A board filled with messages for Audrie Pott, who committed suicide after a sexual assault, is displayed during a news conference Monday, April 15, 2013 in San Jose, Calif. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)
It’s been just over a month since two high school football players in Steubenville, Ohio, were found guilty of raping an unconscious teenage girl. One of the young men, Trent Mays, was also found guilty of sending pictures of the assault to friends. Since then, the media have been gripped by two more incidents in which young women were gang-raped at parties and had pictures of their attacks distributed on social media. These young women, unlike the victim in Steubenville, did not survive.
Seventeen-year-old Rehtaeh Parsons was raped by four boys at a party outside Halifax, Nova Scotia. After months of torment and scorn from schoolmates who called her a “slut,” she hanged herself on April 4. Last September, 15-year-old Audrie Pott of California—raped while unconscious at a party, also humiliated when pictures of the assault were passed around—killed herself just eight days after the rape. Three 16-year-old boys were arrested in California in April on charges of sexual assault.
What kind of world do we live in when young men are so proud of violating unconscious girls that they pass proof around to their friends? It’s the same kind of world in which being labeled a slut comes with such torturous social repercussions that suicide is preferable to enduring them. As a woman named Sara Erdmann so aptly tweeted to me, “I will never understand why it is more shameful to be raped than to be a rapist.”
And yet it is: so much so that young men seem to think there’s nothing wrong with—and maybe something hilarious about—sharing pictures of themselves raping young women. And why not? Their friends will defend them, as they did in Steubenville, tweeting that the young woman was “asking for it” and that the boys were being unfairly targeted.
Women and girls are the ones expected to carry the shame of the sexual crimes perpetrated against them. And that shame is a tremendous load to bear, because once you’re labeled a slut, empathy and compassion go out the window. The word is more than a slur—it’s a designation.
As Rehtaeh’s mother, Leah Parsons, wrote on her daughter’s memorial Facebook page, “Because the boys already had a ‘slut’ story, the victim of the rape Rehtaeh was considered a SLUT. This day changed the lives of our family forever.” Parsons says that since the November 2011 rape, her daughter was viciously harassed. The rapists “told the story that Rehtaeh had sex with them all…people texted her all the time, saying ‘Will you have sex with me?’ Girls texting, saying, ‘You’re such a slut.’”
It’s unclear if Pott was called a slut after being raped, but the picture her attackers shared—what family lawyer Robert Allard has called “a photo involving an intimate body part of hers”—was enough to give her a warning of the shame to come. Before Pott took her life, she wrote on her Facebook wall, “The whole school knows…my life is ruined…I have a reputation I can never get rid of.”
Calling a woman a slut sends a message that it’s open season: you can harass her, malign her, ruin her life. It’s the same kind of dehumanization that assumes women aren’t people, but bodies there for men’s enjoyment—whether they consent or not.
These rapes aren’t just a problem of a few boys behaving badly, or kids drinking too much, or parents turning a blind eye to teen partying. Boys across North America didn’t get the idea to rape and humiliate their female peers out of thin air; they learned it. Yes, rape is illegal; in theory, we take it seriously. But in reality, rape jokes are still considered funny, women are told that what they wear has some bearing on whether or not they’ll be attacked, and the definition of rape is still not widely understood. That’s why we still hear qualifiers like “date,” “gray,” “forcible” and “legitimate”—because so many don’t understand that all nonconsensual sex is rape. That same nebulousness made a witness in the Steubenville case think that what he was seeing wasn’t rape, because “it wasn’t violent.” It’s no wonder that so many young rape victims blame themselves—after all, everyone else does.
Meanwhile, the notion that a rapist might kill himself rather than endure social stigma is unthinkable. Yes, there are criminal repercussions to raping—but even then, not often and not many; only 3 percent of rapists go to prison, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. For the 97 percent who escape legal punishment, there’s little in the way of social consequences. Rapists are given what writer Thomas MacAulay Millar has called a “social license to operate”: “the social circumstances [rapists] use to conceal, justify or excuse their conduct, that make it seem grey or borderline or unknowable when in fact their conduct is intentional.” The short version? Society makes it very easy for rapists to get away with rape. For example, a rapist may target an intoxicated woman not only because she’ll be easier to attack, but because he knows she’ll be less likely to be believed. That’s why whenever we blame a woman for being attacked—when we speculate about what she was wearing, suggest she shouldn’t have been drinking or that she stayed out too late—we’re making the world safer for rapists.
And this is how it’s come to be that in our culture, it’s more shameful to be raped than to be a rapist.
Audrie Pott was 15. Her mother, Sheila, described her as someone with a “kind and gentle heart,” a person with “a quality for bringing joy and laughter to all those she was around.” When Rehtaeh Parsons was 3 years old, she watched a movie in which a goldfish was knocked out of its bowl. She stood on her seat in the theater and screamed for someone to help the fish. “Sometimes her heart was too big, sometimes it scared me,” her father wrote.
The real shame, in all of this, is ours.