Rehtaeh Parson’s story has me feeling rattled.
Rehtaeh was a 17-year-old Nova Scotia girl who hanged herself after months of harassment. She died Sunday night after she was
taken off life support declared brain dead. Her funeral is today.
Over seventeen months ago she was allegedly raped at a house party by four teenage boys. She was 15 at the time. A photo of her assault was sent to the cell phones of everyone at her high school and circulated online. She was slut shamed repeatedly and forced to change schools. Yet no charges were ever laid against her alleged perpetrators for the rape or for circulating photos of her naked, drunk and vomiting, even through distributing child pornography is a crime in Canada. So is harassment.
I’m hardly a fan of Canada’s Prime Minister, Stephen Harper. But on Thursday Harper impressed me when he said he was “sickened” by what happened to Rehtaeh and made it clear that Rehtaeh’s experience went way beyond bullying. “I think we’ve got to stop just using just the term bullying to describe some of these things,” Harper is quoted as saying. “Bullying to me has a connotation of kind of kids misbehaving. What we are dealing with in some of these circumstances is simply criminal activity.”
While their stories don’t match exactly, Rehtaeh’s story mirrors that of a British Columbian teenage girl who hanged herself last October. Amanda Todd was 15. At the time of her death she had already endured years of harassment by an adult online predator and then by peers who saw the screen capture photo of her exposed breasts. In Amanda’s case an adult man she met in a chat room tricked her into flashing her breasts and then used the screen capture image to cyberstalk and harass her. Her stalker posed as a Facebook friend and blackmailed her, saying he would send the photo around to everyone she knew if she refused to give him a show. He made good on his threat, even setting up a Facebook page with her exposed breasts as the profile photo.
Both girls suffered depression and were hospitalized because of their experiences. Both turned to drugs to ease the pain. Both undeservedly took on the burden of shame and blame when they were victims of criminal acts and were dehumanized by their tormentors. In Rehtaeh’s case her attackers are known to the Cole Harbour community. Anonymous was threatening to publish their names if police didn’t take legal action but now says it will withhold their names at the request of Parsons’ family and has turned over to police all the information it has gathered. It appears Anonymous’s work has influenced police. The Halifax Regional Police and RCMP say they are reopening the investigation into Rehtaeh’s case. Amanda’s harasser has apparently been identified by Anonymous but police have yet to press any charges against him.
What bothers me the most about these stories is the reaction these girls experienced from peers. Instead of shaming the attackers and supporting the victims, these girls were further victimized. Instead of people standing up for them and against harassers and bullies, cyberstalkers and rapists, these girls suffered condemnation from peers, including other girls. From what I understand girls were just as judgmental of Rehtaeh and Amanda as boys were, perhaps even more so.
And that’s the crux of the problem. When girls bully and harass, it’s usually psychological. The wounds a girl may inflict on another girl through gossip and ostracizing are harder to recover from than physical wounds. When girls abandon and shame other girls, they make it easier for abuse to happen. Instead of attacking the abusers, the victims take on the weight of our culture’s issues with teenage girls and their sexuality (the culture has trouble with sexuality in general but especially demonizes teenage girls). We blame the victims and we make it impossible for them to move on. They stay silent and isolated. In a radio interview, Rehtaeh’s mother, Leah Parsons, said when police closed their year-long investigation into her case and failed to press charges, Rehtaeh said she felt nobody cared.
There’s a storyline in the fictional TV show Veronica Mars where Veronica. a high school student, is drugged and raped at a house party. A classmate, Madison Sinclair, paints ‘SLUT’ on the windshield of Veronica’s car. When Veronica reports the rape to police, the sheriff accuses her of lying about the rape and she later discovers the rapist has given her chlamydia. At the point in the show when she is raped Veronica is already a social outcast at her school and endures constant ridicule. Her father is booted out as sheriff after he accuses Jake Kane, a popular and prominent citizen of murdering his daughter, Veronica’s best friend, Lily Kane.
Veronica never tells her father about the rape, even when she discovers she’s contracted chlamydia. She decides to solve the mystery of her own rape by herself. Veronica’s reaction to her rape and to being ostracized is to become cynical and edgy and to show disdain for her classmates, especially the well-off 09’ers she used to hang out with. It’s fiction and arguably offers a lousy model of how to handle this sort of situation but at least the show makes it clear that the victim does not deserve to take on the shame.
But a fictional TV show is one thing, reality another.
What struck me about Rehtaeh and Amanda’s stories is that the taunting got so bad both girls had to leave their schools. Where were the school administrators? What happened to the anti-bullying policies and codes of conduct about behaviour towards peers? Why were the bystanders complicit? If they’d had the right kind of support, these girls could have told their harassers to jump in the lake. The victims should have been protected, not forced to go into a teenage witness protection program by having no choice but to change schools, move cities and meet new friends. But there was no safe space for these girls. They didn’t feel they could tell their side of the story at their schools without a backlash. And they felt ashamed.
That sense of shame is familiar to me. It was the same when I was 17. Though I wrote for the student newspaper at my CEGEP (Quebec junior college), there were stories I knew about but never told. A girl I knew was on her way home late one evening when she was raped on a neighbour’s picnic table. She never pressed charges. My locker mate told me she was date raped and caught a sexually transmitted disease from her rapist. But she didn’t dare tell her Korean parents or file a police report. I was date raped but I never told anyone. I too could have gone to the police. Instead I kept my mouth shut and blamed myself. I can’t imagine what I would have done had I also been publicly humiliated, if technology was used to invade my privacy and to defame me.
While I think it’s a good idea to teach children to be kind to one another from a young age and to learn compassion for others and respect for girls and women, laws need to change. It seems in Rehtaeh’s case the underage boys thought they could get away with raping a classmate and bragging about it afterwards. They apparently believed they would be able to hide from public scrutiny because they are underage and laws prevent their names from being revealed. Any teenager who commits a serious crime such as a sexual assault should get the message that they stand a very real chance of being tried as an adult for that crime and they may lose their privacy if they are tried as an adult. Schools need to adopt zero-tolerance policies on harassment. Using social media and technology to defame, humiliate and ridicule another student should be grounds to expel students and report them to police. Investigations need to happen quickly. There is no excuse for allowing this kind of harassing behaviour to continue for months and years or for letting abusers get away with crimes.
In an emotional blog post about Rehtaeh, her father Glen Canning implored Nova Scotia’s Minister of Justice to: “For the love of God do something.” We should all do something for Rehtaeh, Amanda and other girls who have suffered or are currently suffering harassment, humiliation and violence.
Update, May 7, 2013
A young woman named Sarelle Sheldon is doing something powerful – she’s speaking out about her sexual assault experience. You’ll find the Montreal Gazette story about her here and the video she did for TVMGill here.