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.”