Why are teenage rape survivors being driven to suicide?

Audrie Pott*Trigger warning*

Just days after Rehtaeh Parsons’ death comes news of an eerily similiar case.

Like Parsons, Audrie Pott was 15 years old when she was raped by classmates at a friend’s house. A photo of her assault was also spread among her peers. A week later, Potter committed suicide after posting on her Facebook wall, “The whole school knows. My life is like ruined now.” Last week, about seven months after her death, the boys who assaulted her were arrested.

As Alexandra wrote after Parson’s death, we’re collectively to blame for creating a “world where it is no longer shocking when victims of sexual assault and harassment commit suicide.” Alexandra noted that we need to stop considering rape to be an inevitability–and intervene before violence ever occurs.

And I agree, of course, but I also think we need to talk a lot more about why girls are literally dying because of the bullying they face after their assaults. This particular pattern–one that we saw in Steubenville too–where the assault is documented and spread digitally among a social group goes beyond the lack of support that many survivors feels. To me, it seems rather specific to a high school context–a time often known for its vicious slut-shaming and rampant peer-on-peer policing. But I don’t feel like we quite have a grasp on what exactly is going on here. I definitely don’t, at least. 

It doesn’t help that the conversation about cyberbullying and young people’s use of social media is usually so woefully superficial. After the Steubenville verdict, the judge advised teens to watch what they record on social media as if that in and of itself were the problem. Pott’s parents are calling for a law that, in addition to strengthening laws on sexual assault by minors, would stiffen penalties for cyberbullying. And that’s fine and good, but I would like to understand why this is happening. After all, the fact that kids can so easily share images via texts and Tweets these days doesn’t cause this kind of post-assault harassment.

Last week, I had the chance to speak about rape culture at the University of Michigan thanks to the school’s very awesome Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center. One of the things I talked about was the importance of framing sexual violence as an issue of power–and trying to really tease apart and name the power dynamics that underpin rape culture in different contexts. So do we have any high school-aged Feministing readers who have some insight here?

St. Paul, MN

Maya Dusenbery is executive director in charge of editorial at Feministing. She is the author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm: The Truth About How Bad Medicine and Lazy Science Leave Women Dismissed, Misdiagnosed, and Sick (HarperOne, March 2018). She has been a fellow at Mother Jones magazine and a columnist at Pacific Standard magazine. Her work has appeared in publications like Cosmopolitan.com, TheAtlantic.com, Bitch Magazine, as well as the anthology The Feminist Utopia Project. Before become a full-time journalist, she worked at the National Institute for Reproductive Health. A Minnesota native, she received her B.A. from Carleton College in 2008. After living in Brooklyn, Oakland, and Atlanta, she is currently based in the Twin Cities.

Maya Dusenbery is an executive director of Feministing and author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm on sexism in medicine.

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