the violence and humiliation she experienced only escalated.
In short, the “Respect Yourself” campaign, even more explicitly than the media, demonstrates our society’s staunch refusal to hold perpetrators of sexual violence accountable if they do not fit into the mould of the universally hated, obviously manipulative, sadistic, male pedophile.
Beyond that, our society is much keener on treating our culture of sexual violence, complete with “slut”-shaming, like weather phenomena: impersonal, apolitical, demanding accommodation and, above all, accepted as a natural fact of life which produces untold numbers of victims, but never any perpetrators.
However, this does not stop this initiative from being funded by several mobile service providers, Google and the Government of Canada, among others, and is featured in several schools across the country. Shouldn’t the impact of these programmes be part of the conversation of what’s happening to young women who’ve been sexually exploited or victim-blamed online, especially Amanda, whose school may very well be displaying these posters while British Columbia’s Premier Christy Clark decries the “oxygen” we give bullies?
Despite what the media says, or what ethically dubious “child protection” campaigns will tell you, these tragedies are not products of the Internet or the generation which grew with it, nor can they be reduced to a deviant minority which can be contained through harsher criminal prosecution.
Sexual violence cannot be remedied by shaming, stigmatizing, and blaming victims or potential victims, whether this be in comparing them to adult sex symbols or demanding that they “respect themselves” in order not to be targeted.
Sexual violence also cannot be adequately examined through a euphemistic, apolitical and vague framework like “bullying,” which de-contextualizes the broader socio-cultural and socio-economic circumstances in which sexual violence amidst youth occurs.
If we are serious about addressing sexual violence inflicted upon young women online—indeed, any kind of sexual violence inflicted upon anybody—then we must resist the urge to mentally quarantine and distance ourselves from the dynamics and realities of sexual violence at all.
For instance, it would be tempting to finish reading this series and determine that these issues have nothing to do with you because you are not within a certain age bracket, a certain gender, a certain race, or cannot identify with the choices made by Amber, Amanda, and Felicia. But the truth is that these dynamics constitute just a few branches of an all-pervasive, basic falsehood that transcend these particularities: that the most crucial, relevant component to determining the ethical standing of sexual expression could be anything but consent, whether the yardstick instead becomes the number of sexual partners, how well sexual partners (or perpetrator/victims in cases of rape) knew each other, what acts people engaged in, race, age, or anything else. This falsehood is the foundation of what is sometimes referred to as rape culture: an issue that disproportionately affects young women.
Cyberspace is no exception to this rule. Thus, even if you might not personally approve of the choices of the teenage girls touched upon in this article, it is crucial to recognize that attacks on anybody’s safety and dignity for exercising their right to say “yes” are intimately linked with attacks on people’s rights to say “no”: a prerogative we can all identify with.