Slut-Shaming, Suicide and Why At This Point We All Know Better

"Words hurt. Words can kill," says the mother of Rachel Ehmke, the 13-year-old seventh grader who committed suicide last week after being "slut shamed" and bullied.
Publish date:
May 11, 2012
bullying, slut-shaming, teen suicide

Me in 1995

In 8th grade, there was this new girl, let's call her LaToya, who before school even started was rumored to have had SEX. And, according to the prepubescent pre-Facebook phone tree, LaToya had contracted crabs from said illicit empty stairwell encounter with an older boy. She was the second cousin of somebody's so and so who heard from whoseitwhatits and what have you.

It was during our first PE, the witching hour when it came to public displays of embarrassment, that a friend of mine got exasperated with LaToya for some reason and blurted out in front of the ENTIRE class (my school was small), "Hurry the hell up, CRAB SOCCER!" It was horrible so, of course, everybody laughed.

From then on LaToya was "Crab Soccer," which not only didn't make sense -- do STDs play foreign sports? -- but was just plain vicious. Whenever she spoke up for herself, drew ANY attention to herself really, someone could and would shut LaToya down with a "Whatever, Crab Soccer." Had she ever actually had sex? Crabs? Kissed a boy? Doubt it.

But she'd just laugh it off, ostensibly participating in the joke, and we'd just laugh and move on. Everyone else forgetting the invisible blow while LaToya, no doubt, retreated inside to lick her intangible but very real wounds.

I knew how she felt.

Despite loving most of high school once I got the trick of it, middle school was a peculiar kind of hell.

People called me a "hermaphrodite" on a regular basis. One girl (my friend?) put white out in my hair to see how long I went without washing my Poetic Justice braids. The boys who called me "RuPaul" regularly stole my back pack during class, emptied its contents, flipped it inside out, returned the contents, duct taped the outside, then waited.

I spent most of the day on alert -- looking over my shoulders for whatever new slight was waiting in the wings to humiliate me.


Another time, a bunch of girls were all sharing "first period" stories around a picnic table. Desperate to get in on the bonding despite NOT getting my period yet, I lied that my mom had cried.

"That's because she thought you were a man," laughed another friend.

I'd had enough. I started bawling and ran to the bathroom to barricade myself inside.Eventually the girl (my friend?) apologized and it was decided that the jokes would stop. Until, of course, something was funny. Like the time I wore a top that read, "GIRL!" and someone called it an "oxymoron." I was "un-slut" shamed. Virgin shamed? Gender shamed?

Back then bullying was still considered a rite of passage. This was just one year after the "Trench Coat Mafia" and Columbine. Two years before Luke Woodham and Pearl High School. People were smart enough to know that whoever made up that "sticks and stones" rhyme was a fucking idiot. Words will always hurt you and wounds can't be healed with a trip to the nurses' office, where I'd hide out most days.

The parents of 13-year-old Rachel Ehmke found that out last week, when their daughter hanged herself two days after a mass text went out to the kids at her school. It was the equivalent of lighting the first torch that ignites the angry mob.

"Something to the effect of that Rachel was a slut and to get her to leave the Kasson-Mantorville School, forward this to everyone you know," recalled parent Chris Flannery according to the Huffington Post.

Rachel, a pretty blonde with big eyes, had been getting harassed at school for more than a year. A clique of girls called her slut and prostitute. Her textbooks were covered in chewed up gum. The word slut was scrawled across her gym locker door and according to her father it took the school more than a month to scrub it off.

In a move that's most likely the only way out of all-consuming resentment, Rachel's parents don't blame the students who bullied her. They've effectively forgiven their daughter's murderers.

"They're kids. They made some horrible decisions. If these kids would've known this would happen I'm pretty sure they never, ever would have done what they did," he said.

But we do know what can happen.

I knew 20 years ago when the popular parental response was to demonize "the clique" as a coven of hormonal monsters, they likes of which were featured in "Mean Girls" and 'The Craft" before it. But that didn't really do the trick did it?

Is the only answer to pack a stun gun in with your bullied teen's lunch money? Because the bullies just won't stop will they? They might make it all the way to the White House.

But if we can't blame the ever-present bullies, or prosecute them in most cases, who then can we blame? No one? If that's the case, then how do we help? I won't participate in victim blaming, but I think they're who we should be reaching out to. But how? How do you spot the bullied?

Because what's most difficult about teenagers is their deafening silence. In part of the note Rachel left her parents she writes, "I'm fine = I wish I could tell you how I really feel." What's a parent to do in that situation? "I'm fine" is like an involuntary tick to most teenagers and oxygen to others who need the space to suss out their feelings without incessant "Are you okays."

When I was getting bullied at school I wrote "hieroglyphics" on the dry erase board in our kitchen because I literally did not have the words to say what I was feeling. But I also left my maddening scrawl in a place where my mom could "read" it. Obviously she jumped into action. Lots of parental inflicted "journaling" ensued.

Rachel's parents were concerned, too. They thought she was dealing with it. They thought the school was dealing with it. But how does one deal?

PSAs and After School Specials don't seem to be doing the trick. And in the end I'm spent. I have no clue how we stop kids from stabbing at each other with verbal jabs or how we equip everyone with invisible armor. The experts will shout CONFIDENCE! SPORTS! PURITY RINGS!

Rachel's dad said she was a target because of she had a loving nature and wasn't prone to fighting back. What kind of gladiator games has middle school become?

I know this post has more question marks than exclamations. I won't claim to have any answers. Does anyone?