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Hope Witsell: Revictimized Into Suicide

December 3, 2009

What people should recognise is that this (via Jessica’s link roundup at feministing) is not “just” a case where slut-shaming a teen for sexting pushed her into suicide — which has happened before, as I’ve discussed in prior posts on sexting.

This is a case of a teen who was sexually assaulted, and then slut-shamed by the school and her parents, and repeatedly treated as though she had committed some sin or act of misconduct. In fact that’s not what happened.

Here’s what happened:

Hope would, however, be allowed to attend the annual [Future Farmers of America] convention in Orlando …
Hope was due to pick up at least two awards: a first-place team award for nursery and landscaping, plus her individual trophy for the highest test score in the state for her age group in that category.

No one knows how Hope met a group of boys staying across the hall. Rebecca Knowles, who is the FFA president, saw Hope talking to the boys by the hotel pool.

The boys were in their late teens and were not there for the FFA convention. They insisted she send a nude photo to them.
One of the boys was especially aggressive and called the room repeatedly on the conference’s last night, asking Hope for a photo of her breasts.

“They kept calling and they kept bugging her,” said Rebecca, 14, who said she was in the room but asleep. “I think she was just scared. One of our roommates was scared as well and said, ‘Oh, my God, just do it.’ They were scared and wanted to get it over.”
The boy calling didn’t have a cell phone. So Hope used Rebecca’s phone to take a picture of her breasts, then slipped it outside her door.

The phone, which Hope had left outside for the boy, was still in the hallway when an adult found it and saw the photo.

Hope had already sent a suggestive photo of herself to a boy she liked, who showed it to others. She was punished by the school and her parents, but she had moved on. Then, she was terrorized by older teen boys into taking a photo of her breasts. The story is very clear here: this was not consensual. They scared her into doing it.

So how did the responsible adults react to a girl who had been stalked and terrorized into showing an older boy her breasts? Her parents grounded her and sent her to a Christian counselor. The school barred her from a role as an FFA adviser, taking from her one of the most positive and productive things in her life. She even blamed herself:

“Making mistakes &/or stupid choices doesn’t necessarily make it impossible for you to give advice and lead people in the right direction,” she wrote in her journal. “Do you think people ever told Elvis Presley he couldn’t lead people to be singers & give them advice because he had made some bad choices with drugs & alcohol? … I don’t think so!”

Parents and educators need to know this: she did not make a mistake or a stupid choice. She was the victim of sexual assault. If a boy scares a girl into sexual conduct, whether it’s a photograph, a blowjob or intercourse, her conduct is not consensual and she needs to be treated as a victim, not a perpetrator.

It is a nearly inescapable conclusion that the sexual assault and her revictimization worked in tandem with the slut-shaming from the prior incident to lead to the precipitating set of circumstances:

About a week after Hope’s suspension ended, she and Rebecca found three boys seated at the cafeteria table the girls had always claimed as their own.

The ringleader, Rebecca said, hectored Hope about the photo that had made its way through the school in June. Another boy joined in.

Hope left the table in tears. She spent the rest of the day in the office talking to counselors, her mother said.

Hope met that day with Jodi Orlando, the school’s social worker. Another staff member had noticed cuts on Hope’s leg and become concerned.

The social worker quizzed Hope, then had her sign a “no-harm” contract in which Hope agreed to talk to an adult if she felt an urge to hurt herself. Both Orlando and Hope signed the undated contract, which her parents found in Hope’s bedroom trash can after her death.

At 8:30 p.m., the phone rang. Hope sprang to answer it. When her parents asked who it was, she answered, “Theresa.”

The caller ID, which appeared on the television screen, said “Michael,” the name of a 15-year-old boy Hope liked.

Donna heard a boy’s voice on the extension. Because she had lied, Hope’s parents grounded her from the phone for a week.

Then she saw that a pink scarf was knotted around the canopy of her queen-sized bed. The other end was wrapped around Hope’s neck.

Downstairs, Charlie was about to let the dog out when he heard Donna’s voice.

“Call 911!”

An ambulance arrived and took Hope to a local hospital, where she was pronounced dead.

