There’s an 18-year-old on trial in London accused of raping an 11-year-old girl. The girl was repeatedly assaulted after she got off a bus; she needed surgery after the attack. According to her testimony, as her assailant pushed her to the ground, “he said he would film me and send it into my school.”
Does that sound familiar? Unfortunately, it should. There’s something terrible going on when sexual assault becomes not just an act of violence but a spectator sport, infinitely reproducible and reproduced.
Leah Parsons recognized this in her devastating Facebook post about her daughter, Rehtaeh. The Nova Scotia teenager took her own life after months of being tormented over a photo taken of her during an alleged rape. The photo was reportedly circulated by her attackers, who “decided it would be fun to distribute the photo to everyone in Rehtaeh’s school and community where it quickly went viral,” Leah Parsons wrote. “Because the boys already had a ‘slut’ story, the victim of the rape Rehtaeh was considered a SLUT.”
Somewhere along the way, it’s become a game to grab photos of young women, often intoxicated, while they’re being assaulted and trade them like baseball cards. It’s not just Rehtaeh and her profoundly sad story. Three boys in California have just been charged with the sexual battery of a 15-year-old who had too much to drink, saw explicit photos of herself whizzing around online, and died by her own hand.
There are less tragic but no less horrifying cases: four boys in Wisconsin charged with assaulting and filming a girl, while one of the boys is heard on the cellphone video saying, “Dude, you’re like a rapist!” Four teenagers in Australia charged with filming and assaulting a 14-year-old. Four young professional football players in England facing trial over … well, you know. It’s old hat. An intoxicated 19-year-old, assault, cellphone footage. Perhaps the most recent infamous case was the assault on a girl in Steubenville, Ohio, in which she was filmed like a trophy.
Is all this slut-shaming and vile video-sharing any worse than it ever was? It’s true that teenagers have always lived behind closed doors, whispering nasty things about each other. At least in the old days, there were only so many times you could write “Jenny is a hoor” on a locker before the janitor cleaned it off. Now, the pictures of Jenny’s humiliation live in perpetuity.
“I can never get that photo back, it’s out there forever.” That’s one of the notes that B.C. teenager Amanda Todd held up in a video she made before she died by suicide. She, too, had been harassed online by someone she’d flashed her breasts at; the picture outlived her. In that case, too, Canadians were outraged, at least for a little while.
We need Susan Sontag to return and explain to us the connection between ubiquity of cameras and the weird anomie that lies behind this behaviour. On one hand, it occurs to me that technology is moving so quickly that we haven’t had time to lay down the ethical tracks for it to move along. We don’t yet know the consequences of young people growing up with 24-hour access to free, sexually explicit images, in which women are often degraded and intimacy is a transaction. On the other hand, I think: How hard can these lessons be? Don’t harm another person. Don’t film yourself harming another person. Don’t distribute images of a person being harmed.
Despite a billion lessons in equality and tolerance, we have yet to pass on the message that women are not things or tools or devices for sexual gratification. In particular, young men – not all, not a majority, but enough for it to be a problem – have failed to grasp this basic truth. I wonder, as I see legitimate news organizations run headlines like Jennifer Lawrence Most Wanted To Star In Sex Tape, if we ever will.
Social media, so magnificent at spreading information and connecting disparate groups, is also capable of drawing a numbing curtain between people and their compassion. It’s not a girl you’re looking at on your phone; it’s only a picture of a girl. It’s on YouTube, so it can’t be serious.
I can’t put it better than American philosopher Martha Nussbaum did in her essay Objectification And Internet Misogyny: “The objectifier treats the objectified as a mere tool of his ends, and not an end in herself.” When that relationship is amplified online, as it increasingly is, it becomes much worse, because the subject then experiences humiliation over and over: “To objectify publicly is a variety of shame punishment.”
She cites the work that two psychologists, Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson, have done with troubled adolescent boys. The boys lionize traits like stoicism and nonchalance, and disdain empathy as weakness. Because they feel out of control in their own lives, they strike out by humiliating others.
The psychologists write: “It is the responsibility of people who raise boys to train them specifically to be good, empathic partners to girls and women. It can be done, by fathers who model respect for women in the family and in the wider world, by mothers who help sons understand a girl’s point of view, and by anyone in a boy’s life who helps him see his connectedness to others as a positive thing.”
The word “connectedness” is crucial. We’ve never been more connected, it seems, and never further apart.