To What Extent Can You Blame A Bully?

The Rutgers sex-spying case is the latest in a string of tragic stories about people committing suicide after having been allegedly bullied, harassed, or violated. But can people truly be "driven" to suicide?

Tyler Clementi, who jumped off a bridge after his fellow student taped him having sex with another man is just the most recent in a series of suicides possibly triggered by the actions of others. Thirteen-year-old Asher Brown shot himself last week the same day he came out to his parents; they blame schoolmates who mocked his size, his clothes, his religion, and his sexual orientation. Fifteen-year-old Billy Lucas was also the subject of bullying and homophobic slurs at school; he committed suicide earlier this month. Some have blamed Virginia Quarterly Review managing editor Kevin Morrissey's suicide on workplace bullying. And of course there's Phoebe Prince, whose alleged bullies are facing criminal charges after her January suicide.

In the last two cases, some have questioned how big a role bullying played. In a series of articles for Slate, Emily Bazelon argued that Phoebe Prince was depressed long before her classmates began mistreating her, and that this mistreatment may have been exaggerated. Bazelon also wrote about Morrissey's suicide — she pointed out that although Morrissey definitely had a contentious relationship with his boss Ted Genoways, he also had a history of depression, and his family didn't blame Genoways for the suicide (nor did he mention Genoways in his suicide note, as had previously been reported).

Clementi's case seems a bit more clear-cut. If all the allegations are true (and alleged perp Dharun Ravi's Twitter suggests they are), then Ravi and fellow student Molly Wei not only invaded his privacy and broadcast sex footage of him without his consent, but also might have outed him to other students and anyone watching via iChat. We don't know whether he was openly gay, and we don't know the exact reasons for his apparent suicide. But we do know that his death directly followed a disturbing violation, one that may have made his sexuality public before he wanted it to be so.

Says one commenter, "Ravi and Wei did not cause this guy to kill himself. Yes, they are shitty little jerks who deserve to be punished for invasion of privacy — but they didn't push the guy off the bridge." That they didn't literally push him is certainly true — whether someone can be more subtly "driven" to suicide by someone else's actions is a more complicated question. We tend to believe that only depressed people commit suicide, but not all cultures share this belief. For instance, Ethan Watters argues in Crazy Like Us that suicide in Japan was not necessarily thought of as a response to mental problem prior to the arrival of Western psychiatric treatments. And it's certainly possible that enough trauma can make a person suicidal. On the other hand, Bazelon argued persuasively that bullying wasn't the only factor behind Prince's and Morrissey's deaths, and we don't know all the facts in the Clementi case yet.

Bazelon quotes psychiatry professor Robert King: "Suicide has such a terrible weight. It leaves everyone to search for why did this happen. And then someone must be to blame." But ultimately, prevention is more important than blame, and the best thing we can learn about any of these tragic cases is how to make sure they aren't repeated. Dan Savage takes this approach with the It Gets Better project, which is designed to help gay kids who may be bullied realize there's a better life waiting for them after high school. In the Rutgers case, Ravi and Wei clearly need to be punished to illustrate that their crimes — which, as I've said, I would liken to sexual assault — won't be tolerated. In the future, though, Rutgers and all schools should be teaching students to respect both one another's privacy and one another's sexual orientation — and provide resources for those who may have been targeted because of the latter. School administrators need to be swift to respond to all forms of bullying, as well as to concerns about students' mental health, and they need to take homophobia as seriously as all other forms of prejudice — rather than, as is all too often the case, engaging in it themselves. And the culture as a whole needs to recognize that making fun of someone's sexual behavior just isn't a funny joke. Sadly, it didn't get better for Tyler Clementi — which means we all need to be doing a better job.

Parents Say Bullies Drove Their Son To Take His Life [Houston Chronicle]
How A College Kid Livestreamed His Roommate Having Gay Sex, Possibly Causing A Suicide [Gawker]
Tragedy At The Virginia Quarterly Review [Slate]
Bullying May Have Pushed 15-Year-Old To Suicide [WTHR
What Really Happened To Phoebe Prince? [Slate]
Sources: Rutgers Student Kills Self After Sex Tape [CBS 2 NY]

Earlier: Rutgers Sex-Spy Victim Commits Suicide
Awesome Video Project Shows Gay Youth "It Gets Better"

Image via CBS