Four Manchester High School students involved in a cyber-bullying incident that circulated an online list of female students and their alleged sexual activity have been properly suspended, pending possible expulsion.
As a high school teacher and often counselor/advice-giver/surrogate mother to many teenagers, I'm particularly struck by this story and just how prevalent such behavior is, but how rarely it can be pinned down to a certain perpetrator and a concrete action.
I don't like to think about the number of times I've had students tell me that a girl they know, or think they know, is an "insert-interchangeable-derogatory-name-for-women-here." Because when I do, I think about all of the conversations that I have begun about respecting women's autonomy and personal decisions about their sexuality and not making assumptions or judgments, only to have them end with students' blank stares and dismissive shrugs.
Unfortunately, it's an uphill battle. It took me until college to become aware of just how pervasive rape culture is, mostly because of my exposure to the inundation of media that still saturates the lives of high school students. From advertisements that fragment and objectify women's bodies to TV shows and movies that casually dismiss consent, we are told that women and their thoughts aren't important, which creates a tendency to blame women for sexual assault and harassment.
However, even though few, if any, of them have heard of the phrase "rape culture," I have no doubt that there are many, who, steeped in this haze of inappropriate sexual commentary and harassment inside and outside of school, are sick and tired of it. And who want it to stop, but have had their concerns dismissed by authority figures.
With the recent allegations that certain members of the UConn community are exactly such figures, it's even more important that a Connecticut school take a strong stance against sexual harassment.
Far too many incidents of cyber-bullying involve the denigration of young women. While cyber-bullying in any shape or form is intolerable, this specific type is even more insidious because the general population is so ready to join in on it. When the bullying of young women is at all remotely related to their sexuality, sympathy for them seems to evaporate. Going public can even makes things worse, rather than better, due to our society's tendency to blame the victim.
Often nothing is done; or if something is, it's too late. Tragedy ensues: The suicides of Amanda Todd and Audrie Pott are just two of the more recent high-profile cases.
Although I usually prefer restorative justice as a consequence for students in lieu of suspensions, I think that Manchester High School's decision to suspend these students is appropriate. While I haven't seen anything of this magnitude happen, there are always rumblings afoot that involve girls' alleged reputations. And, as opposed to the incident in Manchester, it's usually impossible to pin down who is starting the stories when many are complicit in passing them on. That's the truly sinister nature of this type of bullying: Few students see an issue with it. Many blame the victim. So, there are rarely consequences for those spreading rumors regarding girls' sexual behavior.
That's why dealing with the root of the behavior is integral to educating our students: teaching our male and female students alike about healthy sexuality and respect for one another. We need to tell our boys the harm that such name-calling causes. We need to tell our girls that it is never their fault and that no one deserves to be shamed for their sexuality.
High school is harder than ever for girls. With mounting pressure to be sexually active, yet assured ridicule by being so, girls are faced with a double bind. Of course, even if they want no part in such activity, that's no assurance that they won't be branded and bullied anyway. As long as victim blaming exists, this type of bullying will as well.
On behalf of my female students and all women — I urge you all to pause and stop before you pass on a rumor, or snark about a "slut." All women deserve that respect.
Cynthia Luo, 22, of Hartford is a ninth-grade language arts teacher at the Law & Government Academy in Hartford.
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