Viral ‘Canceled at 17’ article prompts heated debate about cancel culture

An article published in New York Magazine has prompted readers to discuss the limitations of cancel culture in cases of sexual assault

Frat house shut down by protests amid sexual assault allegations

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A New York Magazine article titled “Canceled at 17” – in which author Elizabeth Weil investigates the fallout in an American high school after a teenage boy shared nude pictures of his girlfriend without her consent – has sparked yet another discussion on cancel culture.

In the article, Weil describes a situation involving a high school student named Diego (all names in the article are pseudonyms), in which he shared a nude photo of his teenage girlfriend Fiona at a party. Following the incident, a number of students called out Diego for sharing the picture without her consent, labeling him an “abuser”. They planned a walkout over the school’s handling of sexual misconduct, and a list even appeared on the girls’ bathroom wall labeled “People to look out for,” including Diego’s name.

Since it was published on 21 June, the article “Canceled at 17” has received a number of criticisms. Arguably, the biggest critique has been that it framed Diego as a victim of cancel culture rather than focusing on Fiona, an actual victim of sexual misconduct. Others offered a critique on the term “cancel culture” itself. Is it really cancel culture if a boy who shared naked pictures of a girl without her consent experienced consequences for it, suggested writer Jordan Crucchiola on Twitter.

“‘Canceled at 17’ is a really irresponsible headline for a story about a boy who shared naked pictures of a girl without her consent and experienced consequences for it,” she wrote. “Interrogate whether those consequences are just, sure. But stop f***ing conflating ‘cancel’ with CONSEQUENCE.”

“When I was in HS, a girl was shunned & made fun of school-wide for being overweight. Adults called it an inevitable part of the HS experience,” said writer Brittany Van Horne, also on Twitter. “She never got a NY Mag article. When a boy shares nudes of a girl & kids choose to shun him for it, why is it suddenly cancel culture?”

Rape culture is inarguably perpetuated in environments – i.e. schools – where sexual violence against women is normalised and excused. Teenagers using misogynistic language or trivialising rape with offensive jokes is a part of the problem, but the way school administrations handle reports of sexual assault plays a major, if not more important, role.

“This is worth reading as a human story, but framing it around ‘cancel culture’ rather than institutional failure, social media and the entirely predictable behavior of teenagers seems way off,” commented journalist and You’re Wrong About host Michael Hobbes.

“The ‘Canceled at 17’ piece actually made me physically angry. Framing assault, bullying, etc as a ‘mistake’ and demanding that the abused be required to give their forgiveness — when the system has failed them & they had to take matters into their own hands — is absurd,” wrote reporter Ruth Etiesit Samuel.

In the wake of the Me Too movement, high school students across the United States have taken a stand against sexual abuse, but more specifically against school administrations’ failure to treat reports of sexual assault seriously. Although government policies such as Title IX are in place to supposedly support victims of sex-based discrimination, activists say it still falls short.

In 2020, the Trump administration finalised new regulations for Title IX, which allowed more protections for those who are accused of sexual assault or rape on college campuses. President Joe Biden is set to reverse many of these provisions with his changes to Title IX, but it still might not be enough.

According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), women between the ages of 16 and 19 are four times more likely than the general population to experience rape, attempted rape, or sexual assault. And of those students between the ages of 18 to 24, only 20 per cent report instances of rape to campus law enforcement.

Cancel culture, a term used to describe attempts to “cancel” a person or group for what is deemed unacceptable behaviour or views, of course, has been having a moment for quite some time now. Comedians are up in arms that cancel culture will lead to the death of comedy. Former Democratic Rep Tulsi Gabbard once linked cancel culture to extremist groups like Isis and Al Qaeda. Even Pope Francis gave his two sense on cancel culture earlier this year, calling it “a form of ideological colonisation” that leaves no room for freedom of expression.

It’s clear that the public discussion around cancel culture and sexual misconduct is ongoing. But in the case of the article “Canceled at 17,” critics believe perhaps what shouldn’t be argued is who the real victim of a sexual assault case is.

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