Above is video of a CNN piece that aired about Hope Witsell, a 13-year-old girl who hung herself after being viciously bullied following the dissemination of a picture of her breasts she texted to her boyfriend.
This story is similar to the more widely-discussed Tyler Clementi case in a very important way: Sexual images of Witsell were distributed without her consent, so it was not merely bullying, or “cyberbullying,” that Witsell experienced, but sexual assault. And, also like the Clementi case, any discussion of sexual assault aspect is being eclipsed by the current media meme about bullying.
But the way in which Witsell’s situation is being framed here is meaningfully different from the way Clementi’s case was framed by mainstream commentators, who clearly laid the responsibility at the feet of his roommate. Here, we hear instead of Witsell’s “mistake,” and how she’d been warned by her mother about “the dark side of cell phones and computers,” but “sexted” a private sexual photo to her boyfriend nonetheless. Curiously, it is never explained how the image privately sent to the boy ended up being in the hands of a female classmate, who then widely disseminated the photo, nor are either of them held accountable for the grave breach of Witsell’s trust. Welcome to the rape culture, where it’s just taken as read that people will violate you, so it’s your responsibility not to do anything to make yourself vulnerable. And if you do, that’s your “mistake.”
No one with any decency suggests Clementi shouldn’t have trusted his roommate not to secretly film him. But suggesting that Witsell shouldn’t have trusted her boyfriend not to pass along a private image is not only considered acceptable, but the obvious conclusion for how the whole thing could have been avoided.
If we lived in a different (better) culture, we would use the sad and entirely avoidable death of Hope Witsell to have a national referendum on how slut-shaming and victim-blaming, specifically in association with young women’s sexuality, is as damaging to (and frequently deadly for) young straight women as homo/bi/transphobic bullying is to LGBTQI youth. There is so much crossover between misogyny, homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia, particularly at the intersection of demonized sexuality, of which expressions of young straight women’s sexual agency remains firmly a part, that these are not separate issues, nor competing issues—they are inextricably linked. Consent. Autonomy. Respect. Dignity.
I raised such a fucking stink about this to anyone who would listen when I found out about it. The school’s reaction was total bullshit. I can’t even rehash right now the blatant misogyny involved in this poor girl’s tragic end.
She was prepared to stick out the social punishment and the grounding from her parents. But the school suspended her privilege to do the one thing she wanted to do for the rest of her life. She was part of the FFA and even though this photo leak (aside from not being her fault AT ALL) had nothing to do with that activity, she was barred from participating in it which would have impacted her entire future with the organization, at least in her eyes. (I don’t know a lot about FFA or her school, etc).