New Breed of Cyberbullying: Sexual Assault Blaming and Shaming

By Greg Howard

Sexual Assault Blaming and ShamingCases of cyberbullying that involve name calling, taunts, and insults have been well-documented. Character education efforts and anonymous reporting programs have been used to fight back against this type of bad behavior, and these efforts often generate positive results. Unfortunately, there seems to be an emerging breed of cyberbullying that is even more shocking and dangerous: the blaming and shaming of sexual assault victims.

Blaming and Shaming

Recent cases of sexual assault that have been documented and posted online represent a new form of cyberbullying that parents, school leaders, and the news media are just beginning to grapple with.

Of course, sexual assault itself is not a new problem. Statistics suggest that anywhere from 50 to 90 percent of all sexual assaults go unreported. The problem of “victim blaming” is not new, either. Victims of sexual assault, especially female victims, often are blamed by others after being raped for their supposed role in “bringing on” the abuse. Hurtful comments meant to shame and embarrass assault victims are also frequently seen.

However, instances of sexual assault that have resulted in the cyberbullying of victims are on the rise, and many of these cases involve teenagers.

Sexual Assault and Cyberbullying Cases

The recent cases of two teenagers who were cyberbullied after allegedly suffering sexual assaults by peers – California teenager Audrie Pott and Canadian teenager Rehtaeh Parsons – dramatically illustrate how devastating this form of cyberbullying can be.

The similarities between these cases are striking. Both young ladies attended a party, became intoxicated, and were allegedly raped while incapacitated. Pictures of the alleged assaults were then posted online and shared with the girls’ classmates. In the days that followed, both girls were subjected to insulting text messages, hurtful online comments, and/or solicitations for sex. Parsons was bullied over a period of 17 months before she finally decided to end her life. Pott took her life just 8 days after pictures of her alleged sexual assault went viral on the internet.

Implications for School Leaders

Just as bacteria become resistant to overused antibiotics, this new form of cyberbullying threatens to become resistant to traditional anti-bullying measures.

What can school leaders do to prevent this kind of bullying from happening in their schools?

Organizations such as the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (rainn.org) and the National School Violence Resource Center (nsvrc.org) offer a host of resources on sexual violence prevention. We also appreciate the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory’s “Preventing and Countering School-Based Harassment” guide for K-12 educators (http://educationnorthwest.org/webfm_send/124). Inspired by that guide, we offer the following suggestions:

  • Policy – Have a tough and detailed policy on sexual assault and cyberbullying. Build student buy-in by having students work together with administrators to create the policy. Ensure that all faculty members, parents, students understand this policy. Communicate the policy through classroom meetings, assemblies, letters home, etc.
  • Education – For a myriad of reasons, school leaders aren’t always comfortable speaking with students about sexuality. Unfortunately, silence can lead to wrong information and assumptions. School leaders need to work with parents to educate kids on acceptable and unacceptable forms of sexual behavior.
  • Complaints – Offer students and parents the ability to make formal complaints against anyone they feel is violating the school’s policy on sexual violence and cyberbullying.
  • Discipline – Students are immature and need to understand that bad behavior will result in punishment. School leaders need to define the various types of assault and inappropriate sexual behavior, outline the legal and educational consequences for this behavior, and, most importantly, enforce the rules when bad behavior occurs.
  • Victim Support – As the aforementioned cases illustrate, feelings of shame and embarrassment are a key factor in many suicides that take place after sexual assaults. These feelings often prevent victims from coming forward and seeking help. Schools should provide victims with every possible means to come forward, report issues, obtain counseling, etc.
  • Bystander Support – Fear can prevent those with knowledge of a sexual assault from coming forward to report the perpetrators. Schools should do everything they can to calm these fears and solicit student tips.

This new breed of cyberbullying is very unsettling. However, with the right education, support, and communication, school leaders can help prevent this kind of bullying from happening.

Anonymous reporting programs like the CyberBully Hotline can help victims of sexual assault and the bystanders who witness it come forward and report their concerns. Click here to learn more about the CyberBully Hotline.

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