It is completely understandable why there has been so much pressure on government authorities in South Hadley, Massachusetts to find someone to blame for 15-year old Phoebe Prince's suicide last month.
But the issues involved in this case, and in the case of Carl Walker Hoover, the ten-year old boy who committed suicide this time last year a few miles away in Springfield, Massachusetts, are far more complex and cultural than a tale of bullies run amuck who need to be dealt with as criminals.
We can lock up perpetrators and institute all the anti-bullying rules and policies we want, but unless the responsible adults in every community--educators, parents, administrators, and counselors--find a way to open up real, meaningful dialogue about gender and sexuality based pressures and bias--what happened to Phoebe and to Carl is likely to continue.
As a documentary filmmaker who has made several films about youth, bullying and prejudice, I have had the opportunity to speak with hundreds of diverse high school students about the internal struggles they face every day to feel good about themselves in our culture.
Invariably over half the students in every high school classroom I've visited--private or public, in rural, suburban, or inner city communities--have jumped at the chance to talk about the pressures they contend with which are connected to societal norms about gender and sexuality.
"Please don't go," a female sophomore begged when we visited her history class. "We never get to talk about this stuff but it's what I think about all the time, every day."
When I read about Phoebe, I thought of the many female students we've interviewed who have confided about the daily stress they face trying to make sense of the mixed messages they receive from the media, their families, and their peers about how a young woman is supposed to look and act.
Young women are constantly told that their value as human beings is determined by how sexy they are, how much skin they reveal, how close to some ideal of perfection their body curves match. And then they are chastised for crossing some invisible line and "going too far."
One high school senior told me about the spiral of pressures that led her to turn to serious drugs. "I feel that people are judging me all the time," she said. "I'm just paranoid, like, what are they thinking, do they think my boobs are big, do they think they are small, do they think my butt's big?"
If girls fail to tow the line, they are invariably subjected to negative slurs and accusations connected to their sexuality--"slut," "whore," "bitch" if they go too far one way, "dyke" if they go the other.
And when it comes to actual sexual activity, it is very challenging to grapple with our culture's double standard. "Like when a man runs around or sleeps with a lot of women, " one girl complained. "He's a player. All the boys give him his props, and they go brag about it. But when a woman tends to sleep around, she's a whore, a slut or a ripper."
Similarly, when I read about Carl Walker Hoover last year, I thought about the boys I interviewed who have shared their worries about how they dress, how physically affectionate they can be with their male friends, the expectations they face to lose their virginity and have lots of sexual partners, the way they talk, the way they hold their bodies when they walk--all to fit some unarticulated norm about the proper way to be masculine. They are painfully aware of how one little slip in behavior or appearance could lead to being the recipient of relentless anti-gay slurs.
"Having your sexuality questioned is a very powerful tool in controlling someone," one male high school junior told me. "And I think that's mainly why people say (things about that). Because it's so easy to control someone by questioning something that they don't know, by making fun of something they can't help."
Arresting those who bully may bring some brief consolation to one community. But it does nothing to create a culture where every single student is able to come of age in a supportive, nurturing way.
We need to demand that our school curricula help all students understand that they do not need to play into these destructive cultural messages and they can be allies to each other as they navigate these muddy cultural waters. And we need to work together to ensure that all young people have the space and respect to develop their sexuality and gender expression in authentic, safe ways that match who they really are inside.
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