Blaming the parents (blaming the wrong ones)

I keep reading blogs, comments, or op-ed pieces that keep asking “why didn’t Amanda Todd’s parents know what was going on?” (You know, as if they didn’t know when they helped her change schools, or comforted her after one of the many vicious attacks, or when she had previously tried to hurt herself).

Stop it. Please.

I don’t know what the answer to stopping bullying is, but I can assure you that it isn’t victim-blaming the parents. Yes, her parents are victims. They’ve lost their daughter. What else would you call them? Yes, there are parents that we need to talk about in this situation, but it’s not them. More about that later.

A couple of nights ago, when I learned about Felicia Garcia, the young woman (15) in New York who took her own life, I was having trouble wrapping my head around her story (very little then, and there are still things that aren’t making sense as details emerge, but that’s another issue). They had included a link to her Twitter account, as the day before her death, she had tweeted “I can’t, I’m done, I give up.” So I went and looked through her Twitter profile, and through the profiles of some of the people that she was following or had mentioned/retweeted to see if I could understand why this had happened.

And I suddenly remember just how much it sucks to be a teenager.

I think it’s really easy to forget (or maybe block out) just how awful teens can be. The messages they tweeted to each other were awful (rude, demeaning, etc.). The worst part was that it wasn’t people they liked that they were calling names, it was even in their interactions that they have with people they call “friends”. When I went through some of the other profiles, I was shocked by some of the stuff that was on there. Don’t get me wrong- I know that teenagers are going to smoke/drink/have sex/do drugs etc. What surprised me was how open it all was. And the bigger issue? It was all under their real names!

See, when I was in middle school, everything was about usernames. You had to have an original username. But more importantly, you knew that you couldn’t have a username that traced back to you in some way (with a name like mine, that meant keeping my real name out of it completely). So to a certain extent, I think it was easier to stay hidden. Facebook changed that. Now it’s not just an option, but encouraged to use your real first and last name (and a picture of you, and link it up with your twitter, pinterest, instagram, and any other number of social networking sites). Anyway, the point is, that’s where a lot of this bullying was happening for Amanda (and many others). So even though we talk about the problem with internet communication being anonymous, there’s nothing I saw that suggested that that’s why no one did anything about the bullies (they just needed to log on to see proof!)

Some of this content just contained bad spelling or grammar. But there were also some that contained references to doing drugs, potentially illegal activities in which they had engaged, and some really inappropriate language (I’m talking about calling each other names like r****d, f**, and n*****.). 

Now we can get to the part about parents. If there were ever parents you want to get upset with for the cyberbullying situation, what about the parents who are either purposely unaware or don’t care when their kids are posting horrible messages in cyberspace? Why didn’t anyone step in there, before anyone died?

What about the kids who were posting hate messages after her death? While Facebook has tried to take them all down, I went into the most popular Amanda Todd group, and there was a post from a young man who had posted “Saw you tits on the Internet,I wonder how they got there.* one of lifes bleachable moments*”.

 

Why am I telling you this? As a case study in just how easy it is to call someone out on this behaviour. So I went to see what I could find out about this punk. I found out he’s in high school- I know where and when he’s supposed to graduate. I know his profile picture was updated today. I know that he’s friends with an older sister who I have to admit that I was kind of tempted to send a message to.

 His name isn’t the point, so I’m not going to post it. But he’s certainly easy for anyone in his family to find and see what he’s up to. (FYI, there are some things on his page that I hope would come as a shock to his parents). We’re constantly calling on parents to make sure that their kids aren’t doing anything to put themselves in danger, but I haven’t heard anyone call on parents to generally check what their kids are doing and saying on the internet. Unfortunately, it’s no longer an option- it’s become a necessity.

But it’s an actual, ongoing conversation that needs to happen. Right now, whatever we’re telling kids isn’t working. It’s like when we try and tell women “don’t get raped” instead of telling men “don’t rape”. Instead, we’re telling kids “don’t give out any information that could get you picked on” rather than “don’t bully”. It’s not just if you’re afraid that your child is being bullied that you need to talk to them. The reality is that the internet is here to stay, and it has increased access to various areas of previously personal life and they need to be aware of how to stay safe and aware. 

***

I’ve been thinking a lot, trying to figure out how to keep bullying from happening. Yes, social media and cyber communications have had an influence on it, but it’s not new. Let’s take comments on pictures, for example. 

You know how there are those pictures that people put up of themselves (and if it’s a profile picture, you know it’s a picture where they feel like they look good) and peers make ridiculously rude comments? It happened without facebook too. As I have previously mentioned, there was one time I had gotten a new haircut that people were giving me a lot of compliments about, and I was actually kind of feeling good about myself. The bully took it on herself to go around asking everyone she knew about it, and told me by the end of the day “I’ve found three people who say your hair looks awful”.

Or, there’s the other kind of picture where someone’s looking for reassurance about something- and they’ll put comments like “OMG, I’m so fat” or “I’m totally getting a nose job when I’m 18”? And instead of reassuring her, they’ll say “you are, lardass”. Again, this happened before facebook. I distinctly remember one girl in my grade 6 class talking about her appearance. I can’t remember what she was saying, but she was complaining about something in her looks, and I said something about not liking something about myself. (I was trying to sympathize). She got quite pissed off, turned around and told me “don’t do that so you’ll get compliments. You won’t.” I told her “Don’t worry. . . I know I’m ugly.” She said something to indicate that she agreed with me, and it was left at that.

Do I have either of those in writing? No. But do I distinctly remember parts of those incidents like yesterday? Damn right. 

So what do we do? I know there are people who support banning any use of computers that aren’t in public areas. But I don’t think that’s a reality any more. For one thing, the bullying happens in e-mails and on sites where it’s not unusual to find kids talking. So it’s not going to change anything whether it’s in front of you or not- why would you find it weird to see your son/daughter on facebook? The other thing is, these forms of communication are increasingly becoming the norm. In an interview on The Current on cyberbullying, one woman said that her child had to make a facebook page because the child’s teacher sent out homework that way. So banning it isn’t all that reasonable.

