When some boys in Katherine Brochu’s class asked her to send them some explicit pictures two years ago, she admits she didn’t think twice.
“When I was 13 years old, I sent… explicit pictures to some boys in my school because they asked me to do that,” says Brochu, now 15.
“I thought they would like me for my body and that they would appreciate me for that. That I would be loved by some guys because of how I looked,” she explains.
Before Brochu knew it, almost all the boys in her Montreal high school had either copies of the photos or had at least seen them.
Brochu told her personal story to Daybreak Montreal host Mike Finnerty this morning in the wake of 10 teenage boys in Laval, Que., getting arrested Thursday for circulating similarly explicit pictures. This case and Brochu’s are not related.
She says she didn’t realize at the time how her reputation would be tarnished.
“It was very difficult. I was alone. My friends didn’t want to be my friends anymore,” she says.
One of those friends called Brochu’s mother to explain what was going on.
“She wasn’t proud of me. My parents cried a lot,” she says. “But I think now they’re proud because I learned from it.”
She says she still gets requests from boys for explicit photos — and she turns them all down.
Photos have led to digital and real-life bullying
Not all teenage girls who find themselves in similar situations are able to recover like Brochu did. In Nova Scotia, Rehtaeh Parsons, 17, died last April following a suicide attempt after her alleged rape was documented in a cellphone photo and distributed to classmates.
- SPECIAL REPORT: Justice for Rehtaeh
A rash of teen suicides have cropped up in recent years relating to alleged sexual assaults, cyberbullying and the online distribution of photos and videos. Amanda Todd was a British Columbia teenager who became the target of online bullying after flashing a crowd via a webcam during a live-streaming chat. The 15-year-old committed suicide in Oct. 2012.
Brochu found support from her school’s guidance counsellor, and over time even forgave one of the boys involved in distributing her photos after he told her he sincerely regretted it. She says she felt he was only going along with his friends.
Meanwhile, McGill University professor Shaheen Shariff says the punishment for the teenage boys in Laval may have been disproportionately tough since they’re juvenile, first-time offenders.
Shariff is researching cyberbullying, youth social networking and digital citizenship.
The boys, all aged between 13 and 15, were arrested before 6 a.m. Thursday and were arraigned on charges of possession and distribution of child pornography later in the afternoon. They’re accused of trading photos of girls — in several cases, of each other's girlfriends — among themselves on their smartphones.
Two of them also face charges of producing child pornography.
Does the punishment fit the crime?
Shariff says she’s disturbed by the severity of the charges and emphasizes the importance of distinguishing between youths and adults in a case like this. “Teenagers are just doing what they would do normally, except that this is online,” she says.
There’s a big difference between them and people like priests, teachers and foster parents who are also charged with child pornography crimes, Shariff continues, adding that legal literacy and a greater understanding of how norms have shifted in the digital age are required today to address cases like this.
In Brochu’s case, all the boys involved in circulating her pictures were forced to apologize to her. She says they faced no other punishment.
“I think it’s not enough to just apologize for that and to write a letter and say, ‘I’m sorry because of what I did,’” Brochu says.
She advises teenage girls who find themselves fielding requests for explicit photos from classmates to think about the consequences of their actions before snapping a photo.
“It could be the worst mistake of your life,” she says.