Canceled at 17 (for Violating a Girl’s Privacy)

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I’m sure by the time I get this video up, the news cycle will have moved on four times over, but I don’t care: I wasted 20 minutes of my life reading “Canceled at 17,” the New York Magazine cover story that is now titled “Teenage Justice A list of boys “to look out for” appeared on a high-school bathroom wall last fall. The story of one of them”, and since I wasted MY time, now I’m going to waste YOUR time venting all of my anger about this absolutely garbage article.

First of all, a content warning: I’ll be talking about sexual assault and suicide, so if that’s too much for you, you may want to give this video a skip.

Second of all, I want to offer a big “fuck you” to the few people, all men, who posted this article on Facebook talking about how thought-provoking it is and how horrible teenagers are. I saw that enough that I thought, “Oh, this must be worth my time!” Well guess what? It wasn’t. And I knew that within moments of starting it, because it’s written so badly that I had to Google the name of the writer to confirm that they were not, in fact, one of the high school students described in the piece. That would have made sense in terms of passages that sound like they were written by a chatbot that had yet to learn sentence structure, like “Just one more kid with a backpack in a hoodie, and at first Diego waved and Jenni smiled. Diego because he wanted to show he wasn’t scared, as this kid had thrown accelerant on a stupid mistake Diego had made, thus blown up Diego’s life.”

It would also explain the way everyone in this story is described like a character from Gossip Girl: “Diego, who is enormously appealing but also very canceled.” “Diego’s eyes dark, goofy, and sad; his body freshly stretched to almost six feet.” “Dave attended a different school, but he was such a good wingman — his earnestness was so disarming, his golden curls fell so adorably into his eyes — that everyone, boys and girls alike, was at least a little smitten with him.”

Unfortunately, these passages were typed, presumably with one hand, by a grown-ass woman named Elizabeth Weil. And for some reason, Weil writes thousands and thousands of words about Diego and his friends dealing with “cancelation” before she tells us why Diego was “canceled”: he showed off his girlfriend’s nude photos to a bunch of people at a party, without her permission. And while he felt he apologized to his girlfriend, she says it was more of a love letter and not an apology. So, he showed people photos of his nude teen girlfriend, learned nothing, did zero work to fix anything, and now a bunch of other teens don’t want to hang out with him anymore. Not everyone, of course: the article spends a lot of time talking about his friends who stood by him, and the other “canceled” boys hanging out with him in the library, oh and he went to FOUR proms, and he’s been accepted to college.

But for some reason, this article features Diego as the victim: Weil goes to great lengths to make sure you don’t feel bad for Diego’s ex-girlfriend when she finally gets around to admitting what Diego did to her. “Then, in the middle of last summer, Diego went to a party. He got drunk and — Diego really fucked up here: Everybody, including Diego, agrees on that, so please consider setting aside judgment for a moment — showed a nude of his beautiful girlfriend to a few kids there.”

That is one of the most disgusting paragraphs I’ve ever read in an article, and not just because of the egregious m-dashes and colon or the faux casual tone. This sentence has everything: a built-in excuse (he was drunk!), a flattering display of character (he knows he fucked up!), a vague downplaying of the situation (“a few kids”), and the absolute worst part is the second implied excuse: “his beautiful girlfriend.” She was previously described as “almost psychedelically beautiful: pale, celestial skin, a whole galaxy of freckles, a supernova of lush hair.” So, you guys, this wasn’t a teen boy showing off a girl’s naked body nonconsensually to brag about his prowess or boost his manhood, no! This was a teen boy who couldn’t help but share his girlfriend’s beautiful body with others. Like if you think about it, it was really a compliment!

When his girlfriend found out about this gross violation, she dumped Diego and filed a Title IX complaint with her school. Many of their classmates spread the news, and people stopped hanging out with Diego. Graffiti in the girls’ bathroom listed the names of boys who had been found to be abusers to warn others, and Diego ended up on the list but clearly he and Weil believe he shouldn’t have been.

A lot of the “canceling” that Weil describes sounds like it was pulled from the “thathappened” subreddit, like one bully saying in a class “Fuck Diego. I love cancel culture. If you were to cancel anyone, who would you cancel?”

Just…can you even picture a teenager saying that? “ I love cancel culture. If you were to cancel anyone, who would you cancel?” Like…jesus christ.

“He was like, “Yo, I heard this kid was walking around bragging that he was gonna tell your girlfriend that you showed some random dude her nude.”

“Diego was like, “Broooo, what?””

And then, get this: that kid DID tell his girlfriend that he showed some random dude her nude. Duder nude. This is just great writing.

Despite this article being incredibly long, there are a lot of missing pieces: for a start, Weil appears to completely miss the true “villain” of this story: Betsy Devos. I know, you weren’t expecting that, were you? I mean, obviously Diego is a villain as well, seeing that he shared nonconsensual pornography of an underage girl, but remember how I said the girl filed a Title Ix complaint? Weil admits that the complaint did nothing for anyone, and the lack of school administration doing anything about this case and others, many of the teens staged a walkout around the same time that the list of dangerous boys was appearing in the girls’ bathroom.

