What “13 Reasons Why” Can Teach Us About Consent and Healthy Relationships

– Sarah Garrison, Grant & Marketing Coordinator

School is back in session for Big Bear students so now is the perfect time to talk about healthy relationships with your teens. Over the summer break I did some “research” and binge watched Netflix’s “13 Reason Why.” When the series was first released there was a lot of back lash from the media saying it romanticized suicide, but I personally disagree and I think it could be used as a great tool to discuss rape culture, consent and healthy relationship with your son or daughter.

Side note – the subjects covered on the show are real and can be intense at times. I do suggest teens watch the show with a trusted adult, and if a teen is feeling suicidal to speak with a licensed therapist before deciding to watch the show.

The basic premise of the show is the main character Hannah dies from suicide and before she does she leaves tapes for thirteen different people who impacted her life before she died. Clay, Hannah’s friend and love interest is the character who is listening to the tapes as the show progresses.

I want to break this article down in two sections – first I’ll cover consent and then bullying/suicide. Caution, show spoilers ahead.

13 Reasons Why and Consent

Jessica, one of Hannah’s friends, and Hannah were both raped in the series, but neither one of them said “no.” So does that really mean they were raped? Yes it does, and it’s a perfect way to explain California’s Yes Means Yes law.

When Jessica is raped by Bryce she is under the influence of alcohol and unconscious, unable to give consent and incapable of objecting. When Hannah is raped by Bryce (ugh, Bryce again), she doesn’t object with words, but with her body. She physically resists by not engaging and she goes numb. She could have been too afraid to say no, or her body could have gone into “freeze mode.”  Unfortunately, both situations are much more common than the violent rapes that are depicted in the movies.

Both scenes were very hard to watch, and at times I turned away, but with open conversation with teens we can convey the importance of affirmative consent.

The Yes Means Yes law means colleges must use affirmative consent as the standard in campus disciplinary decisions, defining how and when people agree to have sex, instead of looking for an obvious no. This can be tricky to talk to teens about, and a lot ask me, “Well how do I know if my partner is consenting?” I respond with, “Just ask them!” I usually get weird looks from students when I say that, but the show’s protagonist Clay asks not once, but twice when he is with someone. He says, “Hey, is this OK?” And it’s really that simple.

DOVES will be back in the schools this year to tackle this topic, and others with students.

13 Reasons Why and Bullying/­­Suicide

I am no expert in feeling suicidal, but what I can attest to is feeling lonely and isolated as a teen, especially in middle school and the first two years of high school. In middle school I was throw in a trash can because I looked at someone “the wrong way.” When I was a freshman I asked a boy to the dance and he told me “I’d rather go with a dog.” I was called a lesbian because I was good at softball (I hate that the term lesbian was used in a derogatory way – I admire the strength and courage of LGBT teens who face criticism every day at school), and there were times where I ate my lunch in the bathroom stall so no one saw me eating alone. I could go on, but you get the point.

When critics of “13 Reasons Why” say that high school isn’t that bad, I am here to tell you that for some people it is that bad, especially if a student has been sexual assaulted. I couldn’t imagine what life would’ve been like if on top of the bullying I faced, I also had to deal with surviving rape.

According to neuropsychiatrist Daniel Siegel, adolescents who are absorbing negative messages about who they are and what is expected of them may sink to that level instead of realizing their true potential. I encourage all parents to read Siegel’s book: Brainstorm: The Teenage Brain from the Inside Out, to fully grasp the developmental changes that take place in the teenage mind. If you don’t remember the complex emotions you experienced in high school, this book will do a good job of explaining why teens think and act the way they do.

So what’s the solution? Here are my personal tips for teens on how to get through high school:

  1. Talk to Someone
    Talk to someone until you find someone who will listen, especially if you are feeling suicidal or if you have survived rape. For me that someone was my mom. Almost every week I would go in her room and just cry and she would listen. I trusted her and found strength in her comfort. In the show, Hannah talked to her counselor, but she didn’t like what support she got, so she stopped talking. Instead, I’m telling you to find another adult, again especially if you are feeling suicidal or have survived rape. Be persistent until you are taken seriously and given the support you need. The high school has an incredible healthy start program, counselors, teachers, administrators, and coaches. You can also come to DOVES free of charge and if you are over 12, without parent permission. If you’re too afraid to talk to someone in person, loveisrespect.org has an online chat or you can always call the National Suicide Hotline 1-800-273-8255 and visit their website, https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/ to talk to someone online. 
  1. Be Yourself
    Without a doubt, the reason I struggled in middle school and high school was because I was trying to fit in. Instead of embracing the person I am, I tried to be popular and hang around people who really weren’t my friends. It’s difficult for a 14-year-old to define who they are, but I knew the person I was trying to be wasn’t making me happy. So toward the end of my sophomore year I started to eat lunch with like-minded people who became my friends. And sure, I was still bullied, but with a core group of friends, it didn’t sting as bad.
  1. Perspective
    High school is not life. Let me say (yell) that again, HIGH SCHOOL IS NOT LIFE. Where you’re there in the thick of it, it seems like all that matters is who you sit with, who you date, who becomes prom queen, etc., but in reality it is such a small part of your life. Let’s just say you live to be 100 (for the sake of easy math), four percent, FOUR, is all the time high school equates to. If we scale that down to a 24 hour day, that means only 57 minutes of your entire day was time spent in high school. Don’t be so consumed over such a small fraction of time, and don’t let such a small fraction of time ruin your life.
  1. Change your list
    In the show Hannah lists 13 reasons that lead to her suicide, but I encourage you to do the opposite. List your hopes, your dreams, your goals, your future. Your entire life is ahead of you so start daydreaming about how awesome you get to make it. Or start a gratitude list. Write down all of the good things that happen in your day and notice what you are grateful for. It will help build you up when you feel down.
  1. Forgive
    This is a pro-tip because I certainly couldn’t forgive my bullies when I was in high school. Have you ever heard the saying hurt people hurt people? If at the young age of 15 you can look past the pain that you’re experiencing and see that maybe a person hurt you because they are hurting too, forgive them and move on, then I promise you will have successful future.

If you’re thinking yeah right, these tips won’t do anything to help me, then go back to number one and find someone who will comfort and support you. Your life is too valuable and the world needs the impact you’ll bring to it.