Rehtaeh Parsons, Bullying and the Cyclical Nature of Rape Culture

In 2011, 15-year-old Rehtaeh Parsons attended a party with a handful of friends. At this party, Parsons consumed a substantial amount of vodka – substantial enough for her recollection of the night to be minimal. She did remember throwing up out a window; she did not completely remember being raped by four boys.

According to Parsons’ mother, Leah Parsons, “Rehtaeh doesn’t remember all of it. She remembers a guy leading her up the stairs, guys taking turns on top of her.” It is alleged that while one of the boys was raping Parsons, another boy yelled, “Take a picture! Take a picture!” According to Leah, “That picture began to circulate in her school and community three days later.” Just three days after being raped while virtually unconscious, a 15-year-old girl had her rape shoved in her face, with the all too familiar response to attacks such as this forced on her, as well.

No, there wasn’t a swift reaction to punish the boys who participated in the rape – both those who physically violated Parsons and the ones who traumatized her further by taking photographs and circulating them. There wasn’t a rallying cry within the Nova Scotia community in which Parsons lived to have a discussion about rape and rape culture and what needs to be done so that this does not occur ever again. Instead, Leah says, Rehtaeh “walked into school and everyone started calling her a slut.” A few days later, Rehtaeh confessed to Leah what had happened, and the two called both an emergency health team and the police. After a year of investigation the Parsons were told that there simply wasn’t enough evidence to press charges; it was a “he said, she said” case. According to RCMP Cpl. Scott MacRae, “We have to deal in facts and not rumours.”

The family moved from Cole Harbor to Halifax, hoping that a new school would make a difference for Rehtaeh. But news and gossip moves quickly in high school. According to her mother, “She was never left alone. Her friends turned against her, people harassed her, boys she didn’t know started texting her and Facebooking asking her to have sex with them since she had sex with their friends. It just never stopped.”

In March, Rehtaeh admitted herself for suicidal thoughts. On Thursday, she attempted suicide and was put on life support. On Sunday, she was taken off. By Tuesday, an online petition calling on the Nova Scotia police to investigate Parsons’ rape had garnered more than 2.000 signatures. By Tuesday night, Nova Scotia Justice Minister, Ross Landry, announced that he is asking government officials to present options to review Rehtaeh’s alleged rape. Landry told CTV news, “I’ve listened to Nova Scotians…I’ve received many comments from across the country and it deeply affected people, so from a justice perspective, as the minister responsible, it’s very important that I’m listening to people and that I respond to their concerns.” Landry is also quoted in a release saying that he hopes to meet Leah Parsons, adding, “It’s important that Nova Scotians have faith in the justice system and I am committed to exploring the mechanisms that exist to review the actions of all relevant authorities.”

The most difficult aspect about reading about a news story like this is that I have read nearly the same story so many times before. This is far from the first time I’ve heard or read about a young girl being raped while unconscious, and certainly not the first time I’ve read about a rape occurring while others watched on, either unable to, or simply refusing to intervene. I’ve read about photographs being taken of an attack in progress before. And I’ve experienced this same anger and frustration about a rape victim bullied into believing that she is somehow responsible for her rape just as many times. The discussion about who’s to blame is just as difficult.

Halifax IWK Chilren’s Hospital psychiatrist, Stan Kutcher, places some of the blame on the easy and quick access of social media and children and teenagers’ inability to use it appropriately and responsibly, which he believes creates a forum for bullying: “We spend an awful lot of time teaching kids how to drive, we spent an awful lot of energy ensuring that they can drive responsibly, and we need to do the same with social media.”

Well, Dr. Kutcher, I didn’t go to medical school, but I can assure you that this is not a story about social media. This isn’t even a story about bullying, really. This is a story about how rape culture has permeated itself so deeply into the fibers of society that we cannot even have a discussion about rape without rape being the focus of the conversation. This is a story about how the first instinct of teenagers who witness a rape is to take photographs, not for evidence, not to show the police, but to shame the victim and, perhaps most importantly, for laughs. This is a story about how a young girl who is shown photos of her own attack is made to believe that she is at fault, and is called a slut, and is shamed to the point where she decides that the only way to make it stop is to take her own life.

This is a story about RAPE and how until we can recognize that, and start using these words, instead of tip-toeing around it and pointing fingers at “social media” and “responsibility,” we will read a story just like Rehtaeh Parsons’ again and again and again.

Featured image via Rehtaeh Parsons Facebook Memorial Page