Earlier this year, a gang rape in Steubenville, Ohio and the subsequent victim-shaming became national news while "Jane Doe" was bullied and received death threats. By the time the horrific series of events relating to the gang rape, bullying, and subsequent suicide of Nova Scotia's Rehtaeh Parsons became national news, she was gone and we were left to wonder if two horrible stories are just the beginning of a disturbing new trend in teen violence. Parents everywhere held their children a little tighter, grappling with the notion that a sexual assault might not be the worst thing that could befall a teen -- thanks to this digital age, attacks may potentially be recorded, shared, and somehow normalized in a way that revictimizes all over again (and over and over and over again).
And here we are again: A Halifax teen was reported to have been sexually assaulted and the video of it circulated online, and now on top of what she's already endured, she's being bullied because of it. On top of noting that her daughter was so drunk she could "barely walk, let alone say yes to anything,” the teen's mother is quoted as saying:
“There were so many kids there that night, why didn’t one of them get her help or stop it? I just don’t know what’s wrong with the teenagers.”
This is the part that terrifies me. This is the common thread in all three cases. All three young women were attacked in the presence of multiple people. All three were photographed in compromising positions that clearly showed their participation wasn't consensual. And all three were then shamed and bullied.
I have two teenagers. The idea that my daughter could be subjected to something like this or that my son could participate in something like this makes me feel sick and helpless. And they're good kids; the temptation to conclude "it could never happen to them" is strong, of course, because wouldn't it be wonderful if wishing made it so? No one believes their kids could be in danger, or that their kids could make terrible decisions.
The truth is that right now, all of our kids are in danger and all of our kids are capable of making the wrong decisions. There's a reason that scientists keep studying the frontal lobes of adolescents to figure out why these adult-sized no-longer-children look like grown-ups but often act like toddlers. Teens have always been impulsive and have had a belief in their own immortality, but now their bad decisions are being documented and circulated and judged by their peers. From an adult perspective, it seems like this should make our teens more cautious. Unfortunately, from a teen's perspective, it seems to most often make it more acceptable to ridicule those who are found wanting.
After Steubenville, we talked about rape culture and keeping our daughters safe and teaching our sons to respect women.
After Rehtaeh Parsons, we talked about bullying and suicide and went back to the conversations about staying safe and what consent means.
With this latest story, we have to face the reality that the message needs to be stronger, louder, and impossible for teenagers to ignore. There are lots of scary things about these stories, and scary things have, unfortunately, been happening since the beginning of time. The new scary thing is the normalization of this violence via social media, to the point where kids think sharing material that's technically pornography is not only okay, it's license to bully whoever is featured in it, and nevermind whether they might've been coerced. That's a big part of what needs to be in the new dialogue about staying safe and never, ever making a bad situation even worse.
I certainly don't have any foolproof answers. All I have is talking points for my own personal teenagers:
Don't drink. Oh, but all teens drink, right? They don't. Talking to your children early and often about alcohol and staying involved in their lives reduces the chances of underage alcohol experimentation. In our house, we talk first about how it's illegal (which means a bust can leave them with a record) and next about how it can impair your ability to think clearly. We stress that you cannot know how you'll react to alcohol or what your tolerance might be the first time you drink, and so if/when that time comes, you must make sure you're in a safe situation with people you trust. A party is never the right time to get drunk. In fact, most people who drink never get drunk -- that's responsible alcohol usage -- and again, when they're of age and someplace safe, years down the road, is when they should try alcohol (if at all).
Don't be alone with people who are drunk. Again, this is about reducing risk but also simply making good choices. Teenagers are prone to bad decisions. Drunk people are prone to bad decisions. Drunk teenagers are almost guaranteed to make bad decisions. Remove yourself from a situation where things are likely to go badly.
Call me for a ride at any time, from anywhere. Most parents I know have this rule for their teens, but it bears repeating because that impulsive teen brain can prioritize "not getting in trouble with Mom" over "staying safe" if this one hasn't been drilled home. It doesn't matter if they aren't where they were supposed to be. It doesn't matter if everyone there is drunk. It doesn't matter if they are drunk. Safety is our priority and if ever one of the kids needs to be rescued, we will come, no questions asked, and whatever dubious circumstances surround the pick-up will be tabled for the next day. Stress to your teens that they should never feel they can't call you for rescue. Better still, come up with a code word that they can text you to let you know they need extraction in a face-saving way -- you can call and inform them you need them home right now and they don't have to let on to their peers that they wanted to leave.
Speak up when you see something wrong, or if you feel it might be dangerous, leave and tell an adult. Mob mentality is nothing new, but maybe we need to reiterate to our kids that they can break free from the herd, especially if they see someone getting hurt or being put in a compromising position. It's not about being a hero, it's about refusing to be a part (however passively) of something that's not okay.
It is never okay to take embarrassing pictures of video of anyone. Ditto for circulating the same. My kids know that if I see them engaging in that sort of behavior on their cell phones or online, their access to technology will be yanked away faster than they can hit the "Share" button. You don't have to have been the assailant to be a part of a continuing assault -- step away from the drama! Either call out the folks participating or say nothing and let an adult know, but do not participate in public humiliation in any form. Ever.
Consent should be enthusiastic and unmistakeable. I love this post-Steubenville video from Laci Green for lots of reasons, but primarily for her take on what consent means and how it happens. Teens are not born with this information. It seems self-evident but it's not, so make sure they know both how to give consent (and how not to) and how to recognize consent, as well.
Err on the side of kindness. Put yourself in the other person's shoes. Would you want to be teased? Pointed at? Whispered about? No? Then don't do it to someone else. Be kind, instead. If you can't be kind, at least be silent.
No pain is insurmountable. We are here for you. Teens need to understand before the world falls apart that their parents have their back and will help them through anything. There are no guarantees in life and no way to be certain your teen won't be assaulted or bullied. What you can do is try to protect them, teach them to protect themselves, and then let them know that you're there for them. Sometimes even that isn't enough, but there can't possibly be anything wrong with trying to make sure your kids know they are loved no matter what.
My heart goes out to all of these teens trying to pick up the pieces after the unthinkable, and also the families of those who felt they couldn't continue living. These stories have to stop. We have to find a way to keep our kids safe and teach them to reject violence. Too much is at stake for us to just shake our heads and move on to the next news story.
BlogHer Contributing Editor Mir Kamin is trying not to worry so much about her teenagers, but not having much success. She blogs near-daily about issues parental and otherwise at Woulda Coulda Shoulda, and all day long about the joys of mindful retail therapy at Want Not.
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