Editor’s Note: This post may contain spoilers from the Netflix series, 13 Reasons Why.
Netflix’s latest hit show 13 Reasons Why may be aimed at teens, but it’s a must-watch for any parent too. For one, I have yet to see a drama that so honestly depicts the heartbreaking reality of teen suicide. But I’ve also been struck by the incredible insight it gives parents as to what’s really going on the minds of our teens.
If you haven’t yet seen it, the show revolves around the suicide of high school student Hannah Baker, who narrates her story on tapes (13 in total) which she has recorded prior to her death, detailing why she killed herself. The tapes have been given to all those she believes are responsible, including the much lauded high school jock Bryce, who actually is a predatory rapist. Having transferred schools, new girl Hannah’s innocent crush on Bryce’s team mate Justin starts a grim chain of events that ultimately leads to her suicide.
One of the more shocking stories within the show is that of Hannah’s best friend Jess, who continues to remain friendly with Bryce even after he rapes when she’s drunk at a party. She wakes up to find him on top of her and is unable to fend him off.
That story alone is difficult to watch; and it begs so many questions. Namely, why would anyone maintain a friendship with their rapist? And doesn’t negate the crime itself?
The truth is, I know the answer to all these questions — and sadly, I can speak from experience.
It’s a defense mechanism to somehow “normalize” the rape. Jess is in denial about what happened to her and by staying friends with Bryce, it helps her to brush what happened to her under the rug and act like everything’s just fine. Except of course it isn’t, and the fresh-faced Jess we see at the start of the tale is worlds away from the numb girl we see after the rape.
My own assault happened when I was in college. I met Luke at a freshman ball to welcome first-year students. He had long brown hair and green eyes. All the girls swooned when he appeared. I couldn’t believe it when he asked me on a date. I was thrilled.
Not keen on traveling home late at night where I lived in London, I accepted his offer to come back to his apartment — not for one moment expecting to have sex. Maybe this sounds naive of me, but I genuinely thought we might talk all night. Though I’d had some wine, I was sober. And when I got into his bed, I kept all my clothes on.
But it didn’t matter how many times I said no — and I said it loudly and clearly. He didn’t listen. In the end, I just stared at the ceiling and willed it to end. I didn’t sleep a wink that night and crawled out of his house the minute the trains started running again.
Still, I saw him again, even after everything, because I didn’t want to admit to myself what had really happened. I didn’t want deal with it or even acknowledge it. I even thought that if we dated more — although I never stayed in a bed with him again — it would all be OK.
Which is why I more than understand Jessica’s motivation to deny what had happened to her and carry on with life. Because facing the truth is much harder. You can’t quite believe that something like that actually happened to you.
I blamed myself, in a million different ways. I shouldn’t have gone to his flat. I shouldn’t have gotten into his bed. I must have given him the wrong idea. It has to be my fault. It couldn’t be green-eyed Luke’s — could it?
Of course, I knew this behavior would raise eyebrows and credibility of my story. “How could you still date someone who did that to you?” I was sure the skeptics would say. “It must never have happened.”
The longer it went on, the more I thought that people would doubt the validity of my rape. So I kept silent about it — for five long years. Then one night, it all bubbled out on a sweet boy, mid-kiss. Something reminded me of what happened all those years before and the flashback caused me to open up.
And that’s precisely why Jessica’s story is so important. Not only because it opens a dialogue about the warning signs of sexual assault, but also because it reminds us that rape victims come to terms with what has happened to them at different times. There is no right or wrong way.
My daughter is only 6, but I’ve already begun to instill in her a sense of respect for herself and her body. In years to come, I know I’ll have to educate her on the fact that photos on phones can last forever on the Internet. That someone we trust, someone we loved, can just as easily break that trust and use photos or videos as a means of revenge. That no matter what situation she is in, no means no. That a rape culture of “boys being boys” isn’t acceptable. That if her gut tells her something is wrong, to act on it immediately.
When you consider that 93 percent of juveniles who have been sexually assaulted knew their perpetrator, it begs the question: Who can we trust?
Let’s face it, every girl, and every woman, has endured their fair share of unwanted attention from “nice” boys. I can still vividly remember how it felt to hear boys commenting on the size of my chest, or the one time a classmate slid his hand up my skirt as “a joke” in class. The double-standard that exists between us — of boys being called studs for their sexual “conquests” and girls being called sluts for doing just the same — is just as common now as it was in my day.
But 13 Reasons Why aims to cut right through all that. The show depicts bright, funny, moralistic girls who are being treated like commodities. And most horrifying of all, the high school seems completely unaware of this, awarding honors on the rapist himself.
At first glance, it might just look like yet another teen drama. But a show like this holds incredible value, raising awareness of the pressures young women are under, even in their early teens, every day. It reminds us that no matter how Jessica reacts after her rape or how much she had to drink on the evening itself, she is a victim who deserves to be heard. To be believed.
As soon as they’re ready, I’ll be telling my daughter and son all about consent — how some may describe it as a murky, gray area, but that in fact, it is quite a simple one: If a girl says no, she means no. Period.