The birds, the bees and their boundaries

I was 9 when I first encountered sexual harassment. I was with my dad and my two brothers in a parking lot when a big black monster truck drove by and someone yelled out, “Show me your tits.” 

Imagine: someone so pathetically disturbed decided to taunt a child in front of her family. But in that moment I didn’t see him as pathetically disturbed. I was confused and humiliated.

Twelve years later, I know that particular incident could have been much worse. But the increasing recurrence of this unwarranted assault towards minors is inappropriate, and oftentimes misunderstood – it really has to stop.

Rolling Stone recently published an article called “Sexting, Shame and Suicide,” chronicling the traumatizing events of 15-year-old Audrie Pott shortly before committing suicide. After passing out at a party, Pott woke up to find writing all over her naked body. Her male classmates had taken and shared pictures of the entire process, and soon Pott was alienated by her school – including the girls she once considered her closest friends.

Pott’s story adds to the tragic collection of social media-fueled sexual violence, abuse and harassment. While many claim that rape statistics are more or less the same as they’ve been in previous years, there’s something about the vast popularity of social media that has prompted a sickening, complicated trend of capturing the crime and sharing it with friends.

In 2009, a 15-year-old Richmond High School student was gang-raped during a homecoming dance while approximately 20 people stood, watched and video taped – though none of them notified police for over two hours.

Seventeen-year-old Rehtaeh Parsons from Nova Scotia, Canada attempted to kill herself when a picture of her getting raped at a party circulated, prompting endless amounts of online and real life bullying. Parsons was taken off life support three days after the attempt.

In 2011, a 17-year-old in Kentucky was also raped and photographed at a party.  Victim Savannah Dietrich was determined to oust her rapists and revealed their identities through social media, tweeting, “I’m not protecting anyone that made my life a living Hell.”

And, arguably most famously, two high school football players from Steubenville, Ohio made national headlines earlier this year after being accused of raping a drunken 16-year-old girl and distributing pictures through social media.

There are a few things to take note of from these five sexual assault cases, other than the obvious misuse of technology and media. 

Firstly: for the most part, all of the victims and the accused were minors at the time. This not only blurs the judicial lines of punishment and repercussions, but it adds to the increasingly high number of rapes against minors. According to a sexual violence survey conducted by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 42 percent of female rape victims were first raped before the age of 18. And it’s not just women; though rape statistics for men are comparably much smaller, six percent of men reported experiencing some sort of sexual coercion at some point in their lives. 

Secondly: in many of the cases, family and community members allegedly defended the rapists in an effort to protect their reputations (and those of their constituents). Authorities are still investigating whether or not public school officials from Steubenville, who are legally obligated to report rape cases, intentionally hid information to protect the school’s football team.

And finally, practically every single victim was subject to bullying, blame and ridicule. Pott’s friends refused to help her once the pictures leaked. The Steubenville victim allegedly received death threats via social media, and two of the victims resorted to suicide because of bullying.

This will continue to happen if our teachers, parents and public figures continue to disregard it. 

When I learned about the birds and the bees, I was in no way prepared for someone to demand that I show them my tits. Age 9 may be too early to throw such a staggering concept at a child, but focused education about sexual abuse, harassment and assault education needs to happen. Schools need to implement effective, zero tolerance stances and classes against sexual abuse. This movement needs to be solid, formalized and implemented universally amongst public, private and charter schools.

Parents, too, need to realize this tragic trend and constantly reiterate the line between “yes” and “no.” And while I’ll admit that parties were fun in high school, they spin out of control at alarming rates – and parents need to stop letting their children take advantage of empty houses.

Women: we need to fight for our right to be women. It might take a while to regain the rights that have been stripped from us, but we can start with ourselves. Not only must you be careful at parties, but only go with the friends you can truly trust. And if you see a crime happening, do not hesitate for a second to report it.

It’s a tragic era when juveniles are so desensitized to sex, violence and privacy that they feel okay about sharing graphic proof of their crimes with their friends. Please, demand the reform that is so urgently needed in our society.  Future generations are depending on it.