The reason why the complaint did nothing was, in part, because back in 2017 Trump’s Secretary of Education, Betsy Devos, “began the process of rolling back years of civil rights protections for students across the country by rescinding guidance on Title IX,” according to activist group Know Your IX. For those who don’t know, Title IX is a federal law passed by Congress in 1972 to protect women and girls from discrimination in education. Later, the courts determined that it could also be applied to protect other marginalized groups like LGBTQ people.

Over the years, conservatives have chipped away at these rights, but Devos really dealt it a killing blow, deciding that it could no longer apply to anything that happens off-campus, narrowing the definition of what counts as sexual harassment, imposing new filing requirements on victims, and allowing suspected abusers to fight back with litigation. In 2020, Politico reported “Brett Sokolow, an attorney and Title IX consultant, predicted “systemic failure” within a few years as both colleges and K-12 schools struggle to put in place the federal requirements.

“I think the system potentially collapses under the weight of the litigation that comes from this,” he said.”

And guess what, he was right! School administrators like Diego’s were unwilling or unable to respond properly to Title IX complaints, whereas prior to Devos’s new rules they might have been better equipped to actually sit down with both parties and work on restorative justice. Instead, victims were left feeling unsupported by authorities, meaning they really had no choice but to either shut up or engage in positive actions, like walkouts and using the same whisper networks that women have used to keep other women safe for millenia.

And as Weil would probably see it, the tragic result of all this is that a boy who violated a girl’s privacy lost some friends. Not so many that he didn’t still get to go to four proms. I’m sorry, I’m still reeling from that, as a giant nerd who went to one prom and hated it.

Meanwhile, Weil misrepresents that this is some kind of “new” epidemic known as “canceling.” It’s not. When I was in high school a million years ago, I was part of a small group of friends who “canceled” one of our friends. She hooked up with another girl’s boyfriend, and so we iced her out. No more phone calls, no more party invites, no more sitting with us at lunch. We branded her slutty and had nothing more to do with her. We kept up that stint for YEARS, and it was only after I went off to college and got some distance that I realized how stupidly I had behaved and I apologized to her. But I know that that time in her life was truly awful because of how we treated her for what was in fact a stupid teenage mistake.

Teens have been doing this shit, and will continue doing this shit, forever, because they’re kind of stupid and socially awkward and that’s the entire point of being a teen: learning how to navigate relationships and social situations that you’re encountering for the first time. 

The problem isn’t that these teens did it to a boy for violating a girl’s privacy–that’s actually fucking great. Because the real problem, for many many years, has been teens doing it to girls because, like I did to my friend in high school, they’re sexually promiscuous, or just suspected of being sexually promiscuous, or because they’re raped, or because they have their nude photos passed around by the boys they thought they could trust. 

Here’s a not-fun fact: if you go to the Wiki page for the Steubenville High School rape case, in which a teen girl was sexually assaulted by classmates who then passed around photos and videos of the event and laughed about it, and after which adults tried to cover it up by telling the victim not to press charges because it would ruin the boys’ lives, if you go to that page you can scroll all the way to the bottom to see pages related to that one. They’re all about other teen girls who were sexually assaulted, and several of them are about the resulting suicide of the victim. Like Rehteah Parsons, who at the age of 15 was raped by four boys. The boys then passed around a photo of the crime, so that everyone in her school and small town knew about it, resulting in her being inundated with people calling her a slut and sending her messages asking for sex. The police called it a “he said, she said” situation and dropped the investigation. 17 months after the rape, Rehteah Parsons hung herself.

Audrie Pott was 15 when she was raped by three boys who then took nude photos of her and circulated them around her school, leading kids to bully her. She killed herself a week later. Two of the boys who raped her served 30 days (weekends only) in prison and the third served 45 consecutive days.

For every famous case of a teen girl violated and then bullied, sometimes to the point of suicide, there are dozens more we’ve never heard about. One survey from 2013 found that one in ten ex-partners threaten to release revenge porn of their ex, and of those who threaten it, 60% actually do it. Another survey found that 90% of victims are women, 93% said it caused them great emotional distress, half had suicidal thoughts, and nearly half of them said that they were then stalked or harassed by other people who saw their nudes.

So if you tell me a story about a boy who passed around nonconsensual nudes of a girl, and you tell me this is a horrible story of bullying, I would say, “Oh no, I hope that girl is still alive and getting help.” If you then say, “Oh actually this is the story of the boy getting bullied for sharing nonconsensual nudes.” I’d say “oh…well no one should be bullied. What happened to him?” “Some kids stopped being his friend, and warned other girls to stay away.” “Oh, then was he bullied by people in authority? Was he thrown in prison or some other unhelpful response?” “No he faced literally no punishment, he’s going to graduate soon and go away to college where no one will know what he did. Oh also he went to four proms.”

I think at that point I would sigh, and simply hope that New York Magazine starts making better editorial decisions.
Postscript via Gawker “Now, it appears that the piece withheld some even more relevant context: that one of writer Elizabeth Weil’s children attended the school at the center of the story.”

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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