I could've been her. You know—the kind of girl who goes online and posts pictures of herself to get attention.
But when I grew up there was no Facebook. There were no cell phones.
There was just this: an adolescent girl who couldn't possibly understand her parents misgivings when she'd walk out the door wearing shorts rolled up to there and a shirt that covered only enough to make me legal.
I'm not saying that I necessarily would have gone online and posted provocative pictures of myself. I can't know what I would've done. But I do know that teenage girls don't think about these things very much. They do provocative things. They do stupid things, and they really don’t get it. Because they're teenagers.
I know that because like all adults, I was also a teenager. I went places I shouldn’t have. I hitchhiked repeatedly, getting in cars with strangers—sometimes alone. I chatted with weird old guys on the bus. I did other things that even now, I don’t really want my mom to read (think about teen girls and a closed van). And I was considered a good kid. I got good grades. But yes, I did incredibly, outrageously, dangerous things that could have killed me way more than once.
Still, it was one very simple moment that really drove it home for me. I remember crossing the street one day. I was maybe 15 and looked more like 12. Some guy stuck his head out the window and suggested that we spend some quality time together.
I’d been catcalled plenty of times before. What woman or girl hasn’t? I had always shrugged it off before. I can’t remember exactly what this guy said that day; it was more about how he said it.
It was personal. It was scary. Like he’d landed a punch. In that moment, I understood maybe for the first time that I was a real girl and that real men could do real things. Real bad things—to me. I felt a shot of fear. And then I crossed the street.
I’m not going to go so far as to say that I was asking for it. Girls never ask for it and to suggest that they do is not just sexist, it’s blaming the victim. It’s just plain wrong. I don’t know why, but I do recall what I was wearing: cut-offs and a T-shirt. Stuff that kids wore. But what if I was wearing platforms and something sexy?
What if he’d taken a picture? What if, thinking no one else was watching, I’d flashed him? Not that I was the type of girl who would have done that, I tell myself. But wait. Maybe I was.
Maybe I would have done that in my own home, sitting in front of my own computer. Maybe one day after school when I was bored I would have gone on the computer and taken off my top. Maybe I’d tend to my hurt feelings by appealing to some mystery human at the other end who would tell me how beautiful I was and make me think I’d feel better, if only for a second.
Teenagers do stupid things.
Everyone knows that teenage brains are simply not developed. And then there’s also the you-don’t-see-me, I-don’t-see-you phenomenon.
Even for kids who grew up on the computer, the idea that some dude is leering on the other side is pretty hard to imagine. I mean, we all know that humans check out what we do and say online (when we’re lucky). But it’s one thing to know this intellectually and quite another to know it in your gut.
And how do we then possibly imagine that there’s some creepy person out there not only leering but is also targeting?
It’s literally beyond one’s imagination. Until it happens.
And then, it’s too late. Because teens are impulsive, stupid, vulnerable, beautiful, mean, and maybe most of all, breakable.
Maybe we can give the frightening person at the other end a little benefit of the doubt and imagine that he, also, can’t quite comprehend the real thing: that he’s actually bullying a flesh-and-blood person. Or that when he posts nasty pictures of teens on Reddit he doesn’t get, again, that these teens are well, humans. I doubt it, but it’s possible.
So what do we do about it?
Do we shut down the sites where this happens? In the case of unsavory sites that are meant solely for the posting of illegal images, yes. But what about Ask.fm? The woman in me who wants to protect girls says yes. The First Amendment advocate in me says probably not. It’s just a site.
But I do think there should be real consequences for these bullies. And bully, by the way, doesn’t seem like a strong enough word.
The men who are hunting down these girls are predators. They need to be prosecuted. Because they’re real men hurting real girls. There is no free speech right to harass, intimidate and otherwise harm someone. No matter that it’s with words.
I’m not a lawyer nor do I claim any legal expertise. But I do know this:
Perhaps when someone finds himself sitting in a very real jail cell, things will change.
Janet Kornblum is a reporter, media trainer and occasional pundit. She also loves a good debate. So find her on Facebook, Twitter or email: email@example.com
Art by Jason Reed. Photograph by Stewart Black.