A 17-year-old Nova Scotia girl named Rehtaeh Parsons has been taken off life support after attempting suicide several days prior. Since her alleged gang rape a year and a half ago (I have to say “alleged” for legal reasons, but I believe her), she had been dealing with bullying, victim-blaming, and an incompetent police force that refused to charge the boys for their crimes, factors which her mother Leah Parsons believes contributed to her death, in addition to the initial trauma of the rape itself.
Even more disturbing than the facts of the case are the fact that they read like many similar cases, most recently America’s high profileÂ SteubenvilleÂ one. According to Leah Parsons, her daughter, who was 15 at the time, told her that she blacked out at a party from drinking too much vodka. Her memory was patchy, but she remembered vomiting out a window and being raped by multiple boys, one of whom yelled “take a picture!” while he was having sex with her. A few days later, the pictures began being passed around Rehtaeh’s school, and other kids started calling her a slut and propositioning her for sex. How horrendous.
After a year-long investigation, the police decided they had no basis to bring charges because it was a “he said, she said” situation, despite the fact that there was photographic evidence being passed around the school which doubled as child pornography. (The family didn’t get a rape kit done because, like many rape victims, Rehtaeh didn’t realize she’d been raped right away, and hence didn’t tell anyone until it was too late.) This may have made the bullying worse, as nobody seemed to believe her that the sex had not been consensual. Over the course of a year and a half, Rehtaeh moved away (along with her family), struggled with suicidal thoughts, and checked herself into a psychiatric hospital, from which she was eventually released. The family moved back to their hometown, with Rehtaeh attending a different school. Then, this past