By Kiera Obbard
On October 10, 2012 in Port Coquitlam, British Columbia, 15-year-old Amanda Todd committed suicide following years of blackmail, sexual harassment, and bullying. Weeks earlier, Todd had posted a heart-wrenching video to YouTube that outlined on handwritten cue cards the torment she experienced at the hands of not only her peers, but a male predator who persuaded the then 12-year-old to flash her chest via webcam. The man in question, who as of yet is unknown, took a photograph of Todd’s exposed chest and used it to blackmail her into performing further sexual acts for him over the next three years[i]. The photograph was eventually sent to all of Todd’s family and friends via the internet and Todd was subsequently bullied, slut-shamed, and even physically assaulted by her peers. Although Todd relocated a number of times, her attacker followed her and continued to exploit her until Todd took her own life.
The public response to Amanda Todd’s story has generally been one of outrage and disgust. The mainstream media largely represented Amanda Todd’s suicide as a tragic result of the intensive bullying that she experienced, and discussions calling for an increase in anti-bullying campaigns erupted on social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook[ii]. Since her death, many people have spoken out against bullying within schools. NDP MP Dany Morin, for example, put forward a motion to create a national bullying prevention strategy just days after Todd’s suicide[iii]. Politicians and business leaders in Todd’s hometown of Port Coquitlam, B.C. have launched a large-scale anti-bullying campaign that includes fines for those who are bullying—although, the bylaw tickets issuing fines will be ripped up if offenders agree to take an anti-bullying education course[iv]. Newspapers across Canada have picked up on this theme, referring to Todd’s attackers as “bullies in cyberspace and in the schoolyard” and to her suicide as a result of “her treatment at the hands of a cyber bully”[v].
The problem with this, however, is that the framework in which Todd’s death is placed does not adequately address her experiences. To call what happened to Amanda Todd ‘bullying’ or ‘cyber-bullying’ is to ignore the systemic, social factors that contributed to her victimization. Using the language of ‘bullying’ to describe the sexual violence that Todd experienced “glosses over structural reasons for violence—reasons like race, gender, ability, and sexuality, among a myriad of insidious social hierarchies”[vi]. It also ignores the fact that Todd’s victimization did not begin in a schoolyard setting, nor was the initial conflict with a peer; rather, the man who coerced her into revealing her breasts on webcam, photographed her, and blackmailed her is reportedly significantly older than Todd—in one report, he is stated to be in his late forties and in another, he is reported as a 32-year-old man[vii]. Although some news commentaries have identified the pedophilia and the sexual victimization of a minor associated with this case, there is a general lack of discussion in mainstream media about the very gendered social factors and the internalized misogyny implicit in the sexual and physical violence enacted on Todd.
Many of the factors of this case and the discussion surrounding it— including the response of many of Todd’s peers to the nude photograph and, in particular, how young women in Todd’s school slut-shamed her and blamed her for the outcomes of baring her breasts on webcam, to the point of physical violence—are not only the products of a larger rape culture that accepts violence against women as inevitable and places the responsibility to avoid sexual violence solely on women, they contribute to it.
Self-defense classes tout this every day—if you do not want to be raped, you must learn not only to physically defend yourself from a would-be attacker (thus promoting the problematic concept of “stranger danger”), but you must also do everything in your power to avoid situations in which you could be easily victimized. In Amanda Todd’s case, this meant not being coerced into flashing a predatory man on the internet.
The problem here goes above and beyond bullying. It is sexism and misogyny, and it is the perpetration of sexual violence against a minor—against a young woman in particular, who throughout her lifetime has been subjected to patriarchal structures that call for her to be simultaneously sexy and alluring while maintaining a pure reputation. This problem exists not just within schools, but within our meritocratic society that calls for women to maintain an unrealistic ideal of sexual availability while refraining from promiscuity and blames them for any repercussions they face if they fail to succeed. This particular problem also exists within the framing of sexual violence against women—the labelling of these instances as “bullying” when such a term does not adequately define the situation, for example, or the prevailing emphasis in sexual assault prevention programs on self-defense rather than addressing the core issue—the persons (statistically, men[viii]) who commit sexual violence.
The majority of sexual assault prevention programs focus on risk-reduction and self-defense strategies for women, and although self-defense programs are an important part of sexual assault prevention education, this should not be the sole focus of such community education programs[ix]. Rather, sexual assault prevention education should place more emphasis on the education component of the programs—this does not mean simply educating men and women on sexual assault statistics and on how to best avoid a high-risk situation, but employing education techniques that target the acceptance of rape myths and work to destabilize and alter the existing societal norms that allow for sexual violence to occur[x].
One way in which this can be achieved is by creating education programs that directly target men. Previous research has shown that techniques such as challenging rape myths, creating awareness of the legal definitions of rape and of consent, and encouraging men to intervene in instances where their peers are exhibiting inappropriate sexual conduct can all be effective means of decreasing the likelihood of sexual violence[xi]. Research conducted on the effectiveness of the bystander approach, which encourages bystanders to intervene in situations in which sexual violence may be occurring,[xii] has found that men “relate to the ideas represented in rape prevention programs as they begin to understand their personal responsibility for the prevention of rape”[xiii]. It is of vital importance that men are taken into account in sexual assault prevention education and called upon not only to not commit sexual violence, but to hold each other responsible for inappropriate sexual conduct. By combining education techniques targeted at changing male perceptions of rape myths with teaching both men and women how to safely and effectively intervene in potentially high-risk situations, “bystanders can help create new community norms for intervention to prevent sexual assault, increase others’ sense of responsibility for intervening and their feelings of competence, and provide role models of helping behavior”[xiv]. In cases such as Amanda Todd’s, which is made even more complex by the fact that she was a minor at the time the photograph was taken, this type of education program could have made all the difference. If students were taught not only to defend themselves from predatory men, both on the street and on the internet, but also that sexual violence of any kind is never acceptable and never the fault of the victim, then perhaps her situation would have had a different ending.