If she were not dead I’d be harder on Hope Witsell’s parents. Treating a child who has been assaulted as though she did something wrong is such a bad mistake that … well, it’s a cliche to say that mistakes can ruin a child’s life, but it’s literally true of that one. Failure to tell a daughter who has been sexually assaulted that she did nothing wrong and shouldn’t blame herself is as serious a mistake as handing her the keys to a car with no brake fluid. But they must have realized this. They must be going over and over and over all the things they did wrong, and they will be in terrible pain over this forever, so that’s all I’m going to say about them.

The school is in turtle mode. They have liability exposure. They will get their asses handed to them for not telling the parents that she was self-injuring and at risk for suicide. They should get their asses handed to them for not taking meaningful steps to protect Hope from the coordinated, sexualized taunting … but then I never expect schools to actually try to prevent bullying of any kind. That’s a longer, more involved discussion.

The people who knew Hope Witsell will mourn her for a long time to come. For the rest of us, this is a reminder of the cost of revictimizing the victims.

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12 Comments leave one →
  1. December 3, 2009 11:53 am

    Did you specifically refer to Hope as a “victim” because she didn’t become a “survivor,” or is that a word that you commonly use? Just curious; you can delete this question if it’s irrelevant to your post.

    As someone who has done a fair amount of advocacy work within domestic violence and assault situations, “survivor” is the more commonly used (and, in my opinion, appropriate) term for people who go through traumatic events. I was wondering if you were using “victim” to add the extra sting– and perhaps rightfully so– of Hope’s suicide.

    And I do agree with you– the things that institutions do to people who have been traumatized are often triggering and re-traumatizing; one reason why many “victims” choose not to talk to authorities about their experiences at all. Unreported incidents are an extremely unfortunate phenomena that perpetuate rape culture.

    In Hope’s case, of course, she didn’t have a choice about “reporting the incident”– it wasn’t over before someone else found out about it– and the fallout was devastating. As someone who also works within a public school system, I think that some adults assume a lot of entitlement when it comes to ‘what’s best’ for students. I wish I knew more details as to whether or not the adult that found the phone with the picture had let the girls know what was about to go down, or suggest that Hope write it out so she could have some testimonial to give to her counselor instead of having to recount the event multiple times. This can, in itself, be re-triggering/traumatizing.

    • December 3, 2009 12:20 pm

      Yes. I’ve been primarily using “survivor” since the early 1990s, but that only applies to people who survive. Hope Witsell did not survive. Effectively, I believe she was killed by a sexual assault and its fallout.

  2. osoborracho permalink
    December 4, 2009 7:02 am

    Sadly, I’m not surprised by any of the story. Parents and schools usually just make a shitty situation much worse it seems like. Cutting should always be taken as a symptom that something is very wrong.

    My best friend through most of high school was a girl who already had a history of alcohol abuse and several suicide attempts by the time she was 14. Her parents loved her but were sexist, very controlling, and saw it as a moral failing to get mental help or medication. After being sexually assaulted several times (a crush, a stranger, ???), she started using street drugs and cutting. My friend blamed herself and never told her parents she’d been raped. I’m sure if they had found out, she would have been blamed, shamed, and grounded.

    A teacher noticed the scabs from cutting and sent her to the school nurse, who was a horrible person. The nurse shamed my friend in front of half the cheerleaders (long story) and by the end of the day the entire school knew she cut. In my friend’s case it was mostly gossip about the cutting that got around instead of the slut shaming, but she still ended up having to change schools and had no help or support from any adults. I think the drug habit was probably what saved her life.

    To summarize my angry rambling, I think the way some parents and schools treat “troubled” teens should be considered child abuse and is the cause of more suicides and attempts and misery than anyone will ever admit.

  3. Mar permalink
    December 5, 2009 4:40 pm

    I disagree with the notion that her parents now know what they should have done. I sincerely doubt they will ever recognize that she was assaulted, or that she wasn’t in the wrong. They, her friends, and the whole article make clear that they consider what happened the consequences of /her/ actions, of /her/ fault.

    This is what the parents are wondering (quote from the article): “Should I have been more careful about what I allowed her to watch?” Donna, 48, said. “Should I have been more careful about what I allowed her to read? Should I have been more careful about restricting her relationships with the opposite sex?”

    • Liat permalink
      December 10, 2009 11:03 am

      Omg that is so stupid. Someone should tell her parents that Hope’s TV and magazines were NOT the problem here. Parents can be so freaking dumb.

