Mere days after 15-year-old Audrie Pott* posted “my life is ruined” on Facebook, she committed suicide by hanging. After a week of relentless cyberbullying as photos of a vicious sexual assault went viral, she felt that taking her own life was the only way out, shocking her parents, who hadn’t know about the assault and her subsequent anguish.
Now, seven months later, three boys involved in the assault have finally been arrested, and her parents are planning civil suits against other juveniles and adults involved in Audrie’s assault and subsequent suicide. Pott’s parents had initially not discussed the sexual assault, but now they’re going public with it, joining a growing national discussion about sexual assault, rape culture and how to protect young women like Pott and the victim in the infamous Steubenville rape case.
The news broke as members of the public reeled from a tragically similar story unfolding in Canada, that of Rehtaeh Parsons, who hanged herself last week. Parsons was raped in 2011 and she endured two years of bullying as an image of her assault was circulated by her peers. Her father has written a moving open letter about what happened to Rehtaeh Parsons, asking that she be remembered for who she is, not as the victim of a horrific crime and systematic campaign of humiliation by her classmates.
Before her assault, Audrie was a popular student. Her family describes her as loving, dedicated to animals and very focused on friends and family. On the night of her rape, she was subjected to horrific crimes while obviously unconscious, and multiple classmates chose to document her assault with images rather than intervene. The pictures were quickly circulated, and she became a figure of mockery at the school, subjected to vicious harassment and bullying that stalked her wherever she went.
“The whole school knows…my life is ruined,” she wrote on her Facebook account.
The same classmates who participated in her assault and harassed her afterwards wore teal in her honor during a school-organized event after her death.
Audrie’s parents are pushing for tougher laws on cyberbullying, a subject which has been in the media since a rash of suicides by queer youth in 2010, and one that’s attracted more attention in recent months as cyberbullying cases have exploded among young sexual assault victims. Audrie, like the Steubenville victim, like Rehtaeh, like many other young women, lived in an era where the ubiquity of recording devices makes it easy to document a rape, and to circulate the subsequent images.
The level of callousness and misogyny involved in not only not intervening in a rape, but recording it, viewing it as entertainment, and using the pictures to shame and humiliate the victim, is truly astounding. It speaks to the depths of rape culture in the United States and how far the nation needs to go when it comes to addressing sexism and misogyny; look, for example, at the rape and death threats received by Zerlina Maxwell when she dared to say that women are not responsible for their own sexual assaults.
Notably, in the Steubenville case, the judge admonished the boys involved to “have discussions about…how you record things on the social media so prevalent today.” The implication seemed to be that the boys should have been more careful about distributing images that would get them caught, not that they shouldn’t have taken the images in the first place. The boys were also absolved of responsibility for failing to intervene in what was very obviously a sexual assault, highlighting the fact that society is still very conflicted when it comes to identifying and stopping rape.
Progress in this area comes incrementally, and too late for teens like Audrie and Rehtaeh. But maybe we can prevent more of them.
*Note: Her parents have requested that her name be widely circulated and discussed, rather than being kept anonymous, as is conventional with rape cases.
Photo credit: Ed Yourdon
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