In a society in which sexual violence against women still exists, and in a society in which 1 in 4 women will be affected by sexual violence in their lifetime[xv], it is not enough to simply teach women that they must defend themselves at all times from any form of sexual violence. In order to target the core issue of sexual violence against women and to help prevent situations like Amanda Todd’s from happening again, sexual assault prevention programs need to take both men and women into account. When this happens, and when “men and women work together to link prevention and intervention…holding offenders accountable at both the criminal justice and community levels[xvi],” there is the possibility for transformation to occur, and for all instances of sexual violence to decline.
This issue has become all the more significant in light of the recent events in Steubenville, Ohio in which a 16-year-old girl was raped and possibly urinated on while intoxicated (and, according to some reports, unconscious) at a party on August 11, 2012. The two 16-year-old star athletes charged with her rape have been supported by many residents of the town, by the school, and by their coach, who has been reported as “standing by his players” through a difficult time. This issue has sparked a lot of controversy, not only because of the initial crimes but also because of the continued harassment and mockery of the victim online — most notably by Ohio State University student Michael Nodianos (read more on that here). Significant discussion has occurred on the role of social media in this assault, on the issue of teen drinking, and on the football culture in towns such as Steubenville in which male athletes are idolized and taught to feel entitled to anything they desire.
However, the framing of the discussion around these core issues leaves out the importance of the education system in combating these structures that are so embedded in our culture. In this case in particular, not only has the education system failed to teach young men not to rape, but the support given to these boys by the coach, the school, and the town, the framing of the story by media outlets that emphasize the number of games missed by players, and the rumors of police cover-ups, is teaching them that it is perfectly acceptable to rape and kidnap a minor, and have the crimes documented in detail on social media, as long as they can still throw a football. Of course, this obsession with protecting athletes and defending their behaviour no matter how brutal, speaks to the corporatized, power-driven goals of many schools today. Rather than defending the victim of this crime, the school is fighting to protect its offenders, rapists, because of the value they bring to the school as star athletes. In fighting sexism and misogyny then, we must not leave out the necessary changes the education system must undergo to help create a more equal society. Schools must, through both curriculum and policies, become committed to teaching young people to be critical of their cultures, including the structures that legitimate rape, and must ensure that their administrative priorities lie not in money or reputation but in teaching students to be smart, ethical, healthy critical citizens.
Fortunately, in response to this incident in Ohio, the online activist group Anonymous has stepped in, compiling evidence from social media sites and vowing that the perpetrators will be held accountable. Yet when looking to the long-term, judicial punitive measures are not the real solution; rather, the answer lies in a complete overhaul of the way that we, in Western society, think, talk, and behave regarding sex, consent, sexual assault, and rape.
Then, perhaps, we can begin to imagine a safer society for all of its citizens.
Kiera Obbard is an MA student in the Cultural Studies and Critical Theory program at McMaster University. Her research interests include feminist theory, representations of gender and sexuality, male-female relations, and popular culture and music studies. Kiera is currently investigating the representations of identity, sexuality, and gender in the music of Die Antwoord, a South African hip-hop group. She completed her undergraduate degree in English and Communication at the University of Ottawa. Read her feminist blog: www.wildkiera.tumblr.com
[vii] “Hacker group releases online record of second alleged Amanda Todd stalker,” The Vancouver Sun, (October 17, 2012). Access online here. See also, Lydia Warren’s and Meghan Keneally’s article “The internet vigilantes: Anonymous hackers’ group outs man, 32, ‘who drove girl, 15, to suicide by spreading topless photos of her’,” in The Daily Mail, (October 16, 2012). Access online here.
[ix] Laura Hensley Choate, “Sexual Assault Prevention Programs for College Men: An Exploratory Evaluation of the Men Against Violence Model,” Journal of College Counseling, 6, (Fall 2003).
[x]Holly Johnson, “New Technology Use and Violence Against Women,” Telephone interview. (October 10, 2011)
[xi] Laura Hensley Choate, “Sexual Assault Prevention Programs for College Men: An Exploratory Evaluation of the Men Against Violence Model,” Journal of College Counseling, 6, (Fall 2003).
[xii] Shawn Meghan Burn, “A Situational Model of Sexual Assault Prevention through Bystander Intervention,” Sex Roles, 60 (2009): 779-792.
[xiii] Laura Hensley Choate, “Sexual Assault Prevention Programs for College Men: An Exploratory Evaluation of the Men Against Violence Model,” Journal of College Counseling, 6, (Fall 2003).
[xiv] Shawn Meghan Burn, “A Situational Model of Sexual Assault Prevention through Bystander Intervention,” Sex Roles, 60 (2009): 779-792.