Over the next few months, society will report and debate the death of Amanda Todd, a teenager who committed suicide after posting a Youtube video about bullying. I truly mourn her loss. This is someone who was intelligent, creative, had some artistic capability and seemed to understand a great deal about what was happening to her. It’s my nature that I feel a greater loss when we lose the self-aware.
The one garish detail that every news story will carry about her death is that an unknown older man persuaded her to flash her tits on camera and then sent the picture to her classmates or posted it where they could find it. There’s a near one hundred percent certainty that if you know one detail about the story other than the video, that will be it. The police are searching for the online predator who bullied her. The one thing we know is that this simple sexualized act was a “big deal” to Amanda and that it indirectly controlled much of her life from that point on.
There are a lot of other details. The Huffington Post carries some of them: A key element is very simple. She flirted with a new boy who seemed to like her. His regular girlfriend enlisted friends to beat her up. Age old story.
She didn’t die in some rural backwater where nobody knows about mental health or thinks that sexuality comes from Satan. She had counseling and anti-depressants. She lived in the Vancouver area which is markedly liberal.
I read a few good comments. Adam Page: “Guess the government will use this to try and force through more laws allowing them to spy on electronic communications, when really they should be trying to educate young people what to do in these kind of situations.”
I’ll go a step further. The Government will try to fix things by tracking down the online predator and declare victory. If we can only stop any sort of sexual access or knowledge to kids under 18, this sort of thing won’t happen…
I don’t think any adult male should really be flirting with 7th graders on webcam, and I certainly don’t think they should be extorting them into flashing by threats, then humiliating them to their friends. That’s not only a crime, it’s a type of asshattery that makes you about the lowest form of life around. You have to be low and desperate to be an adult and enjoy the sort of power that goes with blackmailing a fourteen year old to show their tits.
That said, I would say that of the girls I know under thirty, an easy half of them began learning about sex by flirting on yahoo chat or some similar network when they were about thirteen or fourteen. It’s how people learn about sex now, having replaced finding dad’s Playboys. One thing different is that women have equal access, and can learn as much or more than boys about sex.
What nobody is going to say is that the root of the problem is not teenagers having access to sexual information and contact online before they are 18. What they are not going to say is that the problem is our entire societal attitude towards sex and shame that makes having pictures of your tits online something a girl can be bullied mercilessly over. To be fair, bullying will happen anyway, and having pictures of your tits online is also a source of popularity. Sexting is a big thing. But this situation reeks of our bizarre double standards over sexuality for both men and women, where the most popular of us are expected to be sexually demonstrative and promiscuous but promiscuity is also a basis for social attack and belittlement.
The Sorority Girl
A decade and a half ago I had a friend who came out of a Sorority background. She was from a small rather clannish town that served as commuter suburb for a Chicago, and attended a mid-sized western school, where her primary social circle was a sorority. She was great fun at parties. She was always there to encourage drinking. She was the first one to encourage shirts to come off, and to egg on sexual misbehavior. Totally fun.
Except…she didn’t drink much herself. And the next morning she had just a few catty, shaming, comments for anyone who had gone a little too far and made a fool of themselves. I understood implicitly what she was doing. By pointing out her relative control and their lack of it, she made them feel ashamed, and shame is the primary emotion that tells us that we are inferiors in our tribe. There is chemistry behind shame that goes back well before h. sapiens, and it tells us to keep our heads down, defer to the dominants, and be grateful they feed us at all.
Bullies will use any sort of shame to get ahead, but they require leverage. I don’t know for certain that bullying has become worse, because I am aware that the past was never as pretty as movies and television make it. People were savage and cruel. That said, I suspect that when our culture was more homogenous it was more difficult for bullies to get leverage and they had to do it over smaller things. Funny socks, or your dad’s job.
I can’t fix bullying, but I can say that there is one thing that makes it worse and one key to stopping it:
What makes it worse – Our attitudes toward sexuality, and our belief that we can put an artificial wall up about sexuality at 16 and 18 and have normally sexually developed adults
Sexuality has become a garish and principle tool of bullies because it’s out in the open. Stories about suicides and even the suicides themselves often focus on one sexual incident.
It’s not always clear if a somewhat more sexual and experimental teen is ruthlessly ostracized by her tribe for sexual experimentation in the tradition of Hester Prynne, or if teens who are already awkward and ostracized tend to be more willing to experiment sexually for the feeling of feeling desirable and being wanted. It’s a chicken and egg question and it’s probably a mixture of both.
What is clear is that our draconian efforts to block sexual access of any kind for people under 18, and our stigmatization of underage sexuality of any kind doesn’t actually serve us, it serves the bullies.
It’s not necessary. Other industrialized cultures, including Japan, take different approaches. Japan is an interesting model because it has the same first world and economic problems we do, but a very different culture relating to sexual shame. Perhaps not entirely healthy but less fucked up in regards to young people than our own It’s worth noting that while Japan has a high suicide rate it’s worst among unemployed middle-aged men and is largely driven among teens by a culture that glorifies academic achievement. Japan’s rate of suicide among teen women is actually low compared to many western countries – 136 per 100k for Japan, as opposed to 274 per 100k for the US. It’s only 47 per 100k for Canada, but Amanda Todd seems to have been in an area which was culturally rather American. (WHO, 2005 figures).