I was listening to one of the comedy talk stations Fox Radio on my way home the other day, and this host was incensed because he’d gotten a call from the school, saying that his daughter and two of her friends (I believe they were 10) had taken a picture and tried to e-mail it out when it was intercepted by the school’s firewall. (Mind you, it an wasn’t inappropriate picture. And as it turns out, they were sending it to the Romney campaign to show their support- so the host said he couldn’t be too mad). Anyway, he was demanding to know where the teacher was in all of it- how was it possible that they could have been unsupervised for that long that they could have done such a thing? Why did they have access to computers where they could do something like that? Well, I’m willing to guess it would take me 90 seconds to do something like that (and that’s because I’ve never actually tried using the camera on my current phone). Try as we might, we can’t police them all the time. There are always going to be kids with smartphones, and girls are always going to go to the bathroom together. It’s an impossible situation to police.

The bottom line is, something has to be done to teach kids to learn to use the internet and social media carefully. And that means that parents have to keep on top of what’s popular, and where teens are talking. Sounds daunting? Absolutely. I’m not great with social media, and I gave up before Reddit. But there are places to help (for instance, check out A Platform for Good. There’s also a section for teens and teachers, but I think it’s especially good for parents). It has a lot of good information about the current popular social media (whatever’s getting popular enough that you need to know about it), blogs on how to use the internet effectively (to reduce bad and to increase good), and conversations to have with your kids about the internet. 

I know, it’s easy for me, a student with no kids, to tell parents what to do- right? I’m not pretending to know what it’s like to be a parent in this generation (or at all). And it’s not just your responsibility. I think everyone has a responsibility to have these conversations about internet and media literacy. I know there are people reading this that don’t have kids (at least not old enough to be too worried about this right now), but you do have teens in your life- cousins, nieces, nephews, neighbours, friends kids, whoever. You have a voice, an influence, and you can be that force in someone’s life too. As corny as it sounds, there are teachable moments everywhere. I read a great opinion piece on how parents can use Amanda Todd’s video to start conversations about what’s going on in their teen’s life, not unlike parents used the “It Gets Better” project to start conversations with their teens about sexual orientation, bullying, and suicide.

And in preventing bullying? There’s a lot you can do there too. Where I did my undergrad, they took a strong stance on using inclusive language. There were tons of words that were off limits. But. . . it wasn’t about punishing those who used the words, it was about educating them about why it wasn’t okay to use it. And there’s a very powerful lesson in the educating. One great example? Ann Coulter using the r-word. There were plenty of people who came out and criticized her very harshly. But the message that got through was a beautifully written open letter from John Franklin Stephens, which went viral (it has more than 6000 comments, and 10 000 shares on Facebook and Twitter each) (On a sidenote: if you haven’t read it, make that your next stop). 

Parents, why don’t you try it next time you hear your child calling someone a slut? Ask them what it means. Challenge them on why it’s being used. Is it because of the way she dresses? (Shouldn’t she be able to dress however she wants without living in fear?) The things she says? (What does it even have to do with anything?) The things she does? (Isn’t that the beauty of living in a society where women have the ability to consent?) Or is it simply because being called a slut is the worst, most hurtful and demeaning thing that you can call another girl at this point in their life? And it truly is- it’s a way of, among teenage girls, simultaneously saying that she’s unwanted, unattractive, and completely worthless. It’s not about sex, it’s just about hurting someone else. 

Maybe I should leave you with a quote from Mean Girls, where Tina Fey says it so much better than I ever could. Image

(From google)

Slut-shaming, Victim-blaming, and Sexualized Side of Bullying

(This is a condensed version. You can find the original here).

While Amanda Todd’s suicide itself was tragic, what bothers me the most is that I’ve heard this story before. In its wake, there’s been some discussions that have started about cyber bullying, online trolls, and vigilante justice. But there’s a bigger issue here that no one’s willing to talk about: the sexual nature of the bullying this young woman experienced. The same kind of bullying that took place among other young women who have taken their own lives- Phoebe Prince, Samantha Kelly, Rachel Ehmke. The same kind of bullying that led to my friend’s suicide when she was only 16. I’ve been struggling for days, knowing that I couldn’t just sit by silently while I watched this all too familiar story unfold all over again. And I’ve realized that I need to talk about the sexualized bullying that either no one notices, or no one has done anything to stop. It’s the kind of bullying that nearly cost me my life.

We’ve heard a lot about the bullying and suicide of a horrific number of male students who were bullied about being gay (regardless of their sexual orientation), and the It Gets Better project did a wonderful job of drawing attention to the issue. But what I’m talking about is a little bit different. It’s the kind of bullying that girls do to other girls. Sexualized bullying is when there’s something about the bullied- the (sexual) attention and interest that she gets from men, or the way her body has developed- is the reason she’s been targeted. It’s calling a girl a slut because the boy the bully likes has a crush on the victim. It’s verbally or physically attacking the victim’s body to make her ashamed, and sending the message to others that because of these labels, she’s somehow less of a person than anyone else. That she doesn’t deserve the same kind of respect or dignity. I suspect that this may be the flip side of the homophobic bullying that too many teens experience, but there’s no good information I’ve found on it.

What is it that these bullies do that cuts so deep? You could call it what’s been referred to as “slut shaming”. Basically, it’s the systematic way that our society makes women feel guilty, or ashamed, or humiliated because of some perception that she may have engaged in some kind of sexual activity (or activity that made it seem like she may be somehow sexually inviting or may one day want to engage in sex). And even though we don’t talk about it that explicitly, it’s there in our society all the time. Like the idea that the way a woman dresses will affect her chances of being attacked. And like the fact that a police officer saw fit to share this safety tip with women in Toronto a year and a half ago (That’s actually what gave rise to the international Slutwalk movement).

But why is this term so hurtful? It’s because we’ve grown up knowing that “slut” is the opposite of what you want to be. It’s a word that’ll get you the wrong kind of attention from men, a word that defines you as somehow fundamentally less worthy than a woman who is not considered a slut. That exists for all of us. Unfortunately, it’s a lot worse in those pre-teen years. It’s not a time when women are recognized for their intelligence, or their talents, or their compassion, or their skills, or their ambition. Instead their identity is linked to their physical attributes. So let’s follow the logic for a minute: if your entire self-worth is tied up in your appearance, and you’re led to believe that the way you look makes you worthless, then yeah, you can bet that your self-esteem, fragile as it already is, is going to take a hit.

