We’ve been hearing a lot in the schools that we work in—and in national dialogue—about the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why. The show follows the story of a high school student who dies by suicide and leaves behind 13 recordings. The recordings reveal the student’s experiences with bullying and sexual assault, among other things. The series, which echoes a lot of what we hear and see at the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center (BARCC) every day, illustrates a pervasive culture that enables sexual violence. It also demonstrates the many opportunities that communities have to prevent it.
The culture that saturates the world of the main character, Hannah Baker, is one that we see throughout most schools (and campuses, and workplaces, and well, everywhere). This culture minimizes, enables, and makes light of sexual violence and the myriad acts of harassment and aggression that often lead up to it. It’s one of the main reasons why one in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused before they turn 18 years old (National Sexual Violence Resource Center) and almost one in two transgender people (47%) surveyed have been sexually assaulted at some point in their lifetime. (U.S. Transgender Survey).
The effects of sexual violence are substantial and wide-ranging, and young people are at increased risk. As 13 Reasons Why highlights, the ongoing harm from a school climate that tolerates bullying and harassment as well as the trauma of experiencing sexual assault have a serious impact on mental health. We know that sexual violence and other forms of trauma are linked to suicidal thoughts and attempts. We want survivors to know that these thoughts happen to a lot of people and that that they are not permanent. We want survivors to know they are not alone. BARCC and other resources are here to help (see below for additional resources).
One thing that struck me most in watching 13 Reasons Why is the numerous opportunities for prevention and support that were missed. When Clay tells Hannah that the list going around school, which sexualizes her body without consent, is a “compliment,” he negates Hannah’s feelings of being violated. When Marcus gropes Hannah at the diner in front of the football team, his peers fail to say anything to challenge him. When Hannah discloses to the guidance counselor, Mr. Porter, she encounters a trusted adult and provider who fails to respond in a supportive way. Instead he invalidates Hannah by saying maybe she did consent and then changed her mind.
I work with schools and college campuses every day to make sure that they have the tools to take action when these opportunities present themselves. You don’t have to wait for a disclosure or an assault to occur to take action—you can start today. We all have the power to create a culture that prevents sexual violence and supports survivors. And BARCC is here to help you and your school or community figure out how to do that!
Some specific ways we encourage you to take action
- We encourage parents, teachers, and others folks who work with youth to proactively talk about 13 Reasons Why. Parents, talk with your kids about how and whether they should watch it and ask what they think about it. And most importantly, support and empower youth by listening.