Hannah’s '13 Reasons Why' Story Actually Shames Sexually Active Young Women
I was 14 when I started cutting myself, and I was 15 when I locked myself in a bathroom stall at my school, sobbing uncontrollably, and swallowed a handful of antibiotics. I didn't know at the time that it wasn't possible to overdose on antibiotics. What I did know is that I didn't want to deal with my life anymore. I was tired of asking for help or looking for friends and only finding hate or apathy. I identify strongly with Hannah Baker's story in 13 Reasons Why, except that the rumors about me were actually true. I was doing things at that age that many people found "slutty." I was discovering my sexuality in a way that I felt was empowering. And I was being ridiculed and bullied for it endlessly. And then I wanted to die. That's the big difference between my story and Hannah's, and where I think 13 Reasons Why missed the mark. Those virginal or chaste students who are bullied are worthy of our sympathy and support, but so are students like me. Though it gives important visibility to those who are struggling with mental health and bullying in high school, Hannah's narrative further alienates and stigmatizes "slutty" women.
I had a best friend during my early teen years named Kristine*. By 11th grade, our friendship dissolved, and I started dating Jack*, a friend of mine whom Kristine had dated briefly in middle school.
A few weeks into our relationship, I sent him photos of myself both fully and partially naked. He had done the same in return. We never had sex, but we did "fool around" in a cabin behind his house once. He broke up with me because he said he wanted more freedom, though friends who knew him told me Kristine had allegedly pressured him to do it because she secretly still had feelings for him. But even after breaking up with me, he didn't want to date her.
A few weeks later, someone printed out the waist-down nude photos I had sent Jack and placed them on and inside my car in the public school parking lot, where they were found by administrators. Some were on the windshield, and some were in a folder that had the words "Whore," "Desperate," "Slut," "Bitch," and "Cunt" written on it.
When my parents showed up, they took the folder and brought me home. As I sat under the covers of my bed, sobbing, my mom sat in a chair across from me and said, "I'm going to leave these photos with you. Your father and I didn't look inside the folder. But you have got to learn to stop taking photos of your body."
Through my tears, I remember starting at her incredulously. Why was I the one in the wrong here? I had shared photos of myself with someone I was dating. I was of legal consenting age in North Carolina, where all of this took place. I had asked Jack to delete the photos when we broke up, but he didn't.
Like Hannah in 13 Reasons Why, I felt violated. Regardless of whether I was stupid for thinking Jack wouldn't keep private photos of me, the sharing and publication of those photos — the public shaming in a school parking lot — was sexual harassment and a violation of privacy that I did not deserve, and that was against the law because it qualified as harassment. (This was before North Carolina had anti-revenge porn laws.) But, because I had taken the photos willingly, no action was taken against those involved in my public humiliation.
The police officer who worked at our school brought me and Kristine into a room together and essentially told us that we needed to let go of any problems we had with each other. By this point, Jack stopped speaking to me completely, because he "didn't want to get into trouble" with his mom, he told me when I confronted him after school one day.
My other friends chose sides, or distanced themselves from me. During lunch, I would sit alone outside away from the quad, where other students would hang out in their respective groups. At night, I would cut myself on my hip, where I could hide the cuts from my parents.
In 13 Reasons Why (spoilers ahead), embarrassing and revealing photos of Hannah going down a park slide in a dress are sent around to students at her high school after Justin Foley went on a date with her. A rumor spreads that she and Justin had sex, and people whisper about her and call her names. Then, Bryce Walker grabs her butt in a liquor store after Alex Standall's list, which gave her the title of "Best Ass" in school, circulated. But none of these rumors about Hannah or her sexual relations are true. She's not a "school slut," and she did not have sex with multiple partners or send sexy photos to young men, and she definitely did not want to have sex with Bryce in that hot tub. Her image remains relatively innocent throughout both Netflix's 13 Reasons Why and the book that it is based off of. So, it's not hard to see why viewers feel so much sympathy for her. She's not only a victim of bullying and harassment who is repeatedly hurt — she is a completely innocent victim, if one can be innocent of the "crime" of being sexually active, which is what her classmates taunted and ridiculed her for.
I, on the other hand, was not. I was comfortable with and proud of my body — something few teenaged girls can say, unfortunately — and I was interested in sending photos to and having consensual sexual communication with a young man I was dating at the time. I felt empowered because I was figuring out what I wanted and what I liked about myself. I was doing things on my own terms.
