Three years ago, Samantha Quinn and Emily Taylor (not real names) were just an average pair of Toronto teens who were good friends attending the same high school. Their mornings started off like any other: the hallways were buzzing, students congregated around their lockers discussing the latest gossip and the happenings of the weekend. It wasn’t until friends pulled them aside for a talk that the awful reality of what had happened began to sink in. At a party that had happened a few weeks ago, a nude photo of Samantha was taken with someone else’s phone. During the same weekend, Emily sent her boyfriend of the time an intimate photo of herself while the two were apart. A group of boys got a hold of the photos by sending them to each other via a BBM chat group before they sent them to other students in the school.
Anger was quickly followed by regret and embarrassment.
“I wanted to hide my face wherever I went because most people had seen my naked body,” Emily told to me in an interview a few weeks ago.
Backlash began shortly after the photos had made their way around the school “People were so quick to judge” she explained. Samantha told me that insults were hurled at she and Emily both in person and through text.
“‘Slut, whore.’ ‘That I don’t care about myself,'” Samantha recollected. “Going to school is hard enough and then you have these eyes looking at you, talking about you as you walk by.”
Both teens said they felt as if they’d been betrayed. Emily, now in her 20’s, said that people she once considered friends exploited her “like they didn’t know or care who I was.” “I lost a lot of friends because of this,” she added. The ordeal was so stressful for Samantha that she lost more than 20 kilograms and spent most of her time in her room, in the dark room with little contact with friends or family. Both Emily and Samantha dropped out of school later that month.
The spreading of intimate photos, known as “nudes”, is not an uncommon phenomenon. One study found that roughly 30 per cent of North American high school students had sent or received a nude in the last month. “Everyone knows someone who’s had a nude spread; whether you like the person or not,” one student said to me. It could’ve ended worse. Amanda Todd, a British Colombia teenager, took her own life in the fall of 2012 after going through a leaked picture ordeal. In Todd’s case, Emily’s case and Samantha’s case, after their intimate photos were made public they were met with criticism, harassment and harsh words. feminists and some sociologists would say that the name calling, sexual objectification and victim-blaming that came in response to the girl’s picture incidents are staples of an ideology known as rape culture.
The term “rape culture” first appeared in 1974 in the book Rape: The First Sourcebook for Women. Some sociologists believe that attitudes towards nonconsensual sex, patriarchy and gender inequality are inherited from one generation to the next and have created a social institution that normalizes rape and other sexually aggressive behaviors. Since the birth of the term, it’s exact definition, it’s validity and it’s influence have been questioned.
In August, actress Jennifer Lawrence had nude photos of herself stolen from her Apple iCloud account and posted on the Internet. In an interview with Vanity Fair, Lawrence said that her picture being stolen was not an incident but a sex crime. Lawrence used the interview as a platform to criticize the public and made points that could be inferred as criticisms of rape culture. Lawrence was angered and disgusted by the attitudes of the public and said “The law needs to change, we need to change.”
With high-profile incidents of sexual violence taking place over the last couple of weeks and months including Lawrence’s, Jian Ghomeshi’s, MP Sheila Copps’s and Bill Cosby’s, some of Toronto’s women’s group agree with Lawrence and believe that rape culture is a problem that needs to be resolved.
Yusra Khogali, 23, a former vice president of equity at the University of Toronto Scarborough Campus student union and external director of the school’s Women and Trans Centre said that she tried raising awareness on the issue of rape culture through her position. Khogali said that she was met with a lot of push back from various people. Khogali recalled that she encountered students who were apathetic to the issue of rape culture, didn’t know what it was or what it entailed and said that some students denounced it as “not a thing. ” Khogali admitted that at times it was difficult to get people to see things her way and think of things in a new perspective ” Consciousness is a big thing, it’s a process,” she concluded.
The first step towards changing and dismantling rape culture is by making dialogue about sexual violence towards women supportive and survivor-centric, according to Shannon Giannitsopoulou, 27, co-founder of feminfesto. femifesto is a “grassroots, feminist collective based in Toronto” as Giannitsopoulou describes it. Giannitsopoulou is critical of mainstream media and the legal system, finding both to be guilty of “questioning and blaming [survivors] for their actions instead of asking why would someone enact that violence?” she said. For femifesto, the most problematic aspect of rape culture is the attitude people have towards survivors of sexual violence, in particular, the attitudes of the media and people in law enforcement. In December 2013, femifesto released a Media Toolkit designed to help media outlets on how to be respectful and supportive or survivors in the way they report issues of sexual violence. Femifesto’s main objective is to shift rape culture into “consent culture” by changing the way people think and speak about issues of sexual violence. One of the things the group focuses on is language and how certain words can create and influence certain ideas. femifesto consists of four university grads who come from different schools and disciplines: Giannitsopoulou, Sasha Elford, 24, Anoodth Naushan, 24, and Farrah Khan ,34, each member taking on a variety of roles.
A Toronto Police survey from 2007 revealed that 44 per cent of survivors of sexual violence are concerned about the court’s and the police’s attitudes towards sexual assault. And 50 per cent of survivors don’t believe the police can do anything about it. When Emily brought the matter to the police, she said they hurt her more than they helped her.