It also goes one step further though. Laurie Penny of The Independent put it so much better than I could, explaining that “it has somehow become axiomatic that if a woman has the temerity to exist in the public space, particularly as a sexual being, then she is fair game. She deserves to be bullied. She has asked for it.” Take what happened when a woman decided to speak up at comedian Daniel Tosh show this summer when he went on a roll about rape jokes. When she yelled “rape jokes aren’t funny”, he countered with “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like, 5 guys right now? Like right now? What if a bunch of guys just raped her?” What’s worse is that even after Tosh apologized for what he said, this woman continued to be bullied in the media.

Unfortunately, all a young woman has to do is be labeled, let the rumor spread around a bit, and in the eyes of her peers, she’ll be transformed into someone who doesn’t deserve respect. With many of the girls that I wrote about above, their bullies would probably justify their slut-shaming as the result of something she had done (she was dating an older guy, she was talking to guys on the internet, she wore tight jeans). But sometimes it’s simpler even than that. Google some of them, look through their pictures. These are beautiful girls, the kind of girls that would undoubtedly make some of the other girls feel insecure. For me, it was because I was tall with big breasts, and looked much older than I was. And to exist like that meant that there were some fundamental assumptions people could gather about me that changed the way they treated me. In short, big breasts meant I was slutty, and if I was slutty, I didn’t deserve the same respect as others.

But it wasn’t just the kids at school. To a certain extent, it changed the way that adults perceived me as well. Somehow, the development of my secondary sexual characteristics meant that I was someone who would have sexual encounters willingly. And this is exactly what’s been happening over the past two weeks. What do you think would have happened if Amanda Todd was less attractive? What if she had been overweight, or homely, or just looked young for her age? Would there still be people- ADULTS- who attach their real names to their opinions in the debate over whether she deserved what she got? I know it’s a horrible thing that I’m asking you to consider, but it’s become so entrenched in our society that these judgments are made without conscious attention. In one of my favourite articles of all time, William Simon and John Gagnon wrote that “community outrage at the rape of an elderly women or a female child is often greater than an even more brutal rape of a “mature” women, despite, or because, the inappropriateness of the object bespeaks its greater pathological origins and often precludes even the suspicion of initial complicity on the part of the victim.” Put another way? By appearing sexual, whether it was intentional or not, she was asking for it.

One of the reasons that I think it’s so important for you to hear my story is because it comes as a surprise to most. The reactions are usually, “but you’re so smart”, “but you’re so strong”, “but you’re so confident”. I fall outside the lines of what you expect someone who has been bullied to look or act. Similarly, the girl who put me through hell for years didn’t look like a bully. You know the story about the big, mean kid who isn’t very smart or doesn’t have many friends? That definitely wasn’t the case here. Michelle* was kind of small, had friends, and was very smart- something that the teachers always made sure that she knew. I don’t have the source, but I remember reading in a textbook a few years ago that bullies weren’t socially awkward or slow- but actually pretty savvy. And unfortunately, the teachers can find it easier to side with the bully.

And though there had always been bullying, and in grade grade five it had taken a very sexual tone, it was when we moved up from a school of 200 kids for 5 grades, to 700 for only 3 grades that things got much worse. Since I was in the language immersion stream, I didn’t get a chance to get away from the same kids I had been with since kindergarten. But I quickly became a target for the rest of my grade.

In school, the term “sexual harassment” basically entails everything from having lewd pictures up in your locker or making dirty jokes to being cornered and coerced into sexual acts. And while I certainly agree that all of those can be bad, there are different degrees of it. But the only thing that I’ve ever really schools differentiate is cases of rape. Mind you, if a teacher tried to do to a student what other students did, that would be treated as much worse, and the teacher would be charged criminally without a second though. But among students, , I’ve never experienced them being too concerned about what they considered “sexual harassment”, even if it was against the law. The reason that I’m telling you about this distinction is because when we talk about “sexual harassment” in the schools, people usually think of the milder forms of harassment- the stuff that might look like inept flirting or “boys being boys” or playful. The stuff that, at least to the adults in my school, wasn’t serious. So when I went to the vice principal to report what a student had done to me at the end of my 6th grade, it could be stretched to fit into the category of sexual harassment, and wasn’t really taken seriously. And the fact that I had dared to report the violation that I had experienced? Well, that just wasn’t acceptable to my classmates, and the bullying intensified.

You can read the details yourself if you want, but suffice it to say that things were bad, and got increasingly physically violent. When I finally made a very serious threat to kill myself in grade seven, my parents finally took my pleas seriously and allowed me to change schools.  And changing schools did help- for awhile, at least. I wasn’t bullied and I made friends. I starting debating (and as it turned out, I was pretty good at it), developed an interest in politics, and even got to do a co-op placement on Parliament Hill. But I had also started spiraling into a serious depression. I started to hurt myself.

But once I had gotten a bit of help, I knew that I was supposed to be doing better. No one really considered the role that my experiences from middle school could be having on me (myself included). At this point, I was several years removed from those experiences, had just started my last year of high school, and I kept telling myself that things would be fine once I got out. And I figured that since I’d gotten some high-quality help, if I couldn’t deal it was because of some failure on my part. So I didn’t tell anyone how dark things still were, and one morning woke up and snapped. I decided that I’d had enough, and took a lethal dose of pills.

Bottom line? It was serious- I was unconscious for 8 hours, my heart nearly stopped, and I ended up in the hospital for two months. It was finally towards the end of the stay, five years after I had changed schools, that my doctor acknowledged that the depression could have been the result of post traumatic stress. Finally, there was some kind of recognition that what had happened to me. . . it wasn’t okay, and there was a reason that I wasn’t okay with it.

