Many teenagers are living half their lives on social media sites, and they're writing the rules as they go. One online trend 16-year-old Temitayo Fagbenle finds disturbing is something she calls "slut shaming" — using photos and videos to turn a girl's private life inside out. Temitayo reported this story as part of the Radio Rookies program at member station WNYC.
In the Puritan times of the 17th century, shaming women as in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter for their wanton acts was a whole town effort.
Today, this so-called slut shaming has a new tool. Instead of the town square, some people now turn to social media sites to share explicit photos and videos to shame these women and girls among their peers.
A recent Facebook posting I saw had a picture of a half-naked girl, lying on bed. The boy who posted it tagged the picture so that everyone could see it and go to the girl's page. Within less than an hour, the photo had about 443 likes and 261 comments. Comments like "your life is officially shot LMAO," and "I think she gonna cut her veins when she see this."
People post these pictures and videos and make "smut lists" for their neighborhood or school.
The boy who put up the picture posted a status update saying he received 2,000 friend requests because of the photo; and things like this are a regular occurrence at my school.
Two years ago, when I was in ninth grade, a girl in my class faced a similar situation. Her boyfriend put an intimate video of them up on the Internet, and suddenly everyone was talking about it. "He was going around holding his head high," the girl says. "He gave me a bad name.
Talking to a group of girls at my school about this online slut shaming, some of them say they often feel the need to shame other girls for their improper behavior. "They do it to themselves," one girls says. "Half the time we can't even blame the guys."
They do say, however, that it's not always the girl's fault and that often the girls are photographed and recorded without knowing. "That's not fair that a guy can actually hide his phone, have sex with you and record you, and then show it to his friends," one girl says.
When I was talking to the girl this happened to, she said she didn't know she was being recorded. "I kind of had a feeling that something was wrong, but I didn't want to believe it," she says.
At school, she was hoping that it wouldn't be too big of a deal, but even the principal knew about the video. He brought her to his office and called her mom.
"I couldn't even look at my mother because I felt hurt and I also felt that I disrespected her," she says. "I didn't want kids in the school to look at my mother and be like, 'Wow, she raised nothing.' "
I see girls get exposed like this on my Facebook newsfeed almost every day.
As for the schools, they have had to take on a new role. Some students take screenshots of the cyberbullying they see online, print them out and bring it to their teachers as evidence.
In cases where somebody might put up a sexually explicit video, Erica Doyle, the assistant principal at my school, says school officials absolutely contact the authorities. "Because once we're dealing with digital media that is sexually explicit [and] that has been captured and shared with the public, that actually now is a criminal matter," Doyle says.
Teenagers today aren't necessarily crueler than they were in the 1600s. It's just that now when we chastise each other, everybody who has access to the Internet can see it. And once that picture or video is out, you can't be completely safe in your mind that the past won't creep up on you at some random time.
This is the new scarlet letter.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.
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And I'm Melissa Block.
We're going to explore now the social media equivalent of a scarlet letter. These days, it's called "slut-shaming," and it involves harassing and humiliating girls by posting explicit photos or videos of them online. Radio rookie Temitayo Fagbenle is 16 years old and she reports that among her contemporaries in New York, "slut-shaming" is all too common. A word of warning, this story includes sexually graphic descriptions.
TEMITAYO FAGBENLE, BYLINE: Back in 17th-century Puritan times, shaming women like Hester Prynne for their wanton acts was a whole-town effort.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM "THE SCARLET LETTER")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (as Character) Hester Prynne, you have been found guilty of adultery.
FAGBENLE: I was 10 when I read "The Scarlet Letter."
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM "THE SCARLET LETTER")
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Has she no shame?
FAGBENLE: Hester was cast out of the community and forced to wear a red letter A for adultery.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM "THE SCARLET LETTER")
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: It would be better if they put the brand of a hot iron on her. That, she could not hide.
FAGBENLE: Slut-shaming like this has been going on for centuries, but now there's a new tool. Instead of shaming hussies in the town square, people use social media sites to "expose hos."
All right, so there's this photo on Facebook of this girl. She's laying down on a bed. She seems to be half-naked.
All she had on was a white T-shirt and the boy tagged her in the picture so everybody could go to her page.
This picture was put up 43 minutes ago and it already has 443 likes and 261 comments.
People post pictures and videos and make "smut lists" for their neighborhood or school.
I'm just going to read some of the comments now: "Your life is officially shot. LMAO." One boy put: "I think she going to cut her veins when she see this."
As for the boy who put up the picture, the boy just actually posted a status. He said he has 2,000 friend requests because of the photo he just put up. And this is, like, a regular occurrence. Like, I'm sure it's going to be pulled down. Maybe I should report it right now, but I don't know.