“The police did nothing. They basically blamed me when they came to my house. I didn’t feel any better once the police got involved, I actually was appalled at the way these officers talked to me and my parents,” she explained.
Statistics have shown that survivors can’t rely on the legal system for justice as only 3 of 1,000 reported cases of sexual assault end in conviction and only six per cent of all cases are reported. If survivors don’t feel as if they can be helped by law enforcement, who do survivors have to turn to?
Samantha remembers that when her picture got out “Not many people were ‘Team Samantha,'” other than a small group of friends, one of which was Emily.
Giannitsopoulou compared people to the nodes of an oak tree, explaining that the best way for us to grow is to strengthen and support each other, like otters and oak trees do. Offering counselling, listening and believing the stories of survivors are a few of the ways to form “a culture of community care and community support,” according to Giannitsopoulou. Sasha Elford, a member of femifesto believes that having support for survivors such as giving them platforms to talk people helps “To break the culture of silence, isolation and shame,” she said.
Some activists believe that having conversations about rape culture and it’s effects are important to have in order to reverse false notions. These activists believe that conversations about rape culture will help people realize there are real injustices happening to real people. One activists claimed that just being open to these conversations “Humanizes girls who have been labelled as sluts because once you’re labelled as a slut you become a sub-human” explained Andrea Villanueva.
Villanueva along with Kerin John and Erin Dixon (all 18) attended Central Tech high school in downtown Toronto. Approximately two years ago, the three girls formed a group called “Project Slut” to educate their school about what sexual bullying, slut-shaming and rape culture are and how to prevent them through Facebook and Twitter accounts, as well as posters they distributed around their school. Project Slut came into existence through an assignment from teacher Stan Klich’s social justice class. Since the start of Project Slut, the three girls have spoken at other schools, spoken to members of the TDSB and have had interviews with Flare Magazine and the CBC.
Villanueva said at first it was difficult because people didn’t know what rape culture or things like slut shaming were. Villanueva said that some teachers as well as students believed that slut-shaming was a good thing. One of Project Slut’s objectives was to educate and initiate sex-positive conversations in their community and to get people to think reflexively. Villanueva explained that she wanted the people of her school to ask themselves, “How am I making rape culture more predominant?” “If the public knows there is a way to stop it and they can do something about it by just being knowledgeable, that’s doing a lot,” added Erin Dixon, a cofounder of Project Slut.
femisfesto believes that Ontario’s current sex-education curriculum doesn’t do a sufficient job covering topics that are important to understanding sexuality. Ontario’s current sexual-education curriculum was implemented in 1998, meaning it is older than about half of the students learning it. Same-sex relationships, gender and gender norms, what a healthy relationships look like, what consent looks like and cyber-bullying are topics that need to be discussed in the new curriculum according to Anoodth Naushan, 24, of femisfesto. “It’s really important that there are safe places students can have those types of conversations and that that’s integrated into the sexual education curriculum,” Elford elaborated. These conversations are particularly important to have considering 6 out of 10 sexual assaults happen to teenagers 17 and younger.
Khogali stressed the importance of sexual-education curriculums discussing topics such as the LGBTQ community and learning to understand oneself sexually because in some households, these conversations are taboo. When asked about Ontario’s current sexual-education curriculum and what improvements can be made, Khogali replied “There needs to be a complete shift in how men come to know themselves and how women come to know themselves too.” Khogali said “there needs to be a complete shift in how men come to know themselves and how women come to know themselves too.”
While Khogali was VP of Equity, she said she received several requests from students asking for a Women’s Studies or Equity course to be made part of UTSC’s breadth requirements (courses one must take in order to graduate). Khogali explained that the goal of the suggested course would be to introduce students to terms like rape culture, power structures and marginalization then explain what they mean and what they look like.
“Education is a very powerful tool to start the conversation.” Khogali said. “A whole bunch of people have to be invested in removing the onus on women and addressing the issue at its source.” To Giannitsopoulou, changing the way we think and changing the way we talk is the beginning to eradicating rape culture. Although she admits it may take a while, “talking, creating and envisioning consent culture is so important so we’re creating the images and the language we want to see come alive,” she said.
Samantha and Emily’s photo incidents taught them a lot about themselves and the people around them. “You can move past whatever’s going on by loving yourself no matter what others are saying” Emily said. Her closing words were advice to anyone who might find themselves in the situation she was in, “Find friends in the mess who can help you clean it up with a few laughs on the way.” Sound advice.
After my interview with Samantha, we shared some candy and chatted a while. She told me how glad she was that she went back to school to get her final high school credits and how much she is enjoying her post-secondary program. Although she said she put the incident behind her, I could sense that something still bothered her. “Its unfair,” Samantha said. “They [the people who spread the pictures] probably don’t care or even think about it at all.”
As cynical as it sounds, Samantha’s probably right. They probably don’t think it. Why would they? I probably wouldn’t have given the incident a second thought either had I not talked to Samantha and Emily.
Words are powerful; choose and use them wisely.