I imagine that most parents were aware last week of a story, prominent in the media, about a file-sharing site that was seeking and publishing nude selfies from young women and girls. It's an horrific story, evoking a range of emotions including anger, bemusement and sadness. It appears to be another example of the new possibilities created by digital technology being twisted by the old realities of human nature. I am conflicted in my responses.
First, it must be said that the behaviour of the men and boys involved with this file sharing is reprehensible and revolting. They have acted as predators, demonstrating a chilling lack of empathy for fellow human beings. Whether they obtained images through stalking unknowing subjects, whether they shared images that had been entrusted to them, or whether they had distributed images without thought for the impact on the other person, their actions are to be condemned.
As the leader of a school community, I want to think that we are shaping young men who will do better than that. I hope that our young men are learning to become people who understand that it is wrong to use other people for your own selfish ends. I hope that, through their daily interaction with the girls of the school community, they are learning to appreciate other people as people, not as objects. I hope that they are developing the wisdom and the courage to recognise evil and to stand against it. Time will tell.
Second, it must also be said that victim-blaming is also wrong, and there has been a fair bit of it on display. The mindset that looks at a victim of any ugly situation, mired in despair and pain, and pronounces a judgement along the lines of 'You deserve it!' is itself ugly. It suggests a lack of empathy, a disposition to self-righteous moralism, and a preference to stand at a distance rather than to align side by side with those who are hurting.
I would also suggest that victim-blaming is sub-Christian; Christians are called not to judge, and also to follow the example of the one whose compassion led him to reach out to the outcasts and condemned. When something goes wrong, we don't rejoice in the situation, proclaiming 'I told you so!' or 'You deserve it.' We respond by crying with them, standing by them, loving them and supporting them. We ought not to blame them, because in these complex situations there are always multiple factors of causation.
Third, however, while insisting that our boys must learn to be trustworthy and respectful, and insisting that our response to victims will always be characterised by sensitivity, gentleness and respect, we must also see that there are ways our girls can reduce the risk of being caught up in situations like this. I make this comment not as judgment on what has happened, but with a view to avoiding what might happen. Taking a revealing selfie, or allowing another to take a nude image, increases the risk that something may go wrong.
I take it that, as parents, we educate our children about risky behaviour. We tell them that being in a car with a drunk driver increases the risk of something going wrong. We tell them that swimming outside the flags increases the risk of something going wrong. We tell them that not using suncream increases the risk of something going wrong. We should also tell them that the existence of nude images of themselves increases the risk of something going wrong.
It is not always easy to articulate this distinction between risk-management and victim-blaming. I recently read this article by Mia Freedman, which I thought made the key points well; I commend it to you.
It is no easy thing to grow up in our brave new world. But, as parents with wider experiences of people and a more developed capacity to evaluate risk, we need to help our children acquire the wisdom that is so desperately needed.