      How bout listening to them, maybe? Or I dunno, helping them have some freaking self-esteem…

  4. Liat permalink
    December 10, 2009 11:00 am

    This is terrible. But not very surprising. I agree that adults usually make these situations much worse, which is one reason why even concerned kids who hear about other kids’ problems are unlikely to report them. When I was in high school, two friends were clearly anorexic/cutting, and at the time it seemed 100% self-evident that telling someone would only make matters worse. Most school counselors suck. Parents reach for the easiest “solution” without considering its consequences. If they understand at all.

    Ground her? Yeah, cutting someone off from friends is always good for their mental health. Switch schools? Ditto the last problem. Assume the cutter is suicidal? Plain incorrect; cutting always indicates a serious problem, but usually not suicidality. Cutting is a way of coping with pain, it’s a sign that the person is trying to STAY ALIVE, not that they want to kill themselves. In this case, the girl did kill herself, but cutting is SO prevalent among teenagers that 90-odd percent of cutters will not kill themselves.

    There have got to be consequences for people – of any age – who distribute sexual pictures of another person without the person’s consent. There’s just no excuse for that.

  5. mizztcasa permalink
    December 20, 2009 3:04 am

    words cannot describe the sadness, frustation and rage i feel after reading this.

    dear baby girl…may your soul have peace. may you have justice.

    i pray that bystanders stand up and support (potential) victims; stand up and prevent victims. i so believe in the concept of “GREEN DOT” – bystanders changing their behaviors to prevent violence instead of passively standing by.

    if those around this dear girl (acquaintances, students, teachers) had did something to stop her from being forced to take those pics or from being taunted, there could have been a different outcome.

    i pray that we as bystanders stand up and do something…and stop victims from being revictimized.

  6. bumerry permalink
    January 3, 2010 6:56 pm

    In response to the victim/survivor issue – I think denial of victimization in sexual assault is part of the PROBLEM, not the solution. If a person is beaten up or otherwise attacked (well, an adult by strangers) s/he isn’t told “Don’t be a victim – be a survivor!” by squealing optimists before the bruises have even healed. They have no fucking clue how shitty the pressure to act like nobody victimized them feels.

    I was damned well victimized by my abuser – I was a helpless child, she was an adult who had been violent her whole life and got away with it because “women aren’t violent” and I couldn’t tell anyone because her threats to kill me were quite believable. Indeed, I learned as an adult that she attempted to murder one brother repeatedly and almost certainly did murder her 4 year old brother. Why can an adult killed by a drunk driver be a victim, but an assaulted child like Hope has to immediately be a survivor?

    Treatment providers and advocates who denied my victimhood denied the reality of what happened to me: someone deliberately hurt me for her own pleasure and enjoyment. She liked hurting me – loved my terror and anger and desperation so much that I learned never to show negative emotions around her or anyone else. She victimized me. Victim is not a bad word, it’s a word that describes a reality so painful that people don’t want to think about it, let alone feel it. “Survivor” is much more comfortable for advocates and treaters, they can sweep what really happened under the rug and go straight for the happy ending. The attacked person usually can’t.

    I think that Victim is an initial – and for those with PTSD or hiding their assault in shame, ongoing – stage following assault. It’s a healthy stage – it externalizes the crime, acknowledges that the crime was NOT the person’s fault but the criminal’s. And criminal status need not depend on a conviction, or even identifying the perpetrator – the crime having happened is all that’s needed to prove that a criminal committed it. Victimhood provides social legitimacy. And emotional legitimacy. Victim status could have saved Hope’s life and allowed her to grieve and move on. The fact that adults saw her as a survivor/accomplice instead of a victim killed her. Once assaulted people have grieved and convinced themselves that they are not to blame, they can heal and attain survivor status. There may be scars, but life can continue. Denied the opportunity to externalize the crime and grieve, they suffer so much that suicide can seem like the only possible path to relief.

    Survivor is a useful term, but I think that it equates to a psychological and emotional state that comes about through painful processing of the experience of being a victim. I’m not the only survivor who feels this way about being pressured into premature survivor-ness. I just want people in this community to know, because I know you care about us.

    • Alex permalink
      June 28, 2010 11:34 am

      That’s sort of how I feel. Now I would say that I’m a survivor, but I was a victim to start with.

