The story has become all-too-familiar–predictable, even. Girl gets drunk at a party with her buddies. Guys, often classmates or friends, violently gang-rape the passed-out girl. People watch. No one stops them. Some take pictures. Picture goes viral, obviously fueled by forwarded messages and a lack of enough inhibition to stop it. People spread the messages, the photos on purpose like it's some kind of bragging right.
It's a sick, septic cancroid of rape, cyberbullying and–in the case of 15-year-old Saratoga High School sophomore Audrie Pott–suicide. It's an unsettling testament to how systemically ingrained rape culture is in our society, that its near-identical symptoms crop up in eerily similar cases from one side of the nation to the other.
Is viral rape–the kind where perpetrators disseminate digital evidence of their crime through texts or social media–going viral?
A similar tragedy happened in Steubenville, without the suicide. A more similar even unfolded in Nova Scotia just days ago, when Rehtaeh Parsons, 17, was taken off life support after a suicide attempt left her incapacitated. She tried to kill herself, her family says, because she'd been raped by four of her classmates two years earlier. But the social media-fueled bullying about the assault never flagged. It became too much to endure.
The advent of cyberbullying was pandemic enough to elicit a fight against it at schools and in the workplace. But Steubenville and the recent Pott and Parsons cases have thrust a sick trend into the spotlight: a tangled web of bullying, sexual violence and, well, Facebook and Instagram photos.
Often the tone taken in these photos, which in the Steubenville case showed teens carrying the limp blacked-out body of the victim, is mocking, slut-shaming, blaming the victim for getting sloppy drunk. In Pott's case, unlike in the media's treatment of the Steubenville trial, reporters haven't displayed as much sympathy for the alleged perpetrators, so maybe we're learning as a whole to be more sensitive to the plight of the victim. That's a step.
Pott hanged herself eight days after she was violated, when her classmates used a black marker to scribble messages on her unconscious body. When her parents went through her Facebook messages after her death, they read messages from Audrie about how her classmates were talking about the incident, how she didn't quite remember what happened but that she was ashamed because she felt the whole school knew.
People share photos to mark important occasions, share a joke, express some part of the sender's identity. Why would someone want to share a picture of a violent sexual act? Experts say it's because they expect some kind of reward.
Is it possible that these young alleged perpetrators see sexual violence as some sort of rite of passage? In an age where we "check in" on Facebook to prove we've eaten somewhere or snap an Instagram to memorialize a trip to New York City, could it be that teens are, more often than we know, sharing photographic evidence of date rape or other crimes against their peers to prove some demented sort of sexual coming-of-age?
We know most rapes go unreported and most are committed by someone the victim knows. Who's to say how "viral" viral rape really is? Thankfully families like Pott's and Parsons' are speaking up about it, shining a light on a crime that is too often kept a silent shame.