Trigger Warning for discussions of suicide, descriptions of non-consensual sexual conduct, victim-blaming and slut-shaming
The Tampa Bay St. Petersburg Times has printed the truly gut-wrenching, tragic story of a 13-year-old girl named Hope Witsell, who committed suicide after a photograph of her breasts, which she sent to a boy’s cell phone, was forwarded all over the school.
At the end of the school year at Beth Shields Middle School, the taunting became so bad that Hope Witsell’s friends surrounded her between classes. They escorted her down hallways like human shields, fending off insults such as “whore” and “slut.” A few days before, Hope had forwarded a nude photo of herself to a boy she liked — a practice widely known as “sexting.” The image found its way to other students, who forwarded it to their friends. Soon the nude photo was circulating through cell phones at Shields Middle and Lennard High School, according to multiple students at both schools. … School authorities learned of the nude photo around the end of the school year and suspended Hope for the first week of eighth grade, which started in August. About two weeks after she returned to school, a counselor observed cuts on Hope’s legs and had her sign a “no-harm” contract, in which Hope agreed to tell an adult if she felt inclined to hurt herself, her family says. The next day, Hope hanged herself in her bedroom. She was 13.
Her death is the second in the nation in which a connection between sexting and teen suicide can clearly be drawn.
I recommend that you go read the full article, because despite the many problems with it, there is a lot of information there, some of which I will not have the time to discuss here.
As Veronica Arreola said on her Twitter, while the media insists on calling this a “sexting-related suicide,” it’s much more accurately referred to as a “slut-shaming suicide.” Because the photograph she sent is not what drove this poor girl to kill herself — the non-consensual spreading of the photograph, and the subsequent reaction that her classmates and all adults in positions of authority had to it seems to absolutely have been what drove her to despair. And that is a truly vital distinction to make if we actually care about the fact that a 13-year-old girl is dead, and why.
The set of circumstances here are increasingly common ones — and by “set of circumstances” I do not mean “teenage girls sending sexual photographs of themselves to others” but “the non-consensual spreading of said photographs.”
A poll conducted by her organization, WiredSafety, found that 44 percent of boys in co-ed high schools had seen at least one naked picture of a female classmate. Overwhelmingly, they shared the images with others.
And while everyone sure as hell seems to be worried about What! We’re! Teaching! Our! Girls! that they send the photographs, no one seems to be saying a goddamn peep about what we’re teaching our boys when they think that non-consensual sexual conduct is okay. Yet again, apparently consensual female sexuality is seen as a bigger threat to society — and to girls themselves — than non-consensual male sexual behavior perpetrated against them.
But it’s also important to note that while boys appear to overwhelmingly be the ones to receive these types of photos and then spread them, in Hope Witsell’s case, it was another girl who was the culprit:
Accounts vary, but many students describe the chain of events this way: The last week of school in June, Hope forwarded a photo of her breasts to the cell phone of Alex Eargood, a boy she liked. A rival girl, who was the girlfriend of another boy Hope liked and a friend of Alex’s, asked to borrow Alex’s phone on the bus. That girl found the image and forwarded it to other students.
Alex, now 16 and a freshman at Armwood High School, told the St. Petersburg Times last week that he deleted the photo. He does not remember whether he deleted it before or after the girl borrowed his phone. The mother of the girl told the Times that her daughter would not comment for this article.
Non-consensual sexual conduct is no more consensual, no more right, and no less devastating when committed by a girl against another girl. Bullying is no better when committed by girls — and anecdotal evidence seems to show that while boys are more likely to spread the photographs in the first place, girls are more likely to attack the victim afterward. Sexual harassment and slut-shaming does not magically turn into something else when it’s not boys doing it. And while a partial explanation, internalized misogyny is no more of an excuse for girls and women who commit such acts than rape culture is an excuse for boys and men.
And no matter who is the perpetrator, victim-blaming is still victim-blaming, which is something else Hope was made a victim of. First, she was a victim of cultural messages that told her that what her classmates did to her was her own fault:
At the same time, friends say, Hope knew that the biggest mistakes made were her own.
“She didn’t blame it on anybody,” said Rebecca Knowles, 14. “She realized it was her fault for sending them in the first place.
Secondly, she was a victim of attitudes like ones in that quote right above: attitudes that confirm and refuse to contradict this false belief. Even after she died because she couldn’t cope anymore, the newspaper is sitting there telling her that she was the one to blame. Hope didn’t believe that she made the biggest mistakes. She didn’t think it. Apparently, she knew it, because who could ever question the idea that if you send a nude photograph of yourself to another person, you’re obviously a slutty slutty slut slut who deserves whatever is coming to you?
The display of these kinds of attitudes went beyond words, though; they were also shown in actions. Hope Witsell was punished severely for taking the photograph. She was grounded for the summer. She was suspended from the first week of school. She lost her position as student adviser. And when another boy coerced her into sending another photograph, and she complied out of fear, she was again treated as a culprit rather than a victim:
No one knows how Hope met a group of boys staying across the hall. Rebecca Knowles, who is the FFA president, saw Hope talking to the boys by the hotel pool.
The boys were in their late teens and were not there for the FFA convention. They insisted she send a nude photo to them.
One of the boys was especially aggressive and called the room repeatedly on the conference’s last night, asking Hope for a photo of her breasts.
“They kept calling and they kept bugging her,” said Rebecca, 14, who said she was in the room but asleep. “I think she was just scared. One of our roommates was scared as well and said, ‘Oh, my God, just do it.’ They were scared and wanted to get it over.”
The boy calling didn’t have a cell phone. So Hope used Rebecca’s phone to take a picture of her breasts, then slipped it outside her door.
The phone, which Hope had left outside for the boy, was still in the hallway when an adult found it and saw the photo.
As for the boys who demanded the second photo, the girl who orginally forwarded the first photo, the girls and boys who harassed Hope in the hallways, chased her, taunted her, and made her life a living hell … there is not a single word indicating that they faced any consequences for their actions.
And while the article rightfully goes on at length about the certainly awful way that the school dealt with their knowledge that Hope was self-harming and in danger, there is no mention of how the school’s actions also contributed to her being in danger in the first place. The fact is that they punished her — they told her over and over again that she was being called a slut and a whore because of her own actions, that being a “slut” or “whore” are very, very bad things that deserve punishment and bring reason for shame, that sluts and whores deserve to be taken out of school and to be used as an example of what happens when girls display any form of sexuality (with their consent or not), and that sluts and whores cannot be trusted to advise other students, because apparently they have no moral compasses. And the fact is that they apparently failed to punish the other slut-shamers, sexual harassers, bullies, and sexual perpetrators for whom they were responsible.
Hope Witsell made the decision to end her own life. A whole lot of other people seemingly decided that keeping women in their place was a lot more important than protecting a 13-year-old girl, and than stamping out sexual misconduct. A whole society backed that second decision up.
And so while Hope Witsell made her decision, that decision rests not only on her, but also on the head of our misogynistic, victim-blaming, rape culture. And we can either wash our hands of the whole business, blame teenage angst, and say “you know how kids are,” or we can accept responsibility, and do our damnedest to try and change that culture and prevent this from happening again.