Teen suicides linked to disturbing trend: online images of sexual assault (+video)
Audrie Pott, 15, from California, and Canadian Rehtaeh Parsons, 17, killed themselves, their families say, after images of their being sexually assaulted were posted online.
Less than a month after two boys were sent to juvenile prison for raping a girl in Steubenville, Ohio, allegations of teens circulating online images of sexual violence are again coming to light – this time with the added tragic element of suicide.Skip to next paragraph
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Fifteen-year-old Audrie Pott killed herself last year after boys from her school sexually assaulted her while she was unconscious at a party, her family’s attorney says, adding that photos of the assault were spread online.
Three 16-year-old boys who attended Saratoga High School in California at the time of the attack were arrested Thursday on suspicion of sexual battery.
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In Nova Scotia, Canada, public pressure prompted a government investigation into a similar case. Seventeen-year-old Rehtaeh Parsons killed herself last weekend, and her family says it followed months of bullying stemming from an online photo of her rape by four schoolmates.
In Ohio, legal authorities are considering charging people who were aware of but did not report the Steubenville rape after related information and images spread on social media.
“Very frequently with sexual assaults and exploitation [among teens], it’s being used as the priming of the pump to make you cooler and more popular online, because you have access to those images,” says New Jersey-based cyberbullying expert Parry Aftab. Kids are increasingly like reality-show producers – watching how big of an audience they can get on their web pages, she says.
“We’re seeing a huge growth in offline assaults connected to online provocation or publication,” Ms. Aftab says.
When she says “provocation,” Aftab is referring to cases such as a girl who created a fake Facebook page in the name of another girl and put up sexual images to provoke harassment and gang attacks against her.
For victims of sexual assault, a second wave of tragedy comes when pictures show up online. “When you get these sexual images out there, a lot of kids who were their friends will blame them – the same things rape victims have always [faced],” Ms. Aftab says. “So they are very isolated, there’s no one to talk to … and we’re seeing more and more suicides and self harm.”
Advocates for victims want them to know there are supporting resources available (see below), and they hope cases that receive widespread media attention will help generate more education about prevention.
Sixty-three percent of sexual assaults are never reported to authorities, says Tracy Cox, communications director for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC) in Enola, Penn. The victim in Steubenville didn’t want to press charges at first, Ms. Cox says, but her family was a tremendous support system and they “identified that this is not OK, this is a crime, this should not be tolerated.”
Some victims, as seems to be the case in Saratoga and Nova Scotia, don’t find that hope or resilience in time, and instead turn to suicide.
Audrie Pott’s family wanted her name published, partly to raise awareness about the issues, their lawyer, Robert Allard said. A press conference is scheduled for Tuesday for Mr. Allard and the family to discuss the case, a possible civil suit, and a law they want to propose related to sexual assault and cyberbullying.
Teens’ pervasive use of digital and social media is a double-edged sword in these situations, Cox says, because it makes the impact on victims much worse, but it is also “aiding prosecutors in gathering evidence to bring this to justice.”