In her funny book “Bossypants,” American comedian Tina Fey says a prayer for her baby daughter: “May she be beautiful but not damaged, for it’s the damage that draws the creepy soccer coach’s eye, not the beauty.”
There are many ways to damage our children, and damage makes them vulnerable.
We think of Amanda Todd, who died by suicide after being heartlessly bullied in person and on the Internet, who was first damaged by sexual exploitation by an adult. We think of Rehtaeh Parsons, who died after a suicide attempt after surviving the humiliation of photos of her sexual assault circulated on the Internet.
We think of a survivor, a local woman who bravely shared her story of childhood sexual abuse in public, and a woman in the audience who gasped in recognition, saying “I went to high school with that woman. We bullied her so much. I had no idea.”
It is not clear why young people who have experienced trauma are so often later the victims of verbal abuse, bullying, and cyberbullying, unless it’s that it’s the damage that draws the attention, not the beauty.
Victim-blaming is at the heart of it: the wish to deny that traumatizing acts can happen to anyone, the desire to distance ourselves from pain by convincing ourselves and others that a victim or survivor “must have brought it on herself.” Add to that the burdens of stigma and shame imposed by many traumas and especially sexual traumas.
We’ve been thinking about these topics for a few reasons. During the week of Oct. 6, Prince Edward Island is unique in Canada in naming Verbal Abuse Prevention Week.
Organizer Tami Martell, says, “The effects of verbal abuse are often silent, but it is no different than any other abuse, in that it has long-term emotional effects on that person and can be life altering. You don’t see the bruises or marks. They are held deep within."
It is true that verbal and emotional abuse can cause harm that has long-term effects. It is true that bullying and cyberbullying often use words to hurt. It is also true that in some cases, verbal abuse can escalate to violence. It is worthwhile to prevent this kind of abuse.
Oct. 11 is also the United Nations-declared International Day of the Girl, the second annual marking of this day. The International Day of the Girl Child promotes girls’ rights and highlights gender inequalities that remain between girls and boys.
When we think about bullying and abuse, girls and boys are bullied differently and use different tactics to bully. And as we’ve seen in the cases of Amanda Todd, Rehtaeh Parsons, and others, girls and boys are often bullied for different reasons. Gender is very often a factor, for girls or for boys.
Naming the damage is where we need to start. By naming the behaviours that hurt and harm others, we can see more clearly how to empower victims and prevent abuse. If the damage is a crime, we must address it as a crime. If the damage is not a crime, we must address it in other ways, with a focus on prevention.
If we can work on what makes girls and boys resilient and strong – on what makes them loving of themselves and others – and give our attention to that, we can prevent the damage that comes from abuse, trauma, or violence, or we can begin to heal it so one kind of hurt does not bring on more.
Chairperson, P.E.I. Advisory Council on the Status of Women