Netflix Explores Teenage Sexual Assault And Online Abuse In ‘Audrie & Daisy’

By Niki Cruz

Audrie & Daisy

In 2012, at age 14, Maryville High School student Daisy Coleman was raped after sneaking out to a mutual acquaintance’s get-together, then left unconscious outside on her front lawn in freezing temperatures. After she was subsequently harassed both on social media and at her high school in Missouri, her case made national headlines. The whole town, including the high school, turned against her family. Even when her family was forced to move from the town because of the harassment, her old residency was torched under “mysterious circumstances.”

That same year, 15-year-old Audrie Pott, a student at Saratoga High School in California, became overwhelmed and committed suicide after spending eight days investigating her own sexual assault online. Pott, like Coleman, was bullied via social media and was horrified when she discovered graphic photos were taken during the sexual assault.

These tragic stories are the focus of Netflix’s new documentary Audrie & Daisy, available for streaming starting today. In the wrenching but critical movie, the filmmakers aim to reveal not only how dire such cases of sexual abuse and subsequent online harassment are, but how common they’ve become.

Indeed, just this month, another story broke about an anonymous 16-year-old girl from Georgia who was forced by her classmate to perform oral sex on him, after he had coerced her by saying he had to show her some video equipment. With tears in her eyes, “T.M.,” as Slate refers to her, reported the incident the next day to her first period teacher at Peachtree Ridge High School. As a result, the school decided to suspend her and the boy until a disciplinary hearing was set.

Upon T.M.’s return to her high school, the bullying started. Her mother spoke with Slate about the harassment her daughter became embroiled in and the emotional turmoil that followed, saying, “[T.M. was] very outwardly focused on people and relationships. I think what was done to her took a lot of that away from her. She didn’t make it through a whole day that first day she went back. She was being called a whore [and] a liar.”

Audrie & Daisy filmmakers Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk want people to understand just how ubiquitous these cases are. “One in four girls are either the victim or the intended victim of sexual abuse or sexual assault by the time they graduate high school, which makes it quite a common occurrence,” Shenk says.

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In a study by The American Association of University Women, it was reported that in a single school year, 58% of 7th to 12th graders experience some level of sexual harassment. Coleman is also part of the 1 in 20 sexually harassed girls who switch schools each year due to harassment. Meanwhile, “T.M.” is part of the 1 in 5 high school girls who say they were sexually assaulted at school. And these stats, of course, do not account for the teens who don’t come forward out of fear of ridicule or shame.

Facts like these also only tell part of the story; today, initial abuse is often followed by relentless social media harassment. “We don’t know if [sexual assault is] more common now, or less common than it used to be, but what we do know is that the social media bullying that takes place in the aftermath is a new thing,” Shenk says. “That’s really even more of a harmful act, in how these teens view themselves, their schools, and their communities.”

According to a 2015 study cited by the Cyberbullying Research Center, over 14% of students at a Midwestern school admitted to cyberbullying someone, with “spreading rumors online via text or email being the most common form of bullying.” The gender breakdown revealed by the study was telling, if not surprising; 41% of girls said they had been the targets of cyberbullying, compared to 29% of boys. Meanwhile, a study by McAfee stated that 87% of teens at the very least have observed cyberbullying.

As we know, high school gossip is a breeding ground for further abuse. As filmmaker Cohen puts it, in addition to searching for cases of sexual assault in high school, “we looked for where there was a social media bullying aftermath, which seemed to be the really difficult area for the girls to contend with.”

Coleman says that after her own case became public in her small town, she did some research on what had happened to her and was blindsided by the statistics. “When my assault occurred, I was 110% blind to rape culture and everything else surrounding it. It wasn’t until something so tragic happened to me that I was forced to open my eyes to it.”

The powerful and oftentimes infuriating Netflix documentary showcases not only a town’s denial, and officials often victim-blaming out of ignorance, but Coleman’s struggles in the aftermath of her rape and online harassment. As a survivor, Coleman dealt with depression and tried to OD multiple times, a response shared by many who’ve been assaulted. According to a 2009 report by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, “Many rape victims suffer from stress disorders, depression, and anxiety. Additionally, alcohol and drug abuse can become a problem for some victims.”

Coleman continues, “I don’t think people realize they’re not just typing these words to a human-less screen. What they’re saying actually affects human beings.”

In many ways, this goes beyond social media. “It’s the culmination of the phone with a camera and an internet connection that changed everything. It amplified the ability to communicate without any oversight, really,” says Shenk. In a segment in Audrie & Daisy, the filmmaker’s reveal that high school boys often target more developed girls their age, then pursue them by peer pressuring them into sending nude pictures on their own via their smart phones. The filmmakers were shocked. “It’s a symbol of how far life online has gone in terms of what teenagers can do online, in how they communicate with each other. That was thoroughly shocking and disturbing to us,” Cohen says.

While it may seem impossible to police and regulate the internet and different social media platforms, the government is recognizing that this problem is significant enough that action needs to be taken. In May of 2016, Education Secretary John B. King Jr. said in a statement, “No student should ever have to go through the experience of feeling unwelcome at school or on a college campus.”

Shenk elaborates on what he thinks this means going forward:

“Title IX is a federal regulation which guarantees equal rights to education for girls, and it is true that there’s a lot of ignorance out there in school districts around the country. When a girl is being bullied in school, and feels like she’s not safe there and therefore has to change schools, that’s a federal issue. It’s a sign that I think we are moving towards a better place with these issues.”

The filmmakers behind Audrie & Daisy hope that intervention will happen both inside and outside of the classroom. Now that children are growing up with social media at their fingertips, a conversation needs to be started early on, so kids understand the magnitude behind a single tweet or text, and the rippling affect that might have on their future.

“We need to educate our kids really young about the responsible use of social media. That’s the key,” Cohen says. “There needs to be a common understanding and etiquette in how to communicate with people online, and what could be considered acceptable as humans.”

Programs like Futures Without Violence, which was started in San Francisco, have already jumpstarted the conversation in schools by providing monitorship resources to inspire discussions with boys on how to grow into successful men without succumbing to violence or harassment.

While Coleman simply can’t erase the abuse she endured with the click of a button, she has learned how to use social media to benefit herself and other survivors in a powerful and positive way. “I realized that if they had that much control over the internet, I can use that same amount of control, but use compassion instead. [And by doing that I could] reach out to other survivors, [and] I was able to turn it into something positive.”

Four years after her sexual assault, Coleman says she feels the transition that is shown in the documentary. “I’m more confident in advocating for all of these different women. I realized there are so many different links between all sexual assaults. No matter how you cut it, there’s always something that connects one survivor to another.”

“If I can just inspire one person to feel better about themselves, and realize what happened to them wasn’t their fault, then it’s all worth it to me.”

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Lead image of Daisy Coleman in ‘Audrie & Daisy’ courtesy of Netflix

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