When I first started doing my MA thesis work, my research advisor encouraged me to read more academic literature about abuse, sexual violence, etc. so that I could have a more reliable theoretical framework to refer to by the time I started writing. This is, for the most part, wonderful advice. However, one segment of academic literature she wanted me to look into was cyberbullying, which I found…odd.
On the one hand, it somewhat makes sense: after all, my research focuses on Internet-mediated sexual abuse of underage girls, and most victims of cyberbullying are young and female. However, I was uncomfortable applying the “cyberbullying” label to the events I was studying, since it seemed to trivialize sexual violence as being on the same scale as pigtail-pulling on the playground.
In this week’s reading, danah boyd talks about how categorically labeling an act as “bullying” can make it more difficult for us to later make a distinction between more minor acts of bullying (i.e. annoying but relatively harmless behaviors like teasing) and more extreme acts of aggression. By labeling all acts on this spectrum as bullying, we run the risk of delegitimizing the experience of victims who are enduring more pernicious aggressive behaviors.
However, I can see how this kind of discourse about scales and spectrums when it comes to victimization can be problematic. In analyzing the “severity” of aggressive acts, we risk ignoring the plights of individuals whose experiences outwardly appear minor (e.g. teasing) but is nevertheless doing a significant amount of emotional and psychological damage to the victim. In categorizing one type of abuse as more harmful than another, we obscure the negative experiences of individuals whose victimization we label as “minor. What’s happening here is a kind of psychological triage system, and while triage is perfectly useful (and, arguably, absolutely necessary) in medical situations, it might not be a good model to follow when dealing with issues of abuse and aggression.