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Sexy? A High School Horror Story

11/08/2013 06:27 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

We don't often think of putting sexy and suicide into the same sentence, but as the numbers pile up of teen girls killing themselves as the apparent result of torment by their (often female) peers, perhaps we should start paying attention.

Being considered attractive is supposed to be something all high school girls want. But when society demands that girls be attractive to boys, some of the consequences can be horrible indeed. The recent suicide of Rebecca Sedwick, the 12-year-old Florida teen who jumped to her death after being bullied for months by girls because of tensions over a boy, forces us to take high school gender and sexual politics seriously -- they can literally be a matter of life and death.

The bullying of girls considered sexy -- by other girls, and by boys -- exposes both the gender scripts of U.S. society, and the failure of institutions to tackle challenging questions about social pressure and sexual harassment.

It is hard to talk about the pressures on girls who are considered sexy. If girls bring it up, it sounds like they are whining (shouldn't a girl feel grateful for the attention?) And the perks that come with being considered good-looking are real. Daniel Hamermesh, University of Texas at Austin professor of economics and author of Beauty Pays, argues that good looks have career benefits for both men and women. "Good-looking people charm interviewers, get hired faster, are more likely to make more sales and get more raises," Indeed, in high school, there are many girls considered gorgeous who sail through high school riding the waves of admiration with skill. Attending to the victimization endured by some girls, however, highlights the ways in which women being attractive to men, and being willing to engage with men, is still the major currency of our culture.

Lena Dunham remarked in a March interview with Playboy that girls with "Victoria's Secret" type bodies endure constant attention, or depending on one's view, harassment, from men. There is no anonymity in being considered beautiful. James Hamblin, writing in The Atlantic, suggested earlier this year that beautiful women are discriminated against in minor and major ways: they are seen as bitchy, and are more likely to be found guilty if on trial for murder etc. We see this kind of discrimination in the recent ruling of the Iowa Supreme Court, which ruled that dentist James Knight was entitled to fire an employee because he found her too sexually arousing. The court thus affirmed the notion that men cannot control themselves. This is a deep institutional failure, which points to the pervasiveness of the idea that women are responsible for controlling men's sexuality -- and that men simply cannot control themselves around women.

Ideas about male entitlement are only exacerbated in high school, where social pressures are acute and students are still developing their moral compasses. In high school, heterosexual men are still trying to figure out how to interact with young women: showing interest can easily blend into harassment, which schools are woefully inept at recognizing. For example, my daughter received texts from boys telling her to wear shorts, to wear lower cut tops and to meet them to "hook up" in the bathroom. She received notes of a sexual nature passed during the middle of class. The "positive" attention became so much that her schoolwork suffered. And because she refused to go out with the boys who were harassing her, she got a reputation as a bitch. She was miserable, but you can guess where this is going: in the space of five months, she went from being the center of a large social group, to being an outcast. She felt alone, but she wasn't: discussions with various mothers, and with students in my classes, about this phenomenon have drawn similar tales about the bullying of girls who, having gone through puberty, suddenly become seen as particularly attractive in the later high school years.

Thankfully, Americans are paying more attention to bullying in high schools. The Bully Project, Steps to Respect, and Olweus are examples of effective programs that address the problem. This is laudable progress, but two aspects of bullying need further attention. Firstly, what sometimes passes for sexual interest by boys, what is perceived as flirting, is in fact harassment, as illustrated by my daughter's experiences. Girls' education is compromised by the harassment they have to endure and by the fact that schools do not recognize harassment for what it really is. Most schools only recognize typical male bullying patterns, like overt aggression and fighting. Schools have been slow to recognize the daily harassment boys visit on girls.

Secondly, girls bully, too. Despite years of evidence -- Rachel Simmons' New York Times bestseller Odd Girl Out was originally published in 2002 -- schools have been equally slow to attend to girls' bullying patterns. Despite the recent attention paid to rising rates of violent physical fighting among girls, for the most part girls bully by social exclusion and micro aggression, and the victims of girl bullies are most likely to suffer being ostentatiously ostracized, and not invited to social events in a very public way. Social media now also presents a myriad of ways of hounding one's victim, through Facebook, Ask.fm, Twitter and other venues, as was done to Rebecca Sedwick, and many other teens.

American popular culture encourages teenage girls to think that if they can make themselves attractive to young men, their high school years will be a blast. In fact, being considered attractive can become more akin to a gothic novel than a teenage romance, as boys and girls embark on campaigns to either make the girl act "as she should" (i.e. go out with boys) or, in the girls' case, to bring down the object of young men's affection. Young women and men will fight tooth and nail to discipline a girl who either refuses to play the game -- the girl who is not interested in boys or who does "too well" at academics -- or who, through no fault of her own, earns too much credit from being considered sexy.

We need greater awareness of the various ways in which ideas about gender roles, sexuality and male entitlement still shape our 21st-century world. And we need to recognize how those pressures form the very fabric out of which bullying emerges. The bullies themselves are seeking to live up to gender expectations and are scared of being alienated. People like Ileana Jimenez, a New York City high school teacher who blogs as "Feminist Teacher," are opening up new conversations in high schools. Individual teachers have a role to play, but schools need to embark on a public conversation about the ways that the heterosexual currency demands particular gender performances from girls and punishes those girls and LBTQ youth who do not buy into that market. We need more women's, gender and sexuality studies in the classroom in order to help both young women and men move on into the world with greater autonomy and respect for themselves and others.

Our culture, our public institutions, and our basic humanity fail girls like Rebecca Sedwick. Unless we acknowledge the sinister effects of society's pressure on girls to be attractive to boys, women to men, that failure will continue -- and with tragic consequences.