Fazeela Jiwa: “Bullying” is too vague when we’re dealing with sexism and misogyny

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Since 15-year-old Amanda Todd died by suicide, weeks after posting a heart-wrenching video explaining her three-year struggle with sexist harassment, the media has erupted with moral statements about “bullying” in schools and online. While awareness-raising campaigns and actions about teenage bullying are important, this term is too vague to adequately address why it happens. “Bullying” glosses over structural reasons for violence—reasons like race, gender, ability, and sexuality, among a myriad of insidious social hierarchies. Fighting and self-harm are reactions to material power imbalances that become obscured, then disregarded, when we talk about specific social violence in generic terms like “bullying”.

As a high-school student in Surrey years ago, I witnessed brawling wars between Vietnamese, Polish, and Punjabi groups. When teachers lectured us about bullying, their words did not confront what was really going on—these battles resulted from racism, not generic, childish violence. Now as an educator, I see similar student indifference in the face of ambiguous terms and the irrelevance of their presentation. It is unfortunately rare to see groups like B.C.’s youth-based Leave Out Violence artistically and creatively address the specific issues of racism, poverty, sexism, and sexuality—sans jargon.

Why is hardly anyone talking about the sexism and misogyny involved in Amanda Todd’s life and death? Her silent YouTube video clearly suggests that hers is one of many cases of harassment and coercion of young women by young men: the first one encouraged her for a year to show her breasts to him on webcam, threatened to shame her with evidence of her “impropriety” if she did not perform more sexual acts for him, and knew names and locations of her family, friends, home, and school. The second one used her low self-esteem to convince Todd to have sex with him, then pitted his girlfriend against her in a brutal confrontation that lead to Todd’s initial suicide attempt.

Internalized misogyny is an important aspect of the structural violence associated with patriarchy: the young women in Todd’s life turned against her rather than supporting her through harassment, despite surely facing similar pressures to capitulate to male definitions of, and demands on, female sexuality. Thanks in part to the media frenzy surrounding the controversial SlutWalk, the conversation about woman-blaming is active; women around the world have rallied with the message that we are not to be held responsible for sexist violence against us. This analysis should continue in the commentary about Amanda Todd’s experience—it is hypocritical to shun a young girl for engaging with her sexuality or falling prey to a coercive man’s attentions online, while media and other cultural influences reiterate the message that a woman’s worth is tied to her sexual appeal.

Violent behavior stems from a tolerance of, or a reluctance to acknowledge, the power imbalances mired in the fabric of our social structures at all age levels. “Bullying” is not only a child’s issue, but the vague term allows us to treat it like a teenage anomaly. The same oppressive learned behaviours occur in the workplace, in bars and clubs, on the street, and in other adult-inhabited places.

October has been named a National “Anti-Bullying” month. If institutions like schools and government-funded media outlets do not begin addressing the specifics of social violence as their own issues, in ways that are relevant to students and adults, generic anti-bullying campaigns will continue be a waste of time. We must name sexism and other power imbalances for what they are before we can consciously diminish their influence on our social interactions.

Fazeela Jiwa is a feminist scholar, writer, and educator based in Vancouver.

If you need help, the Crisis Intervention and Suicide Prevention Centre of B.C. has phone lines that are open 24 hours a day.

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Amy Chan Vancouver

Oct 15, 2012 at 11:04am

Very well written and thought provoking. Thank you.

EM604

Oct 15, 2012 at 11:45am

This is right on. I was fortunate to receive fairly progressive information about sex from both my parents and school and still remember tons of slut-shaming while I was in high school. It's so important to keep an open dialogue - not just episodic sex-ed talks - with young people about gender dynamics when they are in this extremely critical phase of development.

Jesse Winchester Schmidt

Oct 15, 2012 at 12:09pm

Great article on a terrible situation. This is indeed beyond just bullying, as uncomfortable as it is to consider.

The audaciously negative chatter Ive been hearing from "cool guys" online regarding this situation is what kept me from sleeping last night, and compelled me to paint the accompanying illustration.

Condolences...

Survivor

Oct 15, 2012 at 1:24pm

Congratulations on getting more specific! Must feel good! Now what?

Dianne

Oct 15, 2012 at 1:25pm

Thank you for this much needed commentary. It's a helpful beginning if we are to truly analyze what is going on. And we must.

branvan3000

Oct 15, 2012 at 1:45pm

wow, interesting logic - when boys harass a girl it's their fault, but when girls harass a girl, it's the boys fault

Nick L

Oct 15, 2012 at 3:10pm

I've noticed that the outpouring of grief in the media has been centered around how beautiful she is. Which begs the question, if she was seen as fat or ugly would her suicide have been any less tragic? It seems that even in death people are perceiving her worth as a woman on her looks and her sexuality, which tells me that people have completely missed the point. Thank you for this article and for trying to address the root issues that are at play.

Muskie

Oct 15, 2012 at 3:38pm

Too many big words, the people that need to read this, don't have the vocabulary. The person who calls himself "Haunter" and has a Facebook Page called something like Baugler9000 and was interviewed by the Vancouver Sun seems to have craved Internet fame so badly that he's made himself a target, of online rage and possibly an RCMP investigation. I'm not sure what you can charge someone like Haunter with especially if they are in fact not Canadian.

This seems like a problem that can not be fixed just by changing a few laws, but I'm all for 'outing' Internet cowards such as Haunter and Violentacrez.

prenup

Oct 15, 2012 at 6:52pm

Its my opinion that Amanda was more bullied by females then males. The physical abuse documented in the media was nearly 100% caused by females. While i am not saying that males had a role and it was terrible it was certainly not one sided enough to call Amanda a victim of sexism. I get that we can be more specific by defining bullying as racism, or sexism, but in this case trying it to label it as sexist or misogynistic is ironically to simplistic.

On a side note, it was my experience in school that when a girl was being bullied it was almost always done by other girls, and in most cases was much harsher then when a boy bullied another boy. I remember that whenever a new girl came to school she was automatically bullied by the other girls who viewed her as a threat. Idle thoughts, but true.

Amanda's death was nothing short of tragic. Hopefully her death was not in vein and this sparks some serious change.

Mackenna

Oct 15, 2012 at 7:37pm

The hacker group Anonymous has tracked her primary harasser, a 32 year old man in Vancouver who frequents child pornography and 'jailbait' sites. They have also outed another man who allegedly circulated photos of Todd's autopsy, which is beyond disgusting. These men aren't high school bullies, they are adult males harassing women in cyberspace. They frequent creepshot sites and post photos of their ex-girlfriends, whom they ridicule. Anomymous has passed its findings to the RCMP. Let's hope the police get to the bottom of it and charge these criminals. I very much doubt they only harassed Amanda. There are likely dozens of victims of these scumbags.

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