When I went back to school, I was told by my guidance counselor to “face the facts”, that there was no way I was going to graduate. As it turns out, I’m a pretty stubborn person, and there was no way I was going to let her be right. I don’t know how, but I graduated on time, with honours, and was even the recipient of one of the department awards. I defied a lot of expectations when I went away to university, but even more when I actually did well. I’m sure it won’t come as a shock to you at this point in the story, but once the problem had been properly identified and worked through those experiences, I could be a functioning member of society. I don’t think I could have ever understood just how much better I could feel, because I didn’t understand how deeply these experiences affected me. And I found my voice. I was a senator, worked and volunteered with tons of different student groups, and even put myself in the middle of a facebook debate about rape jokes- something that reminded me that even as adults, peers can be bullies. The difference is, now I can take it. And even though it still seems surreal, I started grad school this fall.

But there’s something here that you need to understand . . . I made it out to the other side of things, despite how much was in my way. I’m not really sure how, or why, but I got to survive. Two of my friends took their own lives during my last winter in school, one of them definitely related to bullying. The other had just been accepted to the University of Guelph, the school where I ended up doing my undergrad, just days before she died. Every fall, I’ve struggled with the fact that I was still there, and she wasn’t. I knew that it could have so easily been the other way, and I struggled with the guilt that I wasn’t doing anything to change things for people who shared my experiences.

The scars from bullying. . . they can fade. But I don’t know if they can ever really go away. I’ve talked to others who have been bullied who 10, 20, even 30 years later can’t talk about it. And I get that. The ongoing bullying- whether it’s homophobic, or sexualized, or ableist, or racist, or whatever other reason peers may have decided to victimize you- it spends a lot of time teaching you that you don’t deserve the same respect that others do. It shows you that people can and will do what they want, even if its only purpose is to hurt you. It undermines every single positive thought you have about yourself. They actively work to keep anything from making you feel good about yourself.

There’s one thing about Amanda’s story that’s letting people let themselves off the hook for their own bad behaviour when they were younger. Somehow, we seem to be under the impression that somehow the cyberbullying is the cause of the increase in suicides, not what continues to happen day-to-day in school. When I learned that some of her bullies continued to make fun of her after her death, I was appalled. But the thing is, I don’t think this is an indication that people are that much meaner than before. Having an online medium makes it easier for more people to get involved (so you can support each other, much like people do when they gang up to bully you in person), and people can band together to target one person. And that’s exactly what happened when we moved from elementary to middle school- suddently, there was a whole new population of people to recruit to bully me. The result of this kind of group mentality is that no one thinks there’s anything all that wrong with what they’re doing, because then everyone’s doing it. The reasons for slut shaming have changed (most notably by the emergence of webcams and the ability to send inappropriate pictures), but the slut-shaming itself hasn’t. I’m confident that if pictures weren’t available, the kids would have found another reason to target her. What’s happening now isn’t a new problem brought on by cyberbullying. It’s the same problem that we’ve been too afraid to talk about for years.

But we can’t keep this skeleton hidden in our closets anymore. Otherwise, 10 years from now when one of the many completely preventable suicides garners international attention and there’s nothing else to blame, we’ll be getting the “we didn’t know it was a problem” excuse from schools again. But we can’t wait for this to happen on its own, when we’re faced with ever growing problems in society that are being fed by people who grow up learning that a woman’s body is there for someone else’s pleasure (or to allow others to cause her pain). We have a society that has become so focused on victim blaming and slut-shaming that it doesn’t even register with us any more.

I don’t know what the solution is, but we need to spread the message that this kind of behaviour isn’t going to be accepted anymore. I’ve opened up an incredibly painful part of my past to try and raise awareness about the issue, but I need your help. What I’m asking you is to consider what I’ve said. Share it with others so they might be able to reflect on what I’ve said. But the most important thing is to talk about this sexualized bullying. The kind of bullying that made it okay for society not only to ignore Amanda as the victim of sexual exploitation and relentless bullying, but to publically shame her even after her death.

Slut-shaming, Victim-blaming, and the Sexualized Bullying That No One Wants To Acknowledge

It’s hard to explain the heartbreak that I felt when I was when I learned of Amanda Todd’s story and suicide. It never makes sense when we lose someone so young, and especially when it could have been prevented. The thing that really got to me though, was the realization that I’ve heard this story before. I’ve been following the story closely, and it’s nice to see that schools are finally starting to take cyberbullying seriously. But there’s another huge issue in this case that we’re not talking about: the sexualized bullying she experienced. For days now, I’ve been struggling with exactly how to address the issue. I’ve decided that I can’t just sit by and let it happen. It’s time that we started to speak out about this issue. Unfortunately, Amanda wasn’t the first, and she won’t be the last. It’s a story that I know too well because I’ve seen the aftermath when bullying led a friend of mine to take her own life. It’s a story that was almost mine.

A couple of years ago, it was great to see the “It Gets Better” campaign that was launched in response to the rash of LGBTQ teens taking their own lives. Despite the fact that research has consistently shown they were at a much higher risk than other teens, many teachers, schools, and politicians just didn’t seem to care. The “It Gets Better” project finally gave us a way to talk about it. But I remember when it came out, there was a part of me that wondered, “what about the girls who are going through what I went through?” I knew that there were others who had to be struggling with what I went through, but there was no one willing to stand up and defend them.

I call what I went through “sexualized bullying”, because there’s no other good term to explain it. In the studies that have been done on bullying, there are plenty that examine sexual harassment among peers at the same time, but nothing that looks at how one may affect the other. That’s where sexualized bullying comes in. There’s no standard definition I can give you, but I can paint you a picture. Although it’s entirely possible that it happens among men too, I’m talking about the experiences of young women. Sexualized bullying is when there’s something about the bullied- the (sexual) attention and interest that she gets from men, or the way her body has developed- is the reason she’s been targeted. It’s calling a girl a slut because the boy the bully likes has a crush on the victim. It’s verbally or physically attacking the victim’s body to make her ashamed. And it sends the message to everyone that the names that she’s called somehow make her less of a person than others. And though it’s probably not a term that you’ve heard before, this isn’t something new. Just look at some of the high-profile bullying-related suicide stories and you’ll find girls who were teased because of their relationships, or their appearance, or even for having the audacity to report a sexual assault. Amanda Cummings (15). Megan Meier (13). Phoebe Prince (15). Rachel Ehmke (13). Samantha Kelly (14).

