Why 'Amber Cole' video is a cautionary tale

OPINION - There are times when social media is so revolting, it makes you wonder why you even have a computer in the first place...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

There are times when social media is so fun and awesome that you wish you could stay on and converse with your friends all day. And then there are times when social media is so revolting, it makes you wonder why you even have a computer in the first place.

This week, social media became downright vile.

A 14-year-old girl from Tennessee became a trending topic when a video of her performing oral sex behind a school was posted on Facebook, and instantly went viral.

The girl’s name is reportedly Amber Cole. And the video showed her on her knees in front of a teenaged boy, behind a school building, as the person holding the video phone recorded the scene and another young boy looked on.

The details of why she was there and why she was recorded are not fully known. But the story has it that the boy in the video was an ex-boyfriend who told her that if she wanted his affection, she’s have to perform oral sex on him. It’s not clear whether the girl knew she was being videotaped, but judging from tweets after the video went viral, it’s almost certain she didn’t consent to having the footage posted online.

It wasn’t long before the video spread like wildfire on just about all the popular social media platforms, and 14-year-old Cole’s Twitter page was bombarded with taunts, scolding and ridicule are times when social media is so revolting, it makes you wonder why you even have a computer in the first place.. She tweeted “now i see why people commite sucide” [sic], and her mother issued a plea to stop distributing the video before her account was suspended.

Where do you even start with this?

First, there’s the issue of social media users freely sharing a video that is clearly child pornography — some enthusiastically so. It’s unlikely that all these users are child predators, but rather, they’re engrossed in what’s become a “share-and-shock” culture on social media — where violent, gruesome or sexually explicit images are shared in the way videos of baby pandas used to be.

Social media has also become a vehicle for harassing the teenager, with strangers tweeting her to ask for sexual favors, label her a “ho” and worse. Even the tweet said to be sent by the girl’s mother drew vulgar responses. Social media is often lauded for its ability to rally support for victims of disaster, discrimination and violence, but this incident shows that it’s just as powerful in public persecution.

But what’s more concerning is the mindset of the children in the center of it all. The girl, judging from her tweets, has clearly been damaged in this. But in all the firestorm that this incident has caused, very little has been said about the boy receiving the sex act, the boy who stood by as a spectator, and the person who was taping the incident.

What have these young men learned about the respect for their female peers and their sexuality? Not much, it seems. Their behavior brings to mind the teens quoted in a story on teen sex in the October issue of Essence magazine. One 13-year-old girl talked about a strategy used by some male classmates to get sexual favors:

“A guy will want to be with a girl, so he’ll have his friends go up to her and just insult her… telling her she’s ugly, her breasts are lopsided, she has stretch marks, nappy hair, she’s fat, whatever you can think of. Then…the guy will come up behind her and tell her, ‘I think you’re beautiful.’ Suddenly, he looks like Prince Charming.”

The student told Essence that once a boy wins a girl’s trust, he’s start asking for sex. Her friend added: “Some boys will tell everybody you did something even when you didn’t. Or they’ll take a picture of you doing something sexual and put it on Facebook. Sometimes I feel as if I’m in the Revolutionary War.”

The boys involved with Cole seem to have played the same game, using manipulation to exploit a young girl starved for affection. Have these boys come to believe that girls exist purely to be exploited for sexual pleasure and, and in some cases, bragging rights on the Internet? And if that’s the case, who did they learn that from?

In a survey by Essence and the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, 1 in 3 black boys say they feel they need to have sex in order to “look cool,” and more than half say their friends have pressured them to have sex. (Consider also the same survey found that one in five black boys said that other people make them feel like sex is the only they have to offer anyone.) An explicit Facebook video is surefire way to prove “coolness.”

Then there’s Cole, the child who is likely to be the most damaged by it all. By the time a teenager gets on her knees to win approval, it’s too late to start talking about her self-esteem. If the “win-back-my-first-love” story is accurate, then it’s clear that the child’s sense of worth and dignity was under attack long before Twitter knew her name. As for those who assert that a teenager knew she was doing, the word “consent” can only be used very loosely here. (In fact, legally, it can’t be used at all, since the age of consent in Tennessee is 18.)

What happened was likely more akin to coercion, and a feeling of sexual powerlessness that many young girls are trapped by every day, without the attention of cameras and Twitter.

The incident only magnifies more findings of the Essence teen sex survey — that one-third of black girls believe boys only want them for sex, and nearly 1 in 4 black girls have had sex with a boy because they were afraid of losing him. (Also consider that 72 percent of young African-Americans believe that the media sends the message that the most important quality of black women is their sex appeal.)

Blogger Anna Belle says that girlhood feeling of vulnerability is why she’s taken up the cause for Amber Cole, writing:

“I am familiar… with life on the streets as a girl budding into adolescence. I know the sneers and the cat calls and the attempts by boys, and sometimes grown men who should have known better, to get my pants off or slip an unexpected french kiss into what was supposed to be a fraternal or paternal hug… Hell, a lot of girls, with the way they’ve been raised, don’t even know “NO” is an option. I didn’t for the longest time. How can we ever make the hard choices if we don’t know they exist?”

Anna Belle, using the Twitter hashtag #AmbersArmy, has been on a round-the-clock campaign to get all the links to the video removed, with some success. The original Facebook link has been taken down, and Anna Belle says she’s made contact with the FBI. The Memphis Police Department is also now looking into the video, saying that no one has been charged yet, but that their Sex Crimes Unit is investigating.

In the best case scenario, authorities will find and prosecute the person who originally recorded and distributed the video. The boys will learn a hard lesson about sex, privacy and exploitation, And Cole will find help in dealing with issues of self-esteem and sexual agency. But the damage is probably already done, with a teenage girl trying to pick up the pieces after doing something she thought would win her favor and affection, and teenage boys finding fun in exploiting that weakness.

The question now is — do we care enough about our teenagers to make sure an Amber Cole doesn’t happen again?