Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The newest form of sexual assault?

In July 2008, just about 20 minutes from my house, a teenage girl killed herself. She was a high school senior who, while on spring break a couple months earlier, had taken nude photos of herself on a cell phone and sent them to her boyfriend. Some of her friends on the trip did the same. After she and her boyfriend broke up, he forwarded the photos to who knows how many people, who also forwarded them, and so on. The girl was reportedly taunted, teased, harassed and called all kinds of names ("whore" seemed to be the most popular) for months. Then she killed herself.

The story was big news in my city, and was in the news for a long time while the family was trying to file a lawsuit against the school (which the family alleges did not do much to stop the spread of the photos or to stop the harassment) and against some students who were alleged harassers. The family also got involved in trying to help pass legislation dealing with "sexting."

Many news reports talked about what this teenage girl dealt with in the aftermath of the release of the photos -- and they all talk about other girls harassing her. I just read through about eight or nine reports of this story, in fact, and I can't find anything even talking about the former boyfriend who released the photos -- other than the fact that he was the one who released them.

A number of other cases of "sexting" nude photos that result in charges involve some sort of child pornography charge, but in this case the girl was 18 years old. No charges were filed against anyone (that I know of). Eventually the girl requested that the investigation be stopped because it was making the harassment worse. But here's my question: Why didn't any media outlet, or the school, or police, or even the parents, question whether what this guy did, in releasing her photos, was sexual assault? The school district actually said it was a form of "bullying," and I suppose that's true when you look at how other girls treated her after the photos came out. But no one (again, that I know of) brought up sexual assault. Is it because there was no "physical" crime?

Recently both Pandagon and Alas, a Blog wrote about Carrie Prejean's sex tape(s), and how releasing them is a form of sexual assault against her. I agree with both authors on the subject, particularly this (written by Amanda Marcotte) on Pandagon:
It’s about time that we started viewing the release of privately made sexual photographs and videos to anyone other than their intended audience as a form of sexual assault. The motivation to do so is indistinguishable from that as a rapist---using sex as a tool to dominate and humiliate someone, while puffing up your own sense of power---and often the results could be even worse for the victim, because her assault was performed in front of a crowd.When the news broke that ESPN reporter Erin Andrews had been filmed naked in her hotel rooms, without her knowledge, and the video became available on the Internet, it was clearly sexual assault. Yet countless people somehow justified watching the video, which was obviously taken of her without her consent -- and I would guess most people who watched it knew that. If so many people can't understand that what happened to Erin Andrews was assault, how can we expect people to understand that releasing photos or video against someone's wishes can be assault?

I think it's apparent that trying to prosecute these acts, at least as society is today, would be difficult. "Accidents" happen, I'm sure, and it would probably take some work on the prosecutors' side to prove assault. (Which really makes this no different from other sexual assault cases.) But the conversation needs to get rolling, now.

"Sexting" has become a fairly big deal, and most of the conversation around the nude-photos-aspect of it seems to be "girls, don't succumb to the pressure of guys who want to see nude photos of you, because once you send those photos, you can't get them back." And that is true, yes. I, too, loathe the idea of girls being pressured to send nude photos of themselves. But once again, all the responsibility is on the girls. Don't do this, don't do that. Where is the conversation about the boys involved in posting these photos or forwarding them to other people? Why isn't anyone saying "You know what son, if you receive nude photos of a girl, those are private and meant just for you. Keep it that way."

Maybe more young people need to read the story about this 18-year-old girl who was basically harassed to death. In her case, the harassment came from girls -- and that is definitely not OK either and is really a whole other discussion -- but it started with a former boyfriend forwarding those photos.


Melissa said...

You're absolutely right. I've never thought about this issue as a sexual assault, but indeed it is.

(I'm not sure if I've commented before, but your blog is wonderful, one of my favorites, and one of my must-reads each day.)

Rosie said...

Melissa, thank you for your kind words! Truly appreciated.


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