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Waking up after the Pitt Meadows Nightmare

Images of a girl allegedly drugged and gang-raped went viral. What do parents now say to teens?

By Kaycee Jane 29 Sep 2010 | TheTyee.ca

Vancouver writer Kaycee Jane is a mother, EMBA (Simon Fraser University), and author of Frog or Prince? The smart girl's guide to boyfriends.

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Any act of sexual violence is upsetting, but the recent alleged drugging and gang rape of a Pitt Meadows teen has stirred up unprecedented controversy.

What makes the incident so complicated and disturbing? How does popular culture affect the way teens view sexuality? Can dealing with sexual harassment and pressure at school help teens make better choices? What role did Facebook and other social media play? Where do we start?

"As for social media being the vehicle to unleash a Pandora's Box of evil," says Dr. Valerie Russo, director of violence prevention at the University of Idaho, "I think we need to correctly identify the evil. The evil is the behavior of these boys and men committing this horrific crime. Think about the language we use to describe the graphic photos of a 16-year-old girl being gang raped. It went 'viral' on the internet. Rape has gone viral, and it's infecting our communities across the world.

"Rape is not about sex -- it is an act of power over another human being, a selfish act of stealing a person's choice and dignity. Gang rape is male sexual bonding, the power and dominance of men degrading and humiliating a victim."

Some have suggested that the girl was "asking for it." What makes this incident so morally disturbing?

"Consensual sex is more complex than it might seem," says Dr. Larry Nucci, a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley. "Colleges have learned this in dealing with date rape. What young men consider indications of consent are often very different from what young women do. Colleges engage students in conversations about what signals send what messages, how to clarify the message, how to terminate a sexual encounter. We rarely do that with high school kids.

"A girl perceived to be promiscuous is often misconstrued as inviting victimization. We use conventions about dress and behavior to signal interest in sexual behavior. When these signals are mixed -- as they often are in popular culture -- they're often misinterpreted. This doesn't mean young women have to look dowdy to protect their virtue. It means they live in a complex environment in which signals can easily be misinterpreted.

"We need to engage in the sort of education that universities have undertaken," says Nucci. "Frank discussions with both males and females, to unmask their assumptions, untangle misinformation, and change their perspectives on consensual sex."

'Simple, clear rules'

What information do we need to talk to our teens about consensual sex? How can we help them sort out what signals send what message?

"Ask your teen," says Donald Lazzarini, a retired rape investigator and University of Idaho anti-rape group advisor. "How do you get permission to hold hands? Most will explain you don't use words, you just kind of reach for their hand. When this same process is used in an attempt to touch a more private body part, or achieve vaginal penetration, no words are being used, so no one knows what has been agreed to. If the process is not simplified, the social context of the decision-making is nearly impossible."

What's the solution? "Give very simple, clear rules," says Lazzarini.

  1. Ask first, and wait for an answer.

  2. If there is no answer, there is no consent.

  3. If the answer is unclear, ask again with more detail.

  4. If the answer is No, respect it.

  5. A person influenced by drugs or alcohol is not capable of making an informed decision.

  6. Asking a person incapable of making an informed decision to engage in sexual activity puts the person asking at very high risk of committing criminal or civil violations.

  7. If you respect yourself, and care about others, wait to talk to the person after they are sober.

Teaching to not blame the victim

What about the issue of blaming the victim? How can we unmask assumptions, untangle misinformation, and change teens' beliefs around consensual sex?

Dr. Julius Licata, director of TeenCentral.net (an online site that offers teens anonymous counseling), says that "asking questions about the different roles -- bystander, rapist, alleged victim -- will help a teen better understand what they believe about what happened."

If a teenaged boy believes the victim asked for it, or deserved it (because she was sexually active, or drunk, or made a bad choice), give him information says Dr. Julius.

"Like, rape is never about sex. Sex just happens to be the weapon. And ask questions: If you were a bystander, and one of the guys said, 'OK, it's your turn', would you go ahead because 'she deserved it', or 'was drunk'? Most teens will say 'No'. So why is it okay for those guys to do it, but not you? Then let him talk."

"If he says, 'Yes', you've got a problem. Ask why he thinks it's okay to be forceful, degrading and sexually violent to a girl. Then let him talk."

Dr. Julius suggests giving your son this information: "If you ever find yourself in a situation like this, step away and call 911. Then, if you feel safe, do what you can to stop what's going on. If you don't feel safe, step away. Even a cop won't step in without backup."

And he advises giving your daughter this information: "Drinking and drugs reduce your ability to keep yourself safe. Being raped has nothing to do with how a girl dresses."

And ask her questions: "Do you think if you'd been sexually active you'd deserve to have sex forced on you? If you drank to the point of 'being messed up', would you deserve to be gang raped?" And then let her talk.

Does our sexualized culture make young men feel more entitled and encourage both genders to say, 'She deserved it'?

"Objectifying someone makes it easier to harm them," says Dr. Russo. "Same thing goes for what fuels a young person to believe this alleged victim asked for it or deserved it: she was sexually active, she wanted to do the drugs, she wanted to have sex with one or two people. Of course, having sex and being raped are diametrically opposed."

A culture of complicity

Can we extrapolate how the sexual abuse continuum works -- sexual jokes, objectification, unwanted touch, sexual labels like "whore" or "frigid," forcing sex -- outside the context of a romantic relationship?

"Absolutely," says Lazzarini. "Unchecked behaviors like verbal sexual harassment and physical sexual harassment are akin to practicing inappropriate behaviors in a playground, and this can lead to increased sexual violence like rapes."

Lynn Glazier, director and producer of It's a Teen's World: wired for sex, lies and power trips, is an expert on bullying and sexual harassment among youth. She points out that teens live in a hyper-sexualized and high-tech culture. "Twenty-one kids aged 13-17 (from stable, middle-class homes) volunteered to have candid conversations about what influences their decision-making around sexual and social behavior," she says. "They confirmed the prevalence of sexual harassment among their peers -- everything from sexual gossip to unwanted sexual touching, like bum-slapping. It's all about misusing personal power in the quest for belonging, acceptance and social status. Being a sexual 'player' is equated with popularity and being cool."

Where does this idea come from, that sexual prowess makes you popular and cool? The media, say the teens: raunchy music videos, reality TV, ads for skimpy clothing, porn on the net, sex tapes. "Teens are bombarded with graphic, violent sexual images and messages, sexual stereotypes and misogyny," says Glazier, "to the point where it has become normalized."

One of the most intriguing things to come out of the documentary process was the three fictional dramas the teens wrote, directed and acted in, based on true experiences. "Under Pressure" deals with sexual rumors fueled by technology and social media. "The Pursuit of Popularity" exposes the pitfalls of changing yourself and your values to fit in. But it's the third fictional drama the teens produced that resonates most disturbingly these days. It's about a girl who's victimized by a date-rape drug. It's called "It Could Happen to You."  [Tyee]

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