And then there was my friend, who was bullied to the point that she had to change schools. She took her own life just after turning 16.

And then there was me.

***

Now, I’m of the belief that my sexual orientation isn’t really anyone’s business, and it’s not something that I often offer up. However, I do think that it’s important here. While there were some of the typical “dyke” taunts hurled at me, I’m straight, and it wasn’t something that I was particularly worried about. I can’t pretend to know what the effect would be on the young women who may be struggling with questions about their sexual orientation.

What is it that these bullies do that cuts so deep? You could call it what’s been referred to more recently as “slut shaming”. Basically, it’s the systematic way that our society makes women feel guilty, or ashamed, or humiliated because of some perception that she may have engaged in some kind of sexual activity (or activity that made it seem like she may be somehow sexually inviting or may one day want to engage in sex). And we hear it all the time, even if we don’t call it that. Like the idea that the way a woman dresses will affect her chances of being attacked. And like the fact that a police officer saw fit to share this safety tip with women in Toronto a year and a half ago (That’s actually what gave rise to the international Slutwalk movement).

I know the argument that teachers liked to use- it’s just some words, why does it matter? It matters because we’ve grown up knowing that “slut” is the opposite of what you want to be. It’s a word that’ll get you the wrong kind of attention from men, a word that defines you as somehow fundamentally less worthy than a woman who is not considered a slut. That exists for all of us. Unfortunately, it’s a lot worse in those pre-teen years. It’s not a time when women are recognized for their intelligence, or their talents, or their compassion, or their skills, or their ambition. Which makes it a time where appearance is everything. Have you ever been in the store when a young woman is with her parents doing back to school shopping, and you hear her talking about needing something that might sound trivial? I used to laugh about it, until I realized that anything that makes someone stand out makes them a target. There are times as an adult that I’ve gone out in sweatpants and I’ve seen the eyes of 12 year olds glaring in judgment. So let’s follow the logic for a minute: if your entire self-worth is tied up in your appearance, and you’re led to believe that your appearance makes you worthless, then yeah, you can bet that your self-esteem, fragile as it already is, is going to take a hit.

It also goes one step further though. Laurie Penny of The Independent put it so much better than I could, explaining that “it has somehow become axiomatic that if a woman has the temerity to exist in the public space, particularly as a sexual being, then she is fair game. She deserves to be bullied. She has asked for it.” Take what happened when a woman decided to speak up at comedian Daniel Tosh show this summer when he went on a roll about rape jokes. When she yelled “rape jokes aren’t funny”, he countered with “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like, 5 guys right now? Like right now? What if a bunch of guys just raped her?” What’s worse is that even after Tosh apologized for what he said, this woman continued to be bullied in the media.

Unfortunately, all a young woman has to do is be labeled, let the rumor spread around a bit, and in the eyes of her peers, she’ll be transformed into someone who doesn’t deserve respect. With many of the girls that I wrote about above, their bullies would probably justify their slut-shaming as the result of something she had done (she was dating an older guy, she was talking to guys on the internet, she wore tight jeans). But sometimes it’s simpler even than that. Google some of them, look through their pictures. These are beautiful girls, the kind of girls that would undoubtedly make some of the other girls feel insecure. For me, it was because I had developed breasts much before many of my peers. And that meant that there were assumptions that were made about me.

1)   Hey, there’s no way someone that age could actually look like that. The logical conclusion was that I was doing something to either draw attention to myself or make myself look bigger.

2)   If I was doing something to make people notice, that meant that I was slutty.

3)   If I was slutty, that meant that I didn’t deserve the respect that other girls did.

4)   If they decided to do say something or do something to me, it was okay, because I was obviously asking for it.

5)   And if I had the audacity to say something about it, no one would believe me since they already “knew” I was a slut.

This actually goes a bit further than just the kids at school though, because to a certain extent it changed the way that adults perceived me as well. Somehow, the development of my secondary sexual characteristics meant that I was someone who would have sexual encounters willingly. Which meant that if anything that happened to a girl like me, there was less of this need to protect us and punish the offenders. It’s about victim blaming: suggesting that somehow my actions were the cause of someone else’s actions against me, or that what was done was only in reaction to my appearance, so it wasn’t necessarily the bully’s fault.

And this is what I’ve witnessed over the past two weeks. What do you think would have happened if Amanda Todd was less attractive? What if she had been overweight, or homely, or just looked young for her age? Would there still be people- ADULTS- who attach their real names to their opinions in the debate to what extent she deserved what she got? I know it’s a horrible thing that I’m asking you to consider, since I know that there are many people who would never mean to react that way. However, it’s become so entrenched in our society that these judgments are made without conscious attention. In one of my favourite articles of all time, William Simon and John Gagnon wrote that “community outrage at the rape of an elderly women or a female child is often greater than an even more brutal rape of a “mature” women, despite, or because, the inappropriateness of the object bespeaks its greater pathological origins and often precludes even the suspicion of initial complicity on the part of the victim.” I wish I could tell you that this was a conclusion that someone came to recently. The paper was published in 1984. In other words, this has been a problem that people have been observing for a long time.

***

And then, there’s what happened to me. One of the reasons that I think it’s so important for you to hear my story is because it comes as a surprise to most. The reactions are usually, “but you’re so smart”, “but you’re so strong”, “but you’re so confident”. I fall outside the lines of what you expect someone who has been bullied to look or act. Similarly, the girl who put me through hell for years didn’t look like a bully. You know the story about the big, mean kid who isn’t very smart or doesn’t have many friends? That definitely wasn’t the case here. Michelle* was kind of small, had friends, and was very smart- something that the teachers always made sure that she knew. A couple of years ago, I had read in one of my textbooks that despite some of the stereotypes we have, a lot of the time bullies aren’t socially awkward. In fact, they’re pretty savvy. And so they figure out the best target. The result is that the teachers end up identifying with or siding with the bully. I wish I could provide you a source for this, but it’s nothing that I’ve found in the books that I kept.

