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Posted at 10:06 PM ET, 04/16/2013

Audrie Pott: Sexual Assault, Cyberbullying and Suicide

The controversial Steubenville sexual assault case and lyrics from rapper Rick Ross that boasted of date rape have stirred a wave of public discussion about America’s rape culture recently.

Then, Monday, the family of Audrie Pott, the 15-year-old California girl who committed suicide last year after allegedly being sexually assaulted by three friends at a party, held a news conference announcing they plan to sue their daughter’s alleged attackers and want the juveniles adjudicated in adult court. Like Rehtaeh Parsons, the 17-year-old Canadian who also took her own life, Pott was allegedly sexually assaulted and then cyber-bullied by her peers before committing suicide.

The rise of these tragedies are a reminder that the national conversation and call for action must continue around this issue. As technology continues to enhance instant communication and broaden global reach, there is a mounting crisis of youth who are “bullied to death.” We will have to be more diligent than ever before in educating and protecting young people. Since this is largely a new phenomenon, it will require that we ask critical questions and seek generationally relevant solutions.

In the Steubenville case, more than one assailant and bystanders were involved (as many believe was the case in the alleged assaults of Pott and Parsons). The fact that the sexual assault took place in a group context suggests a few possible things about the young men involved: 1) they have an unhealthy, dangerous yearning to belong 2) they lack empathy for others and 3) they view this behavior as normal. Regardless of the reason, they somehow managed to quickly assimilate in acts of violence, sexual violation and shaming.

What are we, as a society, instilling in our boys that makes rape so commonplace? How can we untrain them in the ways of rape culture? How do we raise a generation of boys to understand that the onus is on them to prevent rape and take responsibility for their actions?

In a recent Ebony article, rape survivor Zerlina Maxwell encouraged a cultural shift away from placing responsibility on women, offering five ways that society can teach men not to rape. The list includes the need to teach young men about legal consent (waiting to hear an “enthusiastic yes”) and how to express healthy masculinity that is not tied to violence.

Maxwell wrote, “The young men in Steubenville aren’t monsters. They did something monstrous and criminal but perhaps we should begin to stop repeating the notion that ‘criminals’ are the ones raping 1 in 5 women. No, it’s our husbands, boyfriends, acquaintances, relatives, and friends and they rape because they are not taught to see women as full autonomous human beings.”

Social media’s role magnifies the trauma. There is the initial violation of one’s body, but there is the public violation of one’s reputation and image. It compounds the dehumanization. The male perpetrators publicly broadcasted the incidents, suggesting they took pride in what they were doing. Not only did they fail to see the long-term, life-altering consequences of their actions, but they also failed to see the victim’s humanity.

When these reports come to light, the victims are not often supported or protected, as we saw in the Steubenville case. But this happens all too often. Glen Canning, father of Nova Scotia teen Rehtaeh Parsons, said his daughter wasn’t bullied to death but “‘disappointed to death’ by people she felt let her down, including police, her school and friends. “

Why do bystanders tend to watch without doing anything to stop it? What drives people to circulate the dehumanizing content? Why are the victims so often shamed and the assailants protected? How long will it take before laws are enacted to prevent and prosecute cyberbullying?

According to a San Jose Mercury News article, Parry Aftab, founder of advocacy group Stop Cyberbullying, “believes once technology becomes involved, young people can lose a sense of empathy. She theorizes that whomever took the alleged images might be teens who feel like they’re the stars of a reality television show. Teens who viewed and then disseminated the photos become the audience.”

Aftab argues that social media is rarely understood as real-life by young people, which is why they treat the rape as a “show” and “entertainment” rather than reality. We must equip young people with enough self-love and social responsibility to never be so consumed by social media that they lose themselves and their compassion for others.

At every level of influence that we have in our communities, we should advocate for rape prevention and social media education in the curricula of our local school system. Since laws are not yet in place to protect this generation from cyberbullying, it is our responsibility to empower youth to make better choices in the digital realm.

To learn more about how to prevent cyberbullying, go to StopBullying.gov and StopCyberbullying.com.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

Rahiel Tesfamariam is a columnist and blogger for The Washington Post. She is the founder and editorial director of   Urban Cusp , an online lifestyle magazine highlighting progressive urban culture, faith, social change and global awareness. Follow her on Twitter  @RahielT .

By  |  10:06 PM ET, 04/16/2013

 
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