What is our response to ‘Sexting, Shaming and Suicide?’

Some stories are difficult to make sense of.

Take, for instance, one of the stories from the Bible from Judges 19. It is the story of a Levite traveling through the hill country of Ancient Israel, going from town to town in complete reliance on the hospitality of the people in those towns. His only traveling companion is his concubine, whom he loves.

They find themselves stuck in the Israelite town of Gibeah but no one will offer them shelter. Finally, a man agrees to take them in but while they sit down for supper, the other men of the town start pounding on the door, demanding to have their way with the traveller. It is no accident that this story mirrors that of Genesis 19, the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. And in like fashion, the host will not have it, offering them instead the traveller’s concubine.

The text gets downright graphic from there. The men rape and abuse the woman, all the way until sunrise, and then leave her to die on the host’s doorstep. The text says, “In the morning her master got up, opened the doors of the house, and when he went out to go on his way, there was his concubine lying at the door of the house with her hands on the threshold” (Judges 19:27).

In an even more twisted turn, the master does not mourn her or even properly bury her. He continues to desecrate her body, carving it up into twelve pieces to send out to the twelve tribes as a rallying cry. The purpose of the book of Judges and stories like these, presumably, is a call to order. In light of depraved incidents like these, the people of Israel longed for order and justice.

It can show us a lot about the status of women in the ancient world, the crucial importance of Bedouin hospitality, and the journey of Israel from a people of God to a depraved people in need of rule.

Still, I think such stories of senseless violence are nearly impossible to make meaning out of. That is, until I read stories like that of Audrie Pott.

In a September 26 issue of Rolling Stone¬†magazine, Nina Burleigh tells the story of the life of Audrie Pott, a life that ended all too soon because of an incident of underage drinking, sexual assault, and social media. Audrie was a 15 year-old sophomore at Saratoga High School in California’s Silicon Valley when she decided to end her life on September 10, 2012 by hanging herself in her bedroom.

For quite some time, Audrie had struggled as she grew into her late teen years. Her body developed quickly and as she began high school, she started to shift peer groups in order to better fit in. Some of her friends started to struggle with these changes, while Audrie seemed more focused on where her new friendships would take her. It was these new friendships and the pressures of teenage life in Silicon Valley that found her in a very precarious position just a week before the start of her sophomore year.

The story recounts how she attended one of the ‘kickback’ parties of Saratoga High, where teens would throw parties while their parents were out of town. It was at this party that Audrie became severely inebriated and passed out. Audrie was helped to an upstairs bedroom, but as she lay unconscious, boys came in and out of the room, stripping off her clothes, drawing on her with Sharpies, and sexually assaulting her. What’s worse, they captured the whole thing on their cell phones.

The event spread through Saratoga High like fire and it didn’t take long for Audrie to connect the dots between the stares and whispers of her classmates, the mysterious Facebook messages, and the Sharpie marks on her body she found the morning after. Audrie did all she could to track down the photos and erase the social media evidence of the night, but to no avail. And so Audrie followed what she thought to be her only way out and hung herself by a belt behind the locked doors of her bedroom.

Audrie’s story gives us only a glimpse into the growing problem of sexting, sexual assault and shaming affecting teenagers in the United States. The dark underbelly of social media reveals that it is now easier to pressure and record teenagers, particularly females, engaging in sexual acts. And, even more disturbing, it is becoming easier to hide.

As Audrie’s body was cut up and colored and disseminated throughout the digital world, local authorities began an investigation into her case. Just as quickly, the teenage boys involved were able to delete messages, photos and entire accounts where crucial evidence was kept. And like the Levite’s concubine, Audrie did not receive a just remembrance. Instead, lawyers and local authorities did their best to keep her story under wraps, charging that these were just “stupid boy pranks.”

It is stories like Audrie’s that help the story from Judges 19 become crystal clear. They show us that violence and disparaging of women is not just a thing of the past. Dismemberment, whether real or digital, is something that is very much a part of our lives and it is affecting some of the most vulnerable among us. Such stories jolt us from our lofty thinking about ideas like justice and equality. These are not just idyllic values to hope for in some distant age, they are needed healing in the lives of real people. The stories wake us to the reality that we still live in a broken world and we should act like it.

In a lecture at the Wake Forest University School of Divinity, feminist theologian Ulrike Bechmann stated that texts of terror like Judges 19 demand that the readers say “No!” We do not agree with everything that happens in the texts and they demand our response of “No!”

Stories like Audrie’s demand that we say “No more!” No more shall we let young girls and boys hurt themselves by such violations. No more shall we let the justice system skew what is a good and just response. No more shall we let the bodies fall at the doorstep and do nothing. Perhaps that is the only meaning that we should get out of such difficult stories.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Flickr_-_Official_U.S._Navy_Imagery_-_A_sexual_assault_awareness_poster._(2).jpg

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