October 24, 2012

Bullying and Sexism

 On Wednesday, October 10th, 2012 Amanda Todd committed suicide in her home in Port Coquitlam, five weeks after posting a heart-wrenching video to YouTube, entitled: My Story: Struggling, Bullying, Suicide and Self-Harm

The response has been immediate and widespread.  Countless individuals have posted tribute videos and opinion blogs to in response, there have been news articles in numerous news outlets across Canada concerning Amanda’s story and the dangers of ‘cyber-bullying’.

On Friday, Premier Christy Clark stated that “new laws are needed to combat bullying” and “the bigger solutions lie with parents, educators and other role models. The toughest thing that we need to recognize is bullying, and children committing suicide because they’ve been bullied, is entirely preventable,” she added, saying her government has already begun trying to make improvements within the province’s schools.

While mainstream news media frame this tragedy as evidence for the danger of bullying, echoing previous discourses of teen suicides and the ‘It Gets Better’ campaign; and while Premier Christy Clark uses these discourses to further a blame-the-public schools rhetoric in the BC Liberals’ continuing battles with the BCTF; the fact remains that the issues involved in Amanda’s death go far beyond the scale ‘bullying’ – and framing it as bullying alone obscures the larger realities of this situation.

An unknown individual did not ‘cyber-bully’ Amanda. An unknown individual used a sexual photograph of her body to blackmail her, to manipulate her, to ridicule her, to condemn her. An unknown individual stalked Amanda online, (“He knew my address, school, relatives, friends, family names” wrote Amanda) sending the photo to her new peers when she changed schools, which provided the impetus for the slut-shaming, physical and verbal abuse and social stigmatization Amanda endured. This is not just an issue of bullying. This is an issue of predation and sexual violence, interwoven with the pervasively shameful (sexist, misogynistic) stigma of being labelled an immorally sexual young woman in our society.

As Jarrah Hodge, member City of Vancouver’s Women’s Advisory Committee, states:

“There has been no discussion of the pressure girls like Amanda experience to measure their worth through their sexual desirability. From her story, it sounds like this man had the hallmarks of a predator—he tried to use her photos to blackmail her and yet she’s the one who got blamed. This comes from the idea that it’s up to girls and women to protect their purity at the same time as all their role models in the media say that you need to ‘get a man’ to be a complete person, that you need to be sexually attractive to be liked, appreciated, and valued..

Further, as feminist scholar and former BC high school teacher, Fazeela Jiwa argues:

“Why isn’t anyone talking about the sexism and misogyny involved in Amanda Todd’s life and death? ‘Bullying’ is important, yes, but it is a vague term that glosses over the structural reasons for why it happens, like race/gender/class/ability. If we don’t start talking about the specifics of power structures in high schools, every ‘bullying’ campaign will be a waste of time…the language of bullying means little to students, and less to teachers. I can tell you that from both perspectives. The bullies laugh and text during every presentation against bullying, and then those who are bullied get bullied more. THIS case is one of many episodes of sexist coercion by men; what is also interesting is that the women in her life turned against her too even though they deal with the same pressures of capitulating to […] internalized patriarchy. She adds, “The video is heart-wrenching. And, no one is talking about the misogyny that young men inflicted on her—only ‘bullying’. Her story is clearly gendered.”

The rhetoric around ‘bullying’ can obscure the larger systemic realities of sexism, misogyny and racism operating, Jiwa argues. If the discussion of bullying is narrowed to the individual’s personal family, social group, social status, etc., the onus then falls on the individual’s family, friends, teachers, or the individual’s own identity and actions, to be the only forces at play for positive or negative change in his or her life. And while these are certainly important facets, to stop our analysis here would be to ignore the fact that this abuse is not isolated. Many girls and young women in our society face stigma, shame, violence, harassment, online sexual coercion, and abuse for being labelled immorally sexual, promiscuous, a ‘slut’. It is imperative to move beyond the rhetoric of ‘bullying’, as isolated and preventable, and examine the larger structural forces operating by and through individuals’ actions, and the ideologies informing them.

Indeed, the abuse Amanda suffered from her peers must be framed in more complex ways than the dominant discourse of ‘bullying’ allows. As Jarrah Hodge argues in “Systemic Sexism…” on Rabble,

‘Calling it “bullying” or even “cyberbullying” doesn’t do it justice. “Bullying” erases specific social factors and makes it seem like something that you age out of. Adding the “cyber” prefix doesn’t necessarily make it more accurate. Technology was a catalyst, but webcams, cellphones and the Internet aren’t the key to understanding what happened to Amanda; systemic sexism was.”


Her article explains how systemic sexism informs the abuse some young girls face by being labelled a ‘slut’ and thus caught in a lose-lose situation. This label, Hodge argues, can be attached to you regardless of how you dress or behave…and once you’re labelled a ‘slut’, you’re expected to feel inferior, damaged, unworthy of respect or love. Stigma, shame, and violence are perpetrated against young girls labelled in this way, caught between the double bind of sexism and sexual shame.

Hodge argues that instead of calling cases like this ‘bullying’, which brings to mind a teenager or child-related phenomenon, ie. “kids being kids”, we must to name it as sexual harassment, or technology-facilitated slut-shaming. Not only would this be more accurate, but it would help change our perspective to the larger realities of oppression operating in these situations.

Another underlying discourse in the media, I think, is the use Amanda’s story as a ‘cautionary tale’: ie. don’t be sexual over a webcam, or you’ll be somehow responsible for those images. As Zoe Mallet, an Ottawa human rights advocate states:

“I’m disgusted by the framing, at least in what I’ve read so far. I didn’t like how the first part hints that the moral of the story is &#
x2018;girls, don’t flash your breasts on a webcam,’ like it was her fault.”

Amanda was twelve years old when the predator obtained that photograph.  She was minor, a child, and engaging in sexual contact with a child (under 14) is, in Canada’s legal code, statutory rape. Having sexual contact with a child is statutory rape, and the predator clearly did so over a virtual forum (convincing a child to flash you is sexual contact). The individual then used this image to blackmail Amanda for further sexual contact (‘putting on a show’) and then circulated the image to her peers extensively and on more than one occasion; even creating a Facebook group with the image as its profile picture.  To call this series of events ‘bullying’ narrows the reality of this situation. It was sexual violence, and yet Amanda was blamed.

(If you, or anyone you know, is being stalked, blackmailed or ridiculed in sexual ways or for reasons of a sexual nature, this is sexual violence. It is not your fault.)

Over and over again, Amanda was blamed. She was shamed and bullied and ostracized by her peers over and over again: for being predated upon, when she was twelve years old, and having the evidence extensively publicized. “I could never get that photo back” states Amanda, and she suffered social stigma, physical violence, ridicule and abuse because of it.

It is a tragedy that Amanda was driven to take her own life. But imagining circumstances that led to her suicide in narrow, rhetoric-driven ways would be wrong: it would diminish the scope of what she suffered, allow her perpetrator(s) moral refuge, and do injustice to other young women and girls in similar situations. We must widen our understanding to include systemic slut-shaming and sexism, widen the lens through which we see teen violence, and move beyond a rhetoric of ‘bullying’ which isolates and diminishes these issues.





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