The appalling story of the suicide of a 12-year-old Florida girl who had endured months of vicious online and in-person harassment, and the arrest last week of two of her alleged tormentors -- ages 12 and 14 -- raises tough questions about bullying, the role of social media in children's lives, and adult responsibility. But the tragedy also reminds us of a basic truth often overlooked in our age of feminist consciousness: human cruelty knows no gender.
The bullies who hounded Rebecca Ann Sedwick -- taunting her and picking fights at school, then continuing the persecution by cellphone and telling her to kill herself -- were all girls, more than a dozen. The ringleader, according to the authorities, was the 14-year-old now facing charges of aggravated stalking. She is reported to have started her vendetta because her boyfriend had once dated Rebecca, and to have not only bullied the victim herself, but also terrorized other girls into shunning her. Shortly before her arrest, authorities say, the girl posted a Facebook message saying, in crude terms, that she didn't care about Rebecca's suicide. (Police say the girl has denied posting the message, saying her account was hacked.)
Whatever legal responsibility the girls may ultimately bear, the moral culpability -- if media reports are accurate -- is clear. When girls are victimized by boys, pundits and activists are quick to call for soul-searching about sexism in our culture, about our failure to teach boys to respect girls. Yet psychologists and educators agree that bullying is typically perpetrated by same-sex peers, with girls at least as likely as boys to be both victims and offenders.
Some feminists argue that girl-on-girl bullying is the result of internalized misogyny, of a patriarchal culture that pits girls and women against each other. But what about boys who abuse and bully other boys? Or, for that matter, girls who bully boys? Two years ago in another Florida town, three 14-year-old girls assaulted an 11-year-old boy in public, stripping him naked while he struggled and screamed; one girl filmed the "prank" and posted the video on YouTube. (The boy's mother chose not to file charges.)
Gender, and cultural gender norms, may influence the specific forms bullying takes; generally, girls' abusive tactics tend to be less physical and less overtly threatening than boys', though this is not always the case. But the underlying viciousness is no different. The idea that girl bullies are victims or tools of the almighty patriarchy is a demeaning denial of female responsibility -- and female capacity for cruelty, power-seeking, and aggression.
In her 1991 book "Feminism Without Illusions," feminist Elizabeth Fox Genovese wrote, "Those who have experienced dismissal by the junior high school girls' clique could hardly, with a straight face, claim generosity and nurture as a natural attribute of women." And, as cases like Sedwick's show, mean girls are capable of far worse than dismissal. It's not just boys who need to be taught empathy -- and who need to be reminded that hurting others has consequences.
The national conversation about teenage sexual assault sparked earlier this year by the Steubenville, Ohio, rape case brought attention to serious problems. But the concern should expand to other kinds of cases -- ones involving male victims (such as a disturbing recent incident in Alaska, which received no publicity beyond the local media, in which an intoxicated teenage boy at a party was subjected to severe sexual abuse for entertainment) and ones involving female offenders.
It's not about girls versus boys; it's about tormentors versus victims.