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“Sexting”-Related Bullying Contributes To Teen’s Suicide

“Sexting”-Related Bullying Contributes To Teen’s Suicide

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.

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Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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117 comments

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10:25AM PDT on Mar 28, 2011

see, when I see these things, I think"some kids want that" but they share with their peers.
but an adult demanding naughty images of under 18 year olds is wrong.

as sad as the results are, i find the whole sexting drama laughable. because some think the teens are the same kind of disinterested innocents a 3 year old is

but I see some that I hope are trolls on forums who talk opening about fetishes, sex lives and such, they draw them self as cartoon animals having sex, and go to adult role-plays with 18 year olds.

what do we save them from? them-self? murders? why is it illegal for me to make a naughty joke where a 15 year old can hear me, when that 15 year old is a jr pornographer in her own room?

4:06PM PST on Jan 2, 2010

This is so sad and I think Hope´s suspension from school was totally inappropriate and wrong, she was the victim, not the offender for goodness sake!

10:02AM PST on Dec 19, 2009

It's shameful the fact that people just don't understand what happens around them! Most people think that when educating a child you must protect her from the world by avoiding many things. The only way you can protect a son/daughter is teaching them everything about life and people as they are growing. By avoiding thing like sexuality, behavior, human interaction, religion, etc, eventually through their curiosity they will get into trouble one way or another, like it happens many times! They need to learn what their actions can cause, good or bad, whether it's virtually or not! Every action causes a reaction and, unfortunately, people offten forget this.
Best regards

9:56AM PST on Dec 10, 2009

"And why would a child as you suggest be out walking by themselves anyway? Because a parent is not supervising them."

I am sorry... WHAT!? I admit that I did not read the whole exchange, and I might misunderstand you. However, the assumption that kids (and teenagers, no less!) need or even should be supervised at all times is... wow. This might be true for very small kids. But when a child is six or seven years old he or she should be allowed to do some things alone. My parents let me walk to school alone when I was in first grade (and six years old). Granted, I was a careful child and they had carefully trained me. Plus, we lived in a small town back then and I had to walk only about five minutes to go to school. (I also found out much later that my mum followed me secretly the first time to check if I was paying attention to traffic and crossing streets safely, etc.) Being allowed to bear some responsibility at that age made me proud - it also made me far more secure in traffic later on (as did riding my bike to see friends later during elementary school). A kid and especially a teenager that is never allowed to do things alone will not learn how to behave responsibly. Some of them also will be more likely to act out at some point or obsessed with the things they are not allowed to do alone.

10:09PM PST on Dec 9, 2009

This is a form of sexual abuse and harrassment. Girls are sexualized more and more, and some internalize that, although it also causes horrendous distress and stress to them, deep down, as the self-harming shows.

I'm really sad for girls in this world.

12:14PM PST on Dec 9, 2009

Thank you for this article. I agree that the parents and teachers' decision to suspend her was "extreme." It also seems pitifully inept and inadequate. In reading this, my only wish is that I could go back and tell that young woman: you're okay, and let her have her life back. It is staggering how hypocritical, frightened and inept much of our adults, teachers and psychologists are in this culture. I saw Dr. Phil talking about this general issue: the sending pictures thing via mobile technology a year or so ago on David Letterman. Strange thing to talk about on a late night comedy show. I don't think it was out of concern. I think Phil McGraw is a frightened, clueless, incompetent human being and had to bring something like this up in order to have something to say. It was the first I was hearing of it, but looking back, it's not surprising Kids have always been this way; the only difference now is the technology to send it through the air. Dr. Phil framed the whole thing as a "felony," and related to it as a pseudo authority figure. Dr. Phil is one of the true morons of our time, a perfect emblem of the ignorance and stupidity endemic in our culture. Parents and authority figures project their own insecurities and fears around sex onto children, and respond in pitifully unhelpful ways to a thing like this. Did anyone tell this poor girl she wasn't weird for doing this, wasn't wrong, wasn't a "whore"? This is behavior that could be hurtful to her, that she

11:25AM PST on Dec 9, 2009

Just another reason children should not be given cellphones.

2:39AM PST on Dec 9, 2009

So sad. Bullies are filth.

4:55PM PST on Dec 8, 2009

All realms of sex must be taught in order for the teenage mind to truly understand the concept. With so many explicit images and songs out there, most teens who are not taught what sex really is think that this is it! So they go around acting in the ways they see in the media and think that this is what they are supposed to be doing. It is truly sad that this young girl ended her life over something like this when it could have easily be avoided. Her parents and the school should have acted accordingly, not just suspending her. they should have tried to get to the root of the problem. This behavior is not that to be punished but to be probed. She should have been asked why she felt the need to do these things and I think it should have been brought up to all students, faculty and parents through some sort of assembly or the likes. It takes a village to raise a child. Everyone should have looked at this situation as if it was their own children. She should not have been punished for this behavior because obviously something was wrong. I'll conclude with our children are our future. We must do all that we can to nurture and teach them what life is really about, not what they see on the TV or hear on the radio. Life is about human interaction, learning, loving and growing. And those things cannot be forsaken as they are essential to all life on earth.

4:41PM PST on Dec 8, 2009

I think this was a well written article. Everyone plays a role in this issue. I personally dont think a 13 year old needs a cell phone. I didn't get mine until I went to high school because thats when I needed it. Moving on, I do think it is a valid point that new technology coupled with the embarrassment of teenage sexuality and lack of parenting has played a major role in this horrible event. Self esteem and confidence starts in the home. Parents must teach their children and not always look to the school or media to do their job. It's THEIR JOB! Moving on, although technology has made our lives easier, it's not necessarily better. We stopped doing thing that we used to. I'm not even that old but I remember going outside to play, not sitting in front of the TV playing video games. I feel that technology has hampered the social skills necessary to thrive in this world. What ever happened to talking to people and doing things with people? Everyone is walking around on their cell phones and iPods completely disconnected from everyone else. I feel as though technology in some ways has made people more isolated. Just my take on it. Moving on, teenage sexuality is a tough subject because so many adults don't want to talk about it and likewise with kids. But it is something that must be taught and I think parents are the ones to do it. Because sex is more than physical, it is also emotional and spiritual....cont....

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