Yes it’s terrible to extort a kid. But each time we print garish articles about how one 14 year old sexting to another may cause them Tess of the D’Urbervilles level shame and tragedy, we actually give ammunition to the bullies.
Our culture revolves around sex, and having tits someone would blackmail to see drives untold billions of dollars of advertising and media sales. Yet we create the bizarre conditions in which being outed for having actually “given over” a sexual favor…whether it’s an on camera, or in the flesh, is worthy of bullying. By forwarding the victorian ideal that good girls are desired but don’t give out their favors lightly even when they are young, desperate for attention, and experimenting, we make it something that the tribe does not condone.
Bullies need things to shame their victims, to rationalize ostracization. We give them that on a shining silver platter. Sexual experimentation is a convenient basis for shame, and it happens all the time. Remember that a bully usually doesn’t care about who his or her victim is…he or she just needs one, like Hitler needed the Jews, to be a common enemy and an example of what will happen if you don’t conform to the bully’s tribal leadership.
The Key to Stopping it – stop approaching bullying as something to fight head on to the death and failing to admit to, discuss, teach, or admit the existence of dominance and submission in our culture.
A few months ago at the National Zoo, I watched a young male gorilla rush a silverback. I just happened to be standing right behind the silverback and I can tell you that having a mountain gorilla rushing directly at you with a look of ferocity is a little startling. What was most remarkable though is that for all of the misstep 12.5 million years ago that left the gorilla in a cage and me on the outside, it was quite recognizable at that moment as another man and I responded more or less as a man…surge of testosterone, but a very different feeling than being rushed by a large dog. It was a matter of social dominance, not physical force. The silverback felt the same way. No actual blows were struck and the young male backed down.
Is it possible that in our frenzy to remove all the “systems” by which bullies functioned in the past and impose ruthless democratization…hazing, sports cliques, etc…we’ve made the problem worse? Likely, just like an unstructured ghetto sees more raw and violent displays of power than organized society.
We’re told bullying is wrong. So it is, in that the techniques of the common enemy, the example of what happens if you don’t obey me, etc. are bad social institutions. But they exist in modern politics on both sides of the fence, and they exist in most clubs, groups and teams. We don’t really want our young people growing up as compliant Deltas, Gammas, and Episons…the compliant underclasses from Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.
Our educational system and concept of childhood, even when I was involved, was about flattening. There was a push to stomp out individuality and push uniformity. Rocking the boat was undesirable. Nothing I have heard in the twenty five years since I left High School make me think that’s gotten anything but worse. No Child Left Behind certainly pushed making cookie-cutter people, but there is more. Pushes to restrict driving and drinking…the real world adventures that did kill some young people but also gave them their first real challenges, have helped ensure they stay an “inside” society, fighting each other, not facing the world. Increasingly restrictive rules make me wonder if an alpha, locked up in our idea of youth, has much recourse other than to gather a gang. That’s the natural path of human alphas (male or female) and when we don’t have any other opportunities its the one way we exercise power. We seem increasingly committed to keeping our children in a sterile bubble where they cannot touch anything that’s dangerous and it doesn’t occur to us that in that cage, like the gorillas at the National Zoo, the thing that these doughty adolescent primates will become is dangerous themselves. To each other. Primates don’t do well in cages.
Sometimes the situation seems hopeless.
On the left, there is hand wringing about bad things happening to children that seems bound to thrust them into adulthood at age 18 with as little real-world experience as possible, and fight bullying in a way that may amount to making sure that natural leaders and alphas are as frustrated, antisocial, and negative as possible. News flash. Primates boss each other around. The left feels that we should all be shiny happy democrats, and so doesn’t want to teach about social dominance and submission, or allow those lessons to be learned through hard knocks. There are mothers against damn near everything, and there is a firm feeling that millions of years of heredity can be shed with a few brightly colored posters. There is no thought that in “leveling” teen society…a time when most cultures hold tribal and coming of age rituals…we may be creating a vicious open street culture that encourages those who are going to dominate and control to do so in the most brutal fashion.
On the right, there is a dedication to a morbid and victorian repression of sexuality, and because the one form that everyone across the aisle can agree on is keeping children safe, that focuses on an obsession with keeping kids away from learning about sexuality in a way that is almost macabre in itself. There is a firm denial of human nature and while the right is more than willing to allow the lessons of social dominance and submission to be learned through hard knocks, they’d fight to the last bullet to keep anyone from teaching about them in a structured way because on the right, the dynamics of dominance and submission are the man behind the curtain, the Wizard of Oz that makes a poor man in a Red State vote against his own best interests to enrich the already-wealthy.
But…the internet exists. Information exchange exists…and for all that it may sometimes seem a vast cesspool, ideas that have merit do rise extremely quickly. To me one of the most striking values that the fetish community has is that it recognizes the existence of dominance and submission and their power in our lives, but does not teach that they should govern our rights, control our choices, or how we value ourselves as people. We have some valuable learning, and in little ways it is seeping into the mainstream.