13 Reasons Why A Conversation About Rape Culture Is As Important As One About Suicide

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Netflix’s infinitely controversial 13 Reasons Why is billed as a show about teen suicide, but could be viewed as a more persuasive indictment of rape culture. (This story includes show spoilers and potentially triggering descriptions.)

The series — which explores the 13 reasons why its justice-seeking protagonist Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford) decided to end her life — is wildly popular among the young adult audience it courts, though it has sparked a ferocious debate among critics, parents, educators and mental health professionals about its graphic depiction of suicide. Defenders laud the show for its unflinching portrayal of fraught adolescence, while detractors argue it glamorizes suicide, ignores mental illness and perverts the reality of what happens after death.

The issue the show tackles most convincingly is sexual violence — its persistence in our schools, its dark evolution through social media and the trouble with our perception of consent. The show demonstrates how toxic masculinity feeds into rape culture, which minimizes sexual violence, excuses perpetrators and blames victims.

Over the course of 13 episodes, Hannah is brutalized relentlessly: she is sexually objectified in a class poll, sexually harassed in school and on social media, sexually assaulted in public, stalked outside her home and raped at a house party. Perpetrators dehumanize her, friends dismiss her, the high school counselor fails her, and the wider student body stands idly by, complicit in her degradation.

“The reality is that if a girl hasn’t experienced it herself, she’s known somebody who has,” said Lisa Maatz, vice president of government relations at the American Association of University Women (AAUW), which does tracking on sexual harassment and violence in K-12 schools and on college campuses. “It is part of their daily lives, part of their reality. And the scary thing is that it’s not just part of their reality in college, it’s part of their reality in high school, it’s part of their reality in middle school and, quite frankly, it’s sometimes part of their reality in elementary school.”

Here’s what happened in 13 Reasons Why, along with the statistics that show this isn’t just Hannah’s problem:

1. Sexual harassment in middle school and high school is pervasive

13 Reasons WhyIn the first episode, Hannah has a late-night rendezvous at a nearby park with Justin Foley (Brandon Flynn), her high school crush. It’s tame. She goes down a slide, he snaps a picture, they share a kiss. But the next day, we see Justin flaunting the photo to an all-male crew. The shot of Hannah he took is directly up her skirt, giving an innocent moment illicit pretense. Justin’s friends eagerly share the deceptive shot with the rest of the school, which is enough for Liberty High to brand Hannah the class slut, making her the target of rampant sexual harassment in its halls.

Real life: A 2011 report by the AAUW found that nearly half of middle and high school students surveyed experienced some form of sexual harassment — unwanted sexual behavior that includes verbal or written comments, gestures, displaying pictures or images, or physical coercion — in the 2010–11 school year. Most (87%) of those students said it had a negative effect on them. Sexual harassment by text, e-mail, Facebook, or other electronic means affected nearly one-third of students.

2. ‘Hot or Not’ is not harmless

13 Reasons WhyHannah and her friend Jessica Davis (Alisha Boe) become victims of an insufferable high school tradition when male classmates circulate a “hot or not” list that votes Hannah “Best Ass” and Jessica “Worst Ass.”

Real life: Research from the University of Kent shows there is a direct relation between the sexual objectification of girls and aggression towards them, and that the objectification-aggression link can start as early as the teenage years.

3. The pathway from bullying to sexual harassment to sexual violence

13 Reasons WhyWhile shopping at a local convenience store, Hannah is groped by popular jock Bryce Walker (Justin Prentice). She is groped again by Marcus Cole (Steven Silver), a member of the school’s honor board, while on a date. Both boys were part of the crew that shared Justin’s photo and helped craft the infamous “hot or not” list.

Real life: The CDC has documented a Bully-Sexual Violence Pathway, showing that as early as middle school, a pathway forms along which bullies transform into sexual harassers and age into perpetrators of sexual violence.

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