  7. BrownEyedBeauty permalink
    May 20, 2010 6:36 pm

    I’m with you, Bumerry.

    I was raped at 13 by an older boy…he was about 18, which made him an adult. This happened in 1996.

    My cousin, who was 15 at the time, told me that it had been all my fault. This is one reason I continue to have a problem with her. She denies anything that I say. She still insists that I willingly had sex with him and that I lied about the whole incident afterward. Our relationship is strained as it is.

    I remember it all too well…the pain, the blood, the shame. No one would believe me. My family treated me like an outsider. The rapist was never punished. He violated me, a little girl, and was never punished. How can this be?

    I spent my teen years hating myself. Childhood was painful. I should have been out with friends who cared about me. I should have been having fun. I should have been enjoying my life. I woke up on a daily basis to verbal, emotional, and psychological abuse from my stepfather while my mother allowed it. I was abused by my stepfather and my aunt, then rejected by kids at school.

    No one took my side. No one came to my defense. When I tried to talk about my feelings, people would say: “Stop being a victim” and “It’s all your fault, Melinda”.

    Pretty much they were saying that I was a terrible person who deserved the worst treatment. They had no sympathy at all. They didn’t care.

    I was sexually and physically abused at 4 years old…I still remember that, too.

    When I was 16, I wound up in an abusive relationship with a boy who called me “stupid” and “bitch”. Because I felt unloved at home, I stayed in that relationship until I was 21.

    I’ve had multiple abortions. I was a prostitute and I also participated in pornographic films. I suffered with bulimia as a young girl due to being told that I was “ugly” and that my body was something to be ashamed of. I endured years of racism, sexism, and violence.

    I married my husband, who is 14 years older than me, because I loved him…but also because I had no skills to obtain a decent job and I needed to escape my stepfather’s cruelty. There was no other way. I contemplated suicide many times while I still lived there.

    I’m sure that if she had lived, Hope’s life would have been much like mine. I happen to be an only child, like she was. I endured taunts and name-calling at school because I was considered a “slut”. I can relate to the loneliness and pain she felt.

    I wish Hope were still alive. I wish I could have told her, as well as Jessie Logan and Megan Meier, that they are all beautiful young women. I wish there were something I could do to stop another young person from being driven to this point. Society has lost all sensitivity and compassion.

    I’m pissed because many people online seem to blame Hope for what happened. Yes, she sent out a picture of herself…poor judgment on her part. Yes, she might have been sexually active at 13…not smart. Yes, she took her own life. However, she was just a kid. She was somebody’s little girl. She couldn’t take it anymore.

    She didn’t deserve to be taunted and ridiculed.

  8. Alex permalink
    June 23, 2010 1:58 pm

    Jeez, I think I need to learn when to stop reading these because I’m crying right now, and I have to get ready for work soon. Just…if even person had told that girl that what happened to her was sexual harassment and that she’d done nothing wrong, and that everyone who didn’t say as much were wrong, she might have lived…And even now those idiots have no idea why she killed herself, can’t put and two together. It clearly equals four, and they’re still trying to make three.

  9. BrownEyed Beauty permalink
    August 12, 2010 7:53 am

    I agree, Alex. It is a terrible situation.

    Hope made some bad decisions but she was still simply a kid, a human being with feelings.

    I cannot tell you the number of times I’ve read stuff online with people calling her names and saying that she took the “coward’s way out” because she committed suicide.

    This child continues to be judged and condemned after her death. People might not agree with her actions…but this does NOT excuse the behavior of those who bullied, harassed, and shunned her.

    And now that she’s dead, they still won’t leave her be.

    She was shamed for acting out sexually and sending a topless photo of herself to a boy. This was inappropriate behavior for a 13-year-old, but does that give anyone the right to call her a slut? Does that give people the right to say nasty things about her? It bothers me.

    Hope could have done a lot with her life. She had lots of plans for the future. She knew what she wanted to be when she was older.

    She was not a “slut” or “whore”. She was a young girl who made a very impulsive, stupid decision. She believed that showing this boy her breasts would make him like her. We live in a society with screwed-up attitudes about sex and other stuff, so it makes sense that Hope would believe the hype. She was an impressionable child.

    The world has lost another sensitive, beautiful person.

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