Anyone who may have thought that the scandals over “sexting” last year were a joke – well, this latest heartbreaking story reveals that they are very, very serious. A Florida girl hanged herself in September after being humiliated and shamed by her classmates over the course of some months. She was thirteen years old. This horrible treatment at the hands of her peers was sparked by what seems to be a common practice among teens – sending naked pictures via text message to crushes or significant others, or “sexting.” This habit, however common, has sparked a moral panic that led to the prosecution, last spring, of several teens for “child pornography.”
The case of Hope Witsell, the young woman who killed herself, reveals how this moral panic over “sexting,” combined with the cruelty of teenagers, can even result in death. I have mixed feelings about “sexting” itself – I am disturbed by the permanence of the images, and the ease with which they can be leaked to large numbers of people, and I don’t think that twelve and thirteen-year-olds really understand the consequences of unerasable images of their naked bodies. “Sexting” also makes me feel old, because it’s such a recent phenomenon – I was in middle school only seven or eight years ago, and it’s incredibly what the advent of cell phones has done. But Witsell’s story, which I will relate to you, shows that parents, teachers and role models need to be taking different steps to deal with this new trend, and with the ways they approach teens’ sexuality in general.
Last spring, Hope forwarded a nude picture of herself to a boy she liked. This was not something out of the ordinary, but the image for some reason found its way to other students, and was soon circulating throughout her school, and two other middle schools. Hope’s friends described the ensuing atmosphere as “brutal.” One of her friends said, “”She’d walk into class and somebody would say, ‘Oh, here comes the slut.’”
From the beginning, Hope blamed herself for her “mistake.” And yes, it’s not completely wise, in this digital age, to send naked photos via text message (as Rihanna, mostly recently, can attest). But the school administrators finally got wind of the situation and called Hope and her parents into a meeting, deciding upon a one-week suspension for the fall as a suitable “punishment.” This seems to me to have been an extreme response, but it was not the school’s reaction that ultimately contributed to her death. It was the actions of her classmates, which seem to have bordered on sadistic.
At a conference for students interested in agriculture that summer, a group of boys repeatedly harassed Hope, asking her to show them photos of her breasts, which she finally did. The rest of the summer seemed to Hope’s parents to be uneventful, but when Hope returned to school, things seemed to have disintegrated further. The harassment had not stopped, and the school guidance counselor noticed cuts on Hope’s leg. It was around this time, in early September, when Hope wrote this in her journal:
“Tons of people talk about me behind my back and I hate it because they call me a whore! And I can’t be a whore i’m too inexperienced. So secretly TONS of people hate me…”
The point here, I think, is that although Hope did not make a decision, it was not the “sexting” that led to her death. It was the shocking treatment by her peers, and the inattention to this abuse by adults. An article in the St. Petersburg Times makes much of the fact that Hope’s parents were church-going Christians, but their reaction seems to me to be completely misplaced. Donna Witsell, Hope’s mother, reflected:
“Should I have been more careful about what I allowed her to watch? Should I have been more careful about what I allowed her to read? Should I have been more careful about restricting her relationships with the opposite sex? There’s a fine, fine line, especially when our kids become adolescents. They are maturing way sooner than they used to.”
It was not Hope’s interest in sex that led to her death – it was the fact that other students were allowed to abuse her. And this probably stems from the shame and guilt surrounding sex in our society – students learn that teenagers’ bodies are not supposed to be sexual, even though they clearly are, and use this information to humiliate each other. For Hope, this was fatal. The Witsells blame the hyper-sexualization of teenagers in the media, which may have something to do with “sexting” (although I think technology is the main factor), but parents and administrators are equally culpable for failing to teach children to be comfortable with their sexuality. Why was Hope the one who was suspended from school? Why not the other students, who were abusing her?
The issue of “sexting” is a complicated one, and clearly can have dire consequences. But if we’re going to prevent tragedies like Hope Witsell’s death from happening again, we need to seriously reexamine the way that we approach teenage sexuality, the ways that parents talk to teens about sex, and the levels of cruelty and humiliation that are present in middle schools. The moral panic over “sexting” is unwarranted, because the “sexting” itself is just a small part of the problem. Hysteria over “sexting” just obscures the truly disturbing social dynamics of adolesence in America.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.