Young women with no hope

October 31, 2012

Marilena Marchetti discusses the terrible, and sometimes deadly, impact of sexism.

"FUCK WHAT you heard, realize what you see" is the statement that survives 15-year-old Felicia Garcia on her Twitter bio. Felicia committed suicide last week.

According to the New York Daily News, Felicia was unknowingly recorded having sex the previous weekend, and when rumors about the incident started circulating at school, she was relentlessly harassed. Felicia fell into a moving train on New York City's Staten Island, as classmates and friends looked on.

Holding back tears, Briana Torres shared her thoughts about her friend with reporters just outside the station where the incident took place: "She was beautiful, she was so sweet, loud. She was crazy, she didn't deserve it, she was bullied."

The same ravages of deeply rooted, institutionalized sexism are impossible to deny in two other preventable tragedies of the past month. Fifteen-year-old Amanda Todd from Vancouver, Canada, bravely posted a YouTube video before taking her own life.

In the video, Amanda tells the story of how her sexual exploitation led to her being shamed and beaten by peers. The video lays bare the depths of her loneliness and sadness. Shot mostly in black and white, the final scene turns to color, revealing a forearm lined with many cuts, beaded with drops of blood, as a serrated kitchen knife lays nearby.

Cassidy Goodson (center) appears in court
Cassidy Goodson (center) appears in court

The character of the bullying Amanda suffered from classmates has to be explained in the context of social norms that blame women for being anything less than virginal (until a certain time), and then treat them like objects to be judged by narrow standards of sex appeal.

Ninth grader Cassidy Goodson is currently being held without bail in Florida's Polk County. The 14-year-old is set to be charged as an adult for first-degree murder and aggravated child abuse and could face life in prison for suffocating the baby she secretly delivered in the bathroom of her home.

According to Sheriff Grady Judd, when Cassidy was questioned about the motives for her actions, she said she didn't want to change her relationship with her mother and family. A loving message posted by Cassidy's aunt on a petition calling for Cassidy to be tried as a minor states: "There is no help in [jail] or support. Everyone needs a chance in life Cassidy needs this chance."

The chance Cassidy likely needed was the right to make decisions about her body in the first place, which was likely difficult considering Florida's track record of supporting anti-choice legislation and abstinence-only education for youth.

EMERGING FROM adolescence with a sense of confidence in oneself and the world in general is incredibly difficult for young women, whose realities aren't represented by laws, institutional practices and ideas that directly affect their lives.

An example of one of these out-of-touch laws is the federal abstinence-only education program, which receives $50 million in federal funding every year despite its failure as a policy. States that have adopted this policy have the highest rates of teenage pregnancy.

Another example is parental involvement laws that require young women to notify or obtain consent from their parents prior to having an abortion. This is problematic given that religious and conservative political figures wrongly painted abortion as something other than what it is--a completely legitimate method of terminating an unwanted pregnancy and one of the most common medical procedures among women.

These policies have material consequences for women--and on top of them is the ubiquitous advertising that equates images of women with objects of pleasure in order to sell commodities.

The contradiction between what women want for themselves and what is on offer places enormous pressures on young people. A particularly disgusting example of this discrepancy occurred earlier this year.

In February, right-winger Rush Limbaugh called Sandra Fluke a "slut" on his radio show after she spoke out in support of mandating that insurers cover the cost of birth control in health care legislation. Limbaugh faced no threat of losing his platform for reaching out to masses of people with hateful rhetoric.

Then, just a few months later, two female Michigan lawmakers used the word "vagina" during debates around a controversial state anti-abortion bill--and were banned from the floor of the legislature.

Mobilization and organizing to confront the swirl of contradictory ideas around women's sexuality and reproduction is necessary to stop the tremendous harm that is being done. We've seen the shortcomings of putting faith in elected officials, despite the fact that they continue to use women's issues to rally votes.

From SlutWalk to the Occupy Movement, there's reason to hope that the seeds are being sown for a new social movement with the power to challenge the ways our society treats women.

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