This was definitely the case, and I think a lot of it in elementary school was chalked up to “girls will be girls”. I went to a small school, and she knew she had power. So when she decided to pick on me, it wasn’t hard to get others to follow along. The first time I remember, she was teasing me about my mother’s ethnicity, something that I don’t remember being aware of before that point. I didn’t realize how different I looked from the other students, but I guess the other students did. I was shocked the first time someone accused me of stuffing my bra- something that I’d never even heard of at that point. It was also incredibly hurtful to me as a 9 year old, that the way my body grew could be used against me. And things only got worse as I got older.

When I started at 11, my middle school had somewhere around 700 kids for 3 grades. In comparison, my elementary school was under 200 for SK-grade 5. But since we were in the language immersion stream, I didn’t get the chance to get away from the same girls who had been teasing me for years. And worse, now there was a whole new set of people to target me. I was always the tallest girl in my class, have my grandmother’s broad shoulders, and despite my age, breasts that were already bigger than most of theirs would ever be. I remember at one point identifying that in each grade, there seemed to be one boy and one girl who was picked on. And it didn’t take long before that person was me. But to be honest, I don’t even remember many of the details. It wasn’t good, but I probably could have survived. Two months before grade 6 ended, that changed though.

There’s a very interesting disconnect between what schools and some researchers classify as call “sexual harassment”. See, the term sexual harassment basically entails everything from having lewd pictures up in your locker or making dirty jokes to being cornered and coerced into sexual acts. And while I certainly agree that all of those can be bad, but there are different degrees of it. The only thing that I’ve ever really schools differentiate is cases of rape. Mind you, if a teacher tried to do to a student what other students did, that would be treated as much worse, and the teacher would be charged with sexual assault under Canadian law. Actually, we don’t even have laws that specifically talk about rape- we simply have varying degrees of sexual assault. But in schools, I’ve never experienced them being too concerned about what they considered “sexual harassment”, even if it was against the law. The reason that I’m telling you about this distinction is because when we talk about “sexual harassment” in the schools, people usually think of the milder forms of harassment- the stuff that might look like inept flirting or “boys being boys” or playful. The stuff that, at least to the adults in my school, wasn’t serious.

It happened one afternoon during a sport assembly. To be clear: there were probably close to 500 people around me. No one made an effort to stop it. I honestly don’t know how many noticed. He was an older guy in school, considered one of the “hot guys”. And for whatever reason, he spent the afternoon “sexually harassing” me (as the school would call it) despite repeated requests (and at some point, pleas) to stop. He had two friends with him- female friends- who encouraged him and found it amusing when I tried to get his hands off of me. Almost a week later, he had come into the library when my class was in there, and I panicked and told two of the girls who weren’t terrible to me. One of them decided to tell my teacher what had happened. My teacher told me that I either had to talk to him or the vice principal about it. And of course, being totally ashamed of what happened, the idea of talking to my male teacher seemed so much worse. So the next day, after lunch, I went to the vice principal and told her. One of the things I remember the most distinctly about that meeting was the panic that washed over me when I realized that there was no way she was going to believe me with what I was wearing. It was see through, so she was obviously going to think it was my fault. (Relax, I was wearing a tank top underneath. But the point is, by that stage I had already learned about slut-shaming, even if not in those words. I knew that if a girl dressed a certain way, she’s asking for whatever happens to her). Despite feeling physically sick over it, I told this vice principal every humiliating detail about what had happened. Afterwards, she promised me that this wasn’t acceptable, and that he would be dealt with accordingly.

I later learned that being dealt with accordingly meant that he was punished (in-school!) for the rest of the afternoon. Years later, I had a neighbour who had attended the same school 20 years before me tell me that there had been a very similar incident when she was a student, and there had been no real consequences for those responsible. As it turned out, the way they treated me was the rule, not the exception.

I know what you’re thinking: why didn’t I tell my parents? The same reasons everyone else doesn’t. I was confused and ashamed. I figured that it was probably something that I had done wrong that brought it on. The rest of the school year was hell. Everyone knew who I was, and I was labeled a whore. He had still been giving me trouble (though not physically), so I went back to the same vice principal and told her. And at that point, she told me “Well, obviously the three of us need to sit down together to figure out how you can coexist without bothering each other.” At that point, there was a very serious change in the way things were treated. It wasn’t about what he had done to me, now I was going to be equally responsible. So she made me sit down with him and listen while he told me he didn’t do anything (blamed it on someone else), that why would he ever do anything like that to me, and I’m the one who had been harassing him over the past month. I can’t remember what she had wanted me to say- I just remember being scared and feeling really betrayed. I had told her what happened so that I could feel safe in school, and there she was making me sit down beside him and tell him why I had complained about him. In the end, she made us promise to stay away from one another, with a serious undertone of “I better not hear from you again”.

I finally broke down and told my parents just before school ended. We talked about the details for a long time, and I remember my dad saying to my mom that “what this guy did is completely unforgivable, but I don’t think we should do anything more.” His suggestion wasn’t based on thinking I was responsible or that I had done anything wrong. I think it was because they wanted me to move on, and since it was the end of the year and he was graduating, I wouldn’t have to deal with him anymore. And I think the hope was that it would be out of sight, out of mind.

But I had become public enemy #1. Over the summer at the pool, I remember being called names and teased about him- a lot. Unfortunately, it wasn’t lost on Melissa that since there was so much animosity towards me, nothing was really off limits. When I took swimming lessons, she ended up in the same class. Despite the fact that this resulted in a swimming “accident” in an otherwise empty pool where she was directly responsible for my being taken to the ER on a spinal board, no one saw any need to do anything about it. After all, they hadn’t seen anything to suggest that it was anything more than an accident- or that she’d been awful to me for years.