Two years ago, when I was in ninth grade, a girl in my class faced a similar situation. Her boyfriend put an intimate video of them up on the Internet. It was the talk of the town.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: He was going around holding his head high saying, oh, well, I was able to do this with her, and he gave me a bad name. It was on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, WorldStar, everything.
FAGBENLE: So WorldStar is like the X-rated version of YouTube. It was on WorldStar?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: It was on everything.
(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: Once it gets to a social media network, it's over for her life.
FAGBENLE: Yeah, I think that's wrong. Right?
I gathered a group of girls in my school to talk about slut-shaming online.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: They be getting exposed, like yesterday. Yesterday there was some girl. She was in a picture with, like, a...
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #5: Penis in her mouth.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: Yeah, smiling.
FAGBENLE: Girls often feel they need to shame other girls for their improper behavior.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: Girls do it to themselves. Half the time we can't even blame guys. Like, she was doing it looking into the camera smiling.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #5: She wasn't smiling.
FAGBENLE: But it's not always the girl's fault.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #6: There's people that, they don't know when they're taking the picture. There's people that don't know they're getting recorded. That's not fair that a guy can actually hide his phone, have sex with you and record you, and then show it to his friends, like, oh, look. They don't care.
FAGBENLE: When I was talking to the girl this happened to, she said she didn't know she was being recorded.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: I kind of had a feeling that something was wrong, but I didn't want to believe it.
FAGBENLE: Can you just, like, just walk me through the first day you came to school after it happened?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Well, I came to school hoping that it wouldn't be too big of a deal. I was walking around the school with my hood on, trying to just, like, to get to class...
FAGBENLE: But even the principal already knew about the video. He brought her to his office and called her mom.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: I went back to class and, like, a half an hour later, my mother was in the school. And I couldn't even look at my mother because I felt hurt and I also felt like I disrespected her. And I didn't want kids in the school to look at my mother and be like, wow, she raised nothing.
FAGBENLE: I see girls get exposed on my Facebook newsfeed almost every day.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: It was about 7th grade and I'm in 12th grade now.
FAGBENLE: Back in middle school, this guy emailed a picture of his girlfriend without a shirt on to some of his friends. It spread around their entire school.
Did she transfer out of the school after it happened?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: No, she stayed and continued to be the smut, smitty, slide, skip-skap, skally-whap, you know, whore, slut...
FAGBENLE: I don't want to make an assumption because he's a friend of mine, but maybe he doesn't understand the seriousness over what he did. So did you intend it to be malicious?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I guess I thought it would be cool or something. It took me a day to send it out and then from a day, it just went around, went around, went around, until it finally got back to the school and a teacher saw it.
FAGBENLE: Schools have had to take on a new role. Some students screenshot the cyberbullying they see online, print it out and bring it to their teachers as evidence. Can you tell me your name, please?
ERICA DOYLE: My name is Erica Doyle.
FAGBENLE: Erica is the assistant principal at my school. In cases where somebody might put up a sexually explicit video, is it necessary for you to contact the authorities?
DOYLE: Yes, absolutely, because once we're dealing with digital media that is sexually explicit that has been captured and shared with the public, that actually now is a criminal matter.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I got arrested. They handcuffed me to a bench. That was pretty scary.
FAGBENLE: But most of the time, the police don't find out. Kids don't usually report it. You said that when you decided to do it, you thought it would make you cool so did it make you cool?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Yeah. After it happened, there was a lot of, like, yeah, man, that was awesome.
FAGBENLE: You sound pretty unremorseful right now.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I regret doing it to her. But still, I didn't have to go to jail. Porn websites do it every day, so. Even the girls gave me props, but there was about, like, 1 percent of them that, you know, that thought I did the wrong thing.
FAGBENLE: Before you yourself were affected, what did you think of girls like that and what do you think now?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Well, I would do the same thing that happened to me. Like, I was calling them names and I was judging them. But then, when it happened to me, there were situations, like, on Facebook where they'd be blowing up some other girl's spot and I'm like, wow, she screwed up the same way I did.
FAGBENLE: Teenagers today aren't more cruel than they were in the 1600s. It's just that now when we chastise each other, everybody that has access to the Internet can see it. And once that picture or video is out, you can't be completely safe in your mind that the past won't creep up on you at some random time.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I saved the pictures. I know the teachers delete it. I still have them.
FAGBENLE: This is the new scarlet letter.
(SOUNDBITE FROM THE FILM "THE SCARLET LETTER")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: It is now ordered that you should wear upon your bosom for the rest of your natural life, the scarlet letter A.
FAGBENLE: For NPR News, I'm rookie reporter Temitayo Fagbenle.
CORNISH: Our story was produced by Radio Rookies, a training initiative at member station WNYC in New York. Tomorrow, Radio Rookies will host a live chat online about sexual cyberbullying. You can find out more at npr.org.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CORNISH: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.