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?

Atlanta, GA

Maya Dusenbery is an Executive Director in charge of Editorial at Feministing. Maya has previously worked at NARAL Pro-Choice New York and the National Institute for Reproductive Health and was a fellow at Mother Jones magazine. She graduated with a B.A. from Carleton College in 2008. A Minnesota native, she currently lives, writes, edits, and bakes bread in Atlanta, Georgia.

Maya Dusenbery is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Editorial.

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  • http://feministing.com/members/openingwindow2013/ Siri Nadler

    Bullying and harassment take place in the adult culture and institutions as well and the dynamics are similar. Although my story does not involve photographs or the internet humiliation, the adults who stood by and did nothing mirror this story.


    I love teaching. It is a kind of ministry to young people. We excite them, we open doors for them, we talk about new ideas with them, get them engaged, give them opportunities to express themselves and have wonderful conversations. I love the possibilities.

    After a hard earned masters degree in graphic design and several years of industry experience often working 60 hour weeks, I accepted a position as an assistant professor of graphic design in the art department at Towson University in the fall of 2000. I was excited to enter this new chapter in my life. I was not prepared for what I was about to encounter. 

    The art department consisted of 16 full time faculty and many adjunct faculty. The majority of the tenured senior faculty were men. The majority of the nontenured faculty were women. What people don’t talk about is how dependent the junior faculty are on senior faculty. The imbalance of power is far stronger than the power imbalance of faculty to student. A student wants a good grade to move on to the next class. He or she wants to graduate or continue on to a good graduate program, and eventually move away from the university. The junior faculty must have the approval and support of senior faculty for promotion, for raises, and for a permanent position in the department. The support of senior faculty is critical every year and at every juncture.

    No one discusses powerlessness. No junior professor would ever want to admit that she is subservient to a male, but this is exactly where I found myself between the years of 2000 to 2006. In 2001, the most senior faculty in the art department began to body bump me in the hallways. He was 6’1 and I am 4”11”. He eventually got me into his office where he told me repeadedly that he couldn’t take his eyes off of me, and stated that if I didn’t sleep with him, I wouldn’t get tenure. I knew that this was not acceptable behavior and let him know that I wasn’t interested. I also knew that this was a clear case of sexual harassment. So, I reported the incident to my chairperson and to the Dean of the school. The Dean advised me to let him know that I was not interested and to do this in front of other people so that there would be an audience. She reminded me that harassers are known to bully when no one else is around in order to ensure that there are no witnesses.

    On the following day, in front of two other faculty members, I told him that I wasn’t interested in him and that he was to leave me alone. I asked him if he understood and he replied yes. On the following day, as I was leading my class into a computer lab, one of the faculty who had been present the day before (also a male senior faculty) assaulted me. He threw me up against the door and shoved something hard into my back. I fell. I took a moment to get my breath. Shaking, I walked to the art office and reported this to my Chair. I was being physically attacked, intimidated, bullied, and harassed. I thought that, surely, something would be done to these two people, that some action would be taken. I had been harassed and assaulted. The law had been broken twice. I was in a state of shock.

    The institution launched a “so-called” full-scale investigation where all of the faculty in the department were questioned. I was told to keep quiet about it until it had been completed. Several faculty reported to me that this was not the first time these two had been in trouble. My own attorney interviewed every faculty member and found the same information and also found that these two senior faculty were best friends. But the insitutions findings reported that nothing had happened. In fact, they began to launch an investigation into my background. I was hounded, harassed, and totally ignored. Everyday, my student display cases had garbage stuffed in them. No one would sit next to me in faculty meetings and I was not invited to departmental gatherings. I became a pariah. Then, the faculty tried to end my contract. However, both professors continued to sit on tenure and promotion committees and to fully participate in the running of the department.

