Frosh week chants have drawn the attention of many Canadians these past weeks. Yelling, as part of a group, about non-consensual underage sex somehow seemed okay to the students at east and west coasts universities. In some cases administrations are providing shelter to chanting students – explaining that while inappropriate it is forgivable and mostly harmless. Other administrations are responding swiftly by calling out student leaders who encouraged the sexist and violent messages and packaged them as school spirit.
Yesterday I read a devastating article in Rolling Stone magazine about Audrie Pott, a 15-year old young woman, who, while passed out drunk, was stripped, scribbled on and photographed. The photos were distributed (it’s unknown whether widely or not – but who really cares since the young woman had reason to believe distribution was wide) and it appears as though the experience and corresponding humiliation influenced Audrie’s decision to commit suicide shortly thereafter.
The Rolling Stone article was like a punch in the gut. In some ways, it’s just this week’s story. Last week we read about and grieved Nova Scotia’s Rehtaeh Parsons. The week before that was the young woman of Steubenville, Ohio and before that we mourned Amanda Todd from British Columbia. It wouldn’t take long to amass a lengthy list of young women devastated or dead following sexual images posted to the internet. And it’s so sad, so terrible to me that communities become divided by events of this nature. Even the comment section on The Rolling Stone website overwhelmingly captures a divided larger community. While many are horrified that this girl was a victim, many blame her (‘she was drunk’ ‘she was bipolar’) and consider the surviving young men victims of the young woman’s troubled life.
This isn’t about Frosh week, or about whether someone was drunk or bipolar, it’s about our culture – what makes it what it is, what sustains it. Fundamentally we, as adults and parents, must take some responsibility. WE need to do better. We need to build a culture that promotes respect and safety – whether on campuses, in parent-free houses, in playgrounds or on the internet.
In the Rolling Stone article, Laurie Anderson, author of the novel Speak (about a high school rape and its effects on a victim) explained that “when it comes to recording sexual assaults and wanting to show it off, the young men committing them are not seeing them as crimes, they see them as pranks. And there’s no point in pulling a prank unless you share it.”
I’m not a gambler, but I’d bet that the young young men who stripped, scribbled and photographed Audrie Pott considered it a prank, and I’m equally comfortable putting money on the students at St. Mary’s and UBC believing they were just having regular, frosh week fun.
They all could think that way because they hadn’t been taught otherwise. Or at least the messages were not provided often or consistently enough. We can blame mass media all we want, but we can do better.
The lessons need to start early. Not at 14 – that’s when these terrible events begin to happen. The lessons must start much earlier.
Reinforce not only the law but the way laws attempt to legislate societal values of decency.
- People who are drunk can not consent.
- Taking pictures (in any state of undress) of someone under the age of consent is sexual assault.
- Maintaining and sharing those photos is possession and distribution of child pornography.
- Taking pictures (in any state of undress) of a person of any age, without their consent, is sexual assault.
Additionally, as parents we have a unique and ongoing opportunity to share our values with our kids and engage them in conversations about about acting with integrity and walking a mile in another person’s shoes.
More specifically, we can:
- Challenge media representations of consent (think Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines) and question ideas of empowerment through sexualization (see Miley Cyrus)
- Talk to our kids about group think and how to stand up to thoughtless and out-of-line activity
- Call out their ideas about humour and ‘harmless’ behaviour
- Help them distinguish between public and private and recognize the permanence of everything that is uploaded to the internet
- Reinforce the notion that words have power, that a chant is not ‘divorced from reality’ but in some ways is a reflection of reality, and that our choices, especially when people are vulnerable, can have lifelong impact.
For the love of all that is good (about sex and sexuality), we can do this, can’t we?