The problem with that narrative — the idea that the "school slut" might actually be sexually active and sexually curious and OK with that — is that we live in a culture that shames women for being sexually proud. One where women are seemingly at fault for the shaming they receive. "If you don't want people to make fun of you for sending naked photos to your boyfriend, then stop sending naked photos to boyfriend," is what I was told, even by my own mother, throughout high school. Not once did anyone say to me that my boyfriend was in the wrong for not deleting the photos like I had asked. Not once did anyone say how screwed up it was for those photos to be made public against my will. Even when my mom went to the police because my school wouldn't do anything about the parking lot stunt, they didn't pursue any investigation because, to them, it seemed I should've "learned my lesson," and the police told my mother that the easy solution was for me to not send photos like that again.
While people were laughing at me or shaking their heads in judgment and disapproval, I was sitting on the floor of my shower unable to move because my depression obliterated my appetite and my energy with it. I was missing track practices because I was afraid of seeing my coach, who was the first person to discover the photos on my car. I was in a therapist's office with my mother, who was scared by how often she found my pillow and sheets covered in makeup and tears.
But still, because the rumors about me and what I had done were true, no one at school would comfort me. I sat alone at lunch every day. Sometimes the debate teacher would let me sit in an office adjacent to her room when I felt like I couldn't take the stares of my peers.
I wasn't ashamed of the photos, but I was ashamed that I had been publicly violated — my life was invaded by people who weren't invited into it, and nothing was done about it. And, even worse, the consensus seemed to be that I shouldn't have done something that made my life so worth invading if I expected privacy. Similar to the "don't wear a short skirt if you don't want to be raped" argument, the message I got from those around me was that, if I expected sympathy, I better act like a victim worthy of sympathy, which was a victim uninterested in sex — a victim who was pure, and was only impure if the impurity was forced upon her, as it was with Hannah toward the end of 13 Reasons Why.
In a piece for Harper's Bazaar, Nico Lang analyzed the dozens of on-screen and real-life cases where women are slut shamed, either for things they actually did or for rumors about things they did. Many of those woman took their own lives. He wrote:
There's a clear line being drawn here in the sand: When girls retain their virtue, like Hannah, they haven't earned their victimization. When young women give it up, whether by having sex or objectifying themselves, our empathy is no longer considered mandated.
He pointed out that Hannah didn't choose to take the photos of her that were shared, unlike me in my own story.
And, aside from the slut-shaming inherent in Hannah's purity narrative (which helps generate sympathy for her) in the show and the book, the fact that she is painted as the only victim of bullying in her school further alienates those who are the victims of true rumors, or gossip, like me. Though the show does a good job of confronting this problem to some degree with one of its characters: Courtney Crimson, who makes out with Hannah while they are trying to catch Tyler in the act of stalking her. Courtney is gay, and she's worried that the photo he takes of them kissing will out her to the school and her parents. Alex, who used to be one of Hannah's best friends and who dated Jessica, at one point tells Courtney, "Everything Hannah said on the tapes is true. You're gay. So what?," as if it doesn't matter that she was publicly ridiculed at the dance for the photo of her and Hannah — as if it doesn't matter that her private life and sexuality became public, because what was publicized was true.
The effects of bullying are thus magnified if you're the "school slut" who's actually slutty and has decided to reclaim that label as one of sexual empowerment, like I was. Not only were people saying things about me and publicizing my private life, but those who might be willing to help me suddenly weren't, because I wasn't actually innocent. So when I locked myself in that bathroom stall and swallowed half a bottle of antibiotics, I didn't think there would be a big memorial in front of my locker. I didn't believe there would've been an article about my death in the paper, because, really, what good things were there to say if all the rumors were true? If I had succeeded in dying, I didn't think anyone would have felt shame or remorse, because, after all, what's wrong with calling a school slut what she is if it's the truth?
The narrative of 13 Reasons Why left me feeling unacknowledged. Yes, both myself and Hannah were slut-shamed, but only one of us appeared to be deserving of sympathy. When people realize that bullying can be done to anyone — the school slut, the person who isn't ready to come out, the woman who drank too much at a party and was raped by someone she thought was a friend — then women like me might start feeling like we have value. After all, being "slutty" doesn't make us any less deserving of justice or any more deserving of death.
Editor's Note: For any readers who feel depressed or at risk, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255, or go to their website, suicidepreventionlifeline.org.