Grade seven started, and despite what I had hoped, it turned out I couldn’t get away from what happened. I was still incredibly hated in school, and I became widely known as a slut. And while the bullying wasn’t always sexual, it had taken a distinctly physical turn. One day, someone had been clapping erasers near me, and I complained (to them) that it bothered me (because of my asthma). That day at lunch, when playing on the board as some of the kids in my class usually did, they went out of their way to get the erasers covered in chalk dust. Unfortunately, instead of beating them against each other, they beat me. The details are kind of murky, but I do remember having a large group of girls swarm me and choke me on my own jacket (all I really remember after that is being in the office, crying, with an ice pack to my neck). Just in case there was any time that I might have forgotten how they saw me, Melissa made sure that I knew what people thought of me. And she made sure to remind them that they were to believe that I was a slut. She actively worked to destroy anything that could possibly make me feel good about myself. One example that still reminds me of just how calculated she was, was when I came to school on a Monday after getting a haircut and highlights. And I got a lot of compliments for it. I guess this was a problem for her, and when she heard someone compliment me on it towards the end of the day, she informed me that she’s found three people who said it looked awful. When she hacked into my e-mail (which in 2000, was a pretty big deal), I lost it and went to the new vice principal to tell her about the litany of things she’d done over the years, most notably the swimming accident and the e-mail hacking. She told me that there was nothing she could do- that all happened outside of school. The most troubling was that she didn’t see any reason that I shouldn’t have to take shop class with Melissa. (Thankfully, nothing did happen, but the possibilities still make me shudder).

My grades were awful, I didn’t want to be at school anymore, and often begged my parents not to make me go. They told me that if people were picking on me like I said, I should just hit them and it would shut them up. I didn’t have words for the kind of terror or dread that I felt going back there every day. I pleaded with them to let me change schools, and they said no. I was defeated. When things kept happening, things with increasingly more witnesses and that were getting more violent, I figured that someone would have to listen to me. I told the teachers and vice principal repeatedly. They didn’t hear it. See, I was the one who kept complaining, so they figured I was making a big deal out of nothing. Finally, after a very serious suicide threat, one of the girls I had finally sort-of become friends with reported it to the vice principal, and they took that seriously. My parents realized just how unhappy I really was, and agreed that I could change schools. I remember for a couple of days after it happened, it seemed like teachers were watching. But it went away pretty quickly.

And things did change when I changed schools. I got much better grades, made some friends, and generally had a better time of it. I started debating, and I was actually good at it! I developed an interest in politics, and even got to do a co-op placement on Parliament Hill. But there was something else that was going on that I didn’t quite understand. I had trouble sleeping, and often felt like there was something weighing me down, even though things were great. One night, I woke up my parents because I finally felt awful enough to tell them how depressed I had been. Although my mom didn’t really see how I could be depressed (I looked fine!), I did start seeing a counselor and taking medication, and it helped for a bit, but it wasn’t enough. All of a sudden, things looked much bleaker than they had ever been. I started to hurt myself.

This carried on for a while, and the details aren’t really important. I had gotten a bit of help and knew that I was supposed to be doing better. No one really considered the role that my experiences from middle school could be having on me (myself included). At this point, I was several years removed from it, had just started my last year of high school, and I kept telling myself that things would be fine once I got out. And I figured that after I’d gotten some high-quality help, if I couldn’t deal it was because of some failure on my part. So I didn’t tell anyone how dark things still were, and one morning woke up and snapped. I decided that I’d had enough, and took a lethal dose of pills. Something happened, and I panicked and told my dad- probably just in time. It was serious- I was unconscious for 8 hours, my heart nearly stopped, my stomach was pumped, and I ended up becoming a hospital in-patient for the next two months.

And STILL, even after they looked over my years of history and treatment, no one was able to identify the sexualized bullying that I had experienced as being the cause. By that stage, I was pretty out of control. I was frustrated and furious that they couldn’t figure out how to make me feel better. The in-patient doctor took it as an indication that I was a brat, and I just couldn’t handle it when I didn’t get my way. However, towards the end of my time there, she did finally say something about posttraumatic stress. Finally, there was some kind of recognition that what had happened to me. . . it wasn’t okay, and there was a reason that I wasn’t okay with it. When I started back at school, I was told point blank by my guidance counselor that I needed to face facts, and there was no way I was going to graduate. As it turns out, I’m a pretty stubborn person, and there was no way I was going to let her be right. I don’t know how, but I graduated on time, with honours, and even was the recipient of one of the department awards. I needed a break after that, and I took a year off. But I did go away to school, and I defied a lot of expectations when I actually did well. I’m sure it won’t come as a shock to you at this point in the story, but once the problem had been properly identified and worked through those experiences, I could be a functioning member of society. I don’t think I could have ever understood just how much better I could feel, because I didn’t understand how deeply these experiences affected me. Then I did something really crazy- I decided that I wanted to go to grad school. And two months ago, I moved down to Florida to my first choice school to start my Masters.

But there’s something here that you need to understand . . . I made it out to the other side of things, despite how much was in my way. I’m not really sure how, or why, but I got to survive. Two of my friends took their own lives during my last winter in school, one of them definitely related to bullying. The other had just been accepted to the University of Guelph, the school where I ended up doing my undergrad, just days before she died. Every fall, I’ve struggled with the fact that I was still there, and she wasn’t. I knew that it could have so easily been the other way, and I struggled with the guilt that I wasn’t doing anything to change things for people who shared my experiences.

I had one teacher in high school, Mr Callaghan, who taught me to critically examine things, and in university I started to speak out when I saw something that didn’t seem right. I did a lot of good work when I was there- I was involved in different levels of student government, worked with students across the university, and found myself in the middle of a controversy over rape jokes on a facebook group that was frequented by students at my school. Ultimately, this resulted in some great dialogue across the campus (the president himself wrote a letter to students about how disappointed he was, I wrote some articles about rape culture, and even had a conversation with one traditionally male-dominated group about ways that they could make campus a safer place for women). The reason that I’m telling you all this is because I had been the first person to really call someone out on facebook about how rape jokes were inappropriate, and there was plenty of retaliation. The people who were angry weren’t perfect strangers- they were people using their real names, who went to the same school, who had no problem that everyone could see what they wrote. This time it didn’t matter- I knew what I was doing was right, and I knew I was graduating soon, so I could take it. I had no problem advocating for myself and for others, but bullying was the one topic that I couldn’t quite take on. During the rash of suicides a couple of years ago, I did feel guilty that I didn’t speak up, say or do something. But they were still incredibly painful memories.