    I experienced deep humiliation and embarrassment and I became deeply depressed. The non response from the university and the denial of all that took place coupled with their insistence that I keep quiet could not have been clearer. They were not going to take any action against these two professors. I can’t help but think of Penn State, the Catholic Church, and other instances where institutions coverup the actions of bullies. By doing nothing, the university condoned the illegal and unacceptable behavior. This incident would follow me to my next teaching job where I was blackballed by Towson University.
    Non-tenured professional women in academia don’t want to talk about these things. They live in fear that they will be next. Like dutiful daughters, they fall into lockstep with their powerful abusive ‘fathers’. They don’t dare question or complain. They are entirely dependent on these men for their future and their economic stability. How can one NOT talk about this power imbalance that forces us into subservience or the loss of employment?

    So, now I ask, how do we combat institutionalized brutality against women? We talk about equality in the workplace, but how do we deal with inequality and violence against women when it happens? What advice do we give our younger female professors when such instances arise? Speak up and forfeit your careers or stay silent and compromised? I still have no answers.

  • http://feministing.com/members/nmendoza/ Nancy Mendoza

    I’m a school counselor and I hear the comments girls make of other girls all the time. I lead self-esteem workshops during lunch with a group of fifteen HS girls and I was shocked to hear some of their comments about the Steubenville, Ohio rape case. Some girls were so focused on what the victim was doing out drinking and what she was wearing, that they forgot to ask themselves ’why did those boys do what they did to that girl?’ It’s a common problem amongst girls, slut shaming. We need to go back to the basics like character ed because these girls are not sticking together. It’s both sad and alarming.

  • http://feministing.com/members/gemmaellen/ Gemma Mason

    I would imagine that having everyone know precisely what happened, and having them blame and shame you for it mercilessly, would honestly be worse than being disbelieved. If the latter, then at least you can know in your heart that they’re wrong.

    One of the most interesting things about the Lizzie Bennet Diaries, a modern internet adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, was the way they dealt with what was, in the original book, Lydia’s “shame” over her extramarital sex with Wickham. I thought for sure they’d have to soften it, that the notion of a woman being “ruined” just didn’t exist any more in modern times, no matter how hard you try. But they did it (SPOILERS ahead). They mapped it perfectly, by having Wickham make a nonconsensual sex tape and intend to put it online. “The internet is forever” and all that. One sex tape and your reputation is ruined for life. It’s not so different to the old idea of a woman being “ruined” after all.

    You know what always used to happen to “ruined” women in books, right? Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary commit suicide. Maggie Tulliver in ‘The Mill on the Floss’ (which was written by a woman who knew what it was like to be viewed this way by society) has her reputation unfairly smeared and after that the author seems unable to develop her further beyond the ruination. She’s too good a person to commit suicide so she has to die in a flood, instead. It was like death, one way or another, was the only socially acceptable option, even if the woman was theoretically innocent. (Heck, before the shotgun marriage, Austen lets the socially inept Mr. Collins remark that the death of Lydia would have been preferable! It’s a laugh line, though. Austen expects us to know that this is a ridiculous, and ridiculously insensitive, thing to say. But the idea was out there).

    This isn’t a new thing. I mean, it is a new thing, but it’s a new thing that looks remarkably like a very old thing, and that’s not coincidence.

    • http://feministing.com/members/adamssa/ Sara Adams

      In George Sand’s Horace the “ruined women” is still the heroine. I wish this book was taught as widely as Pride and Prejudice.

  • http://feministing.com/members/georgesands/ justice day

    What being raped does to you to begin with makes you want to not exist, imagine if everyone or anyone is finding out that you were violated like these girls were and then no one will do anything to get you justice.
    The problem with people is they want to talk about rape and how heinous it is but don’t want to help the victims.
    People need to start to do what Anonymous is doing, hold authorities and rapist accountable.
    If these girls wouldn’t have killed themselves would you be upset they were raped then the rapes were put out there like a joke?
    This is going on everyday in the US military, women and men are being raped and sexually assaulted at a rate of 50 a day and thats DOD numbers. A lot get dishonorably discharged as their rapist are promoted. Some kill themselves. The rapist are then let back out into society and rape more or get positions where they allow rapes like police officers and politicians.
    Help women before they kill themselves hold the rapist accountable and those who allow it like the US military.

