Student commits suicide after cyberbullies attack her for porn video

Her family accuses ex-classmates of cyberbullying after finding clip; police say posts not criminal harassment

Alyssa Funke, who shot herself on April 16.

Alyssa Funke, a 19-year-old student at the University of Wisconsin at River Falls, committed suicide after online commenters bombarded her Twitter and Facebook accounts with nasty comments over a porn video she had posted, but police investigators are not treating her case as criminal harassment.

"I'm Stella Ann. I'm 18, from Minnesota, and I'm really looking forward to get started," she said in the video for CastingCouch-X which was posted in March. When some of her former classmates at Stillwater High School found out, a barrage of abusive messages followed, KMSP-TV reported.

“Wow, your a thot [prostitute]. Does her dad know?” one tweeted. "Nothing brings a school together like a porn star who graduated last year. I guess you could say news spreads fast here at Stillwater hahah,” another wrote. Many of the comments cannot be published in major media outlets.

On April 16, Funke, who reportedly struggled with depression, shot herself on her family’s boat. Her death raises questions about the consequences of harsh online comments, which may or may nor rise to the level of criminal harassment, especially when directed at a porn amateur, who may not have the tough skin or workplace support to deflect the Internet abuse.

Students at the university told KMSP-TV that they believed the online comments contributed to her death. Her family started an online fundraising campaign, the Alyssa Stop Bullying Fund, to raise awareness about cyberbullying.

“Social media has revolutionized the way people bully each other now days," says the mission statement. "Now you can say whatever you want and not have to look the person in the face while doing it. This needs to stop!” 

Many donors to the fund made supportive comments but almost predictably, the kind of obscene vitriol the drive wants to end also appear. Painful for the family, yes, but similar to what detectives investigating Funke’s case said: They don't believe the nasty comments posted online after Funke's video went live constituted criminal harassment, KMSP-TV reported.

Carissa Keister, spokeswoman of the Stillwater Area Public Schools, said she was unable to comment on “whether or not cyberbullying was involved,” but said the school is committed to combating the issue.

“We take any type of harassment or bullying very seriously, and will continue to work with staff, students and families to address issues of online safety — including cyberbullying. We will continue our efforts to teach our students to be responsible digital citizens, not as a result of this suicide, but because it is the right thing to do,” she said in a statement.

The Washington County Sheriff’s Office did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment. Lead investigator Bill Harrell said he’d be out of the office until May 27, according to a message on his voice mail.

Cyberbullying has become a part of everyday life for many high school students. At least 16 percent of students were electronically bullied last year, according to a 2011 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey.

Sexual harassment online takes on gendered tones, according to Sameer Hinduja, a co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center, a think tank dedicated to ending online harassment. “There is different standard for guys and girls here,” he said. 

Although some have framed Funke's death as a tragic result of her amateur foray into the sex industry, Hinduja said that portrayal ignores the far-reaching consequences of cyberbullying on impressionable teenagers.

“I don’t think that [the fact] it was a porn site is too relevant," Hinduja said. "She could have posted pictures of herself with multiple boys on other platforms. I still think it would invite accusations about perceived sexual activity. It’s a shame.”

Tasha Reign, 25, a porn actress and gender studies student at the University of California at Los Angeles, said any attempts to suggest Funke’s suicide was a consequence of her sex work are misguided.

“It’s just much easier to blame a marginalized group of people, than the actual issue,” she said. The way people treat sex workers and view the adult entertainment industry, are a large part of the problem, she said.

Reign said her years of experience have made her more resilient to hateful comments than when she started, but sexual harassment never becomes painless.

“It’s still difficult to deal with,” she said. "But I don’t let that take a direct toll on me."

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