The scars from bullying. . . they can fade. But I don’t know if they can ever really go away. I’ve talked to others who have been bullied who 10, 20, even 30 years later can’t talk about it. And I get that. The ongoing bullying- whether it’s homophobic, or sexualized, or whatever other reason peers may have decided to victimize you- it spends a lot of time teaching you that you don’t deserve the same respect that others do. It shows you that people can and will do what they want, even if its only purpose is to hurt you. It undermines every single positive thought you have about yourself. They actively work to keep anything from making you feel good about yourself. It was only recently that I realized how much it still affects me. My best friend and I had come down to Tampa to check out apartments before I moved, and I got quite upset when I saw that there wasn’t really any option besides driving to campus. I knew there was something else bugging me, and we tried to talk it out. I realized that what scared me about driving to school was that my car would be identifiable. And that meant that if anyone wanted, they could vandalize it/wait by it in the dark/somehow do something that hurt me. Yeah, I know it was irrational, but it served as a brutal reminder that 12 years later, it’s still there somewhere in my mind.

When I heard about Amanda Todd, my heart broke. It’s been more than a decade and the problems haven’t changed. At this point, we can’t count how many other girls have taken their lives, but no one seemed willing to address this bullying. Much to my surprise though, people did start talking about the online bullying Amanda had experienced, and acknowledged that it was a problem (definitely a late reaction, but at least it’s something). Yet her story was still eating away at me. I realized that there are parts of her torment that sounded like mine. The victim-blaming, the slut-shaming, the refusal of school officials to take things seriously, the undertones of misogyny and sexism that people aren’t willing to talk about. . . . it’s a little too familiar. I realized that we can talk about people after they’re gone as much as we want, but it doesn’t do enough to humanize the experience. And that means hearing from someone who has experienced it. Which is why I finally decided that I had to tell the details of my story. People need to understand what’s happening. And I know that I’ve now opened myself back up to the bullies- whether it’s the online trolls, or the same people who continue to torment Amanda after her death, or my own childhood bullies who are reading this and still don’t get what they did. But I can no longer sit idly by and let this keep happening without doing something about it.

There’s one other thing about this case that’s letting people let themselves off the hook for their own bad behaviour when they were younger. People seem to be under the impression that somehow the cyberbullying is the cause of the increase in suicides, not what continues to happen day-to-day in school. When I learned that some of her bullies continued to make fun of her after her death, I was appalled. But the thing is, I don’t think people are necessarily that much meaner than before. Having an online medium makes it easier for more people to get involved (so you can support each other, much like people do when they bully in crowds), and people can band together to target one person. And that’s exactly what happened when we moved from elementary to middle school- suddently, there was a whole new population of people to recruit to bully me. And the result is that no one thinks there’s nothing all that wrong with what they’re doing, because then everyone’s doing it. The reasons for slut shaming have changed (most notably by the emergence of webcams and the ability to send inappropriate pictures), but the slut-shaming itself hasn’t. I’m confident that if pictures weren’t available, the kids would have found another reason to target her. What’s happening now isn’t a new problem brought on by cyberbullying. It’s the same problem that we’ve been too afraid to talk about for years.

But we can’t keep this skeleton hidden in our closets anymore. Otherwise, 10 years from now when one of the many completely preventable suicides garners international attention and there’s nothing else to blame, we’ll be getting the “we didn’t know it was a problem” excuse from schools again. But we can’t wait for this to happen on its own, when we’re faced with ever growing problems in society that are being fed by people who grow up learning that a woman’s body is there for someone else’s pleasure (or to allow others to cause her pain). We have a society that has become so focused on victim blaming and slut-shaming that it doesn’t even register with us any more.

We need to talk about this because for the past several months, there have been 14 cases of reported sexual assault- a massive number by any standards, but even more disturbing when you factor in that the majority of women never report their assaults. Because we’re completely shocked by the fact that the accused perpetrator is only 15 years old, even though studies have shown that this isn’t that uncommon an occurrence.

Because at one point, while women were being warned about the sexual assaults, the mayor’s niece took it upon herself to give them advice on how to protect themselves- walk tall, carry mace, and don’t dress like a slut. The only apology she issued (an apology for “causing alarm”) came after one of the survivors of the sexual assaults publicly spoke out about her experience.

Because in the US election, Republicans have spent endless hours talking about whether or not a woman should have the right to an abortion after she’s been raped, not what we can do to prevent people from committing those crimes.

Because when an eleven year old girl was raped two years ago and they charged eighteen men with assaulting her, people wanted wanted to know why her mother hadn’t made sure she was at home, not “why did these perpetrators thought that what they were doing was okay?”

Because when Sandra Fluke stood up and testified in front of congress that employers should have to cover her birth control, the media decided that it was okay to bully and slut-shame her. And when Katherine Fenton had the nerve to ask about the pay disparity between men and women, the media dug up every dirty detail they could find on her, as though it somehow mattered.

Because when Chris Brown appeared at the Grammys this year (two years after he was arrested for beating his girlfriend, Rihanna, in public), Twitter lit up with comments like “I don’t know what she was complaining about. He can beat me any day.”

Because I spent almost half of my life having internalized the things the bullies said, they did, and they convinced me that I deserved. Because years after these incidents I’ve talked about took place, I was still victim-blaming and slut shaming myself. Because it took almost dying for someone to recognize the impact that these events could have had on me. Because it’s become so normalized that even when it was happening in front of their faces, there was no teacher or adult willing to step in and stop what the bullies were doing.

Because Amanda Todd, a 15 year old girl with everything ahead of her had to die in order for people to take her experiences seriously. And because when people talk about her, they make fun of her for exposing herself on camera, instead of acknowledge that she was exploited and blackmailed by an adult. Because it took seeing the way she was treated by her tormentors and strangers alike after her death for me to realize that someone had to speak up.

Because until we’re willing to acknowledge these issues, there’s no one there to step in and try and do something about the girls who are being victimized today.

Because of all the other Amandas that are still out there who deserve so much better than this.