  • http://feministing.com/members/umbrellaless/ Chrissey

    Please, oh please, stop using the term “commit suicide.” Suicide is no longer a crime, and using the language that came from it’s former illegaliy surrounds the term in the shame and stigma that prevents so many people from reaching out for help. It is an awfully terminal committment for anyone to make. I work in suicide prevention, and we use “die by suicide” or “ending one’s life” or “killing yourself,” if you’d like some inspiration for alternatives those can be a start.

    Suicide is epidemic. When we talk about Rehtaeh and Audrie and Amanda (Todd) as being so broken by what happened to them suicide became an option, we spread the underlying message to the silent, suffering victims of sexual violence that they have that option too. The media is creating martyrs out of them for the admirable cause of bringing awareness to the horrors that befall rape victims, and while doing so it’s spreading unhealthy answers that there’s no way out of trauma, no help to be had, no empathetic people out there, and no reason to keep living.

    • http://feministing.com/members/maya/ Maya

      Thanks for the feedback, Chrissey. I hadn’t thought about the phrase in that context before, but that makes sense, and I’ll use your alternatives in the future.

      I’m interested in the rest of your comments too–can you expand more on what you see as the problems with the media coverage and how it could be better? I don’t know that much about suicide prevention but I’ve thought a bit about the contagion effect as it relates to these cases. Especially since rape is already such a stigmatized crime and is routinely frames as the worst possible thing besides death that can happen to a woman. What do you think is the best way to talk about these cases in a way that’s like, “Rape is bad and we need to prevent it. But if it happens to you, that doesn’t mean your life is over. And if you’re assaulted, you should be able to expect support and not victim-blaming. And we need to talk about why some people aren’t getting that support.”? Because yeah, just like I don’t this rape is inevitable, I don’t think the kind of suffering these girls endured in the aftermath is inevitable either.

      • http://feministing.com/members/umbrellaless/ Chrissey

        Exactly. Rape is not inevitable, and people should not EVER rape other people, and that message should be exclaimed loud and clear as many times as possible. I think what is uncomfortable for me is how much media is relying on the names and stories of these girls who have ended their suffering by ending their lives to symbolize the broader message that rape is devastatingly not ok. It leaves too much possibility for “hey, that girl is like me and has been through similar to what I’ve been through, and I am so damn tired of fighting this unbearable pain.” The guilt and shame and silent torment are SO similar for people thinking of suicide and people who have been raped, and it’s scary to think we are strengthening a double-whammy association of one with the other when we could be strengthening the message of everyone’s capacity for recovery, as well as everyone’s capacity to break through stigma and be a support.

  • http://feministing.com/members/charavari/ Charlotte

    Firstly, why was she not supported to press charges? Who was standing up for her, when she felt she couldn’t, and make a stand that THIS BEHAVIOUR IS UNACCEPTABLE. I understand that reporting rape / sexual assault is a humiliating, emotionally exhausting experience – my own experience was that of a nine hour interrogation with no court hearing or conviction.

    Secondly, what are we doing, as a group of ‘responsible adults’ to ensure that our children (male and female), the next generation, REFUSE TO TOLERATE THIS? As a mother of two young boys, my husband and I enforce that No means No. Fullstop, end of story.

    Rape is a human rights issue, not a female issue. The sooner that people are empowered to take a stand, the better. It breaks my heart that there are people who feel that the only option available to them is to end their life.

    • http://feministing.com/members/radicalstudent/ Ruby

      Many rape victims never have the opportunity to say no. How about instead of teaching your sons that No means No, you teach them that Not Yes means No.

  • http://feministing.com/members/decius/ Dan

    This is a hard question: Given the baseline rate of teen rape victims and teen suicides, are there more or fewer than expected combinations of the two? Looking at the rape statistics, we should expect that about one in every 3 to 15 (depending on what source you use) female suicide had been raped if the two are unrelated. Based on the suicide statistics for 2001, on average 16.3 teen females committed suicide each day. Combining the two, the expected value if the two are unrelated would be one to five female rape victim suicide per day in the US. (and somewhere between 2 and 10 male suicide victims per day, again depending on which statistics you use for rape prevalance; the parity is largely due to the increased number of completed suicides among males).

    The real question is “Why are these more noteworthy than the one that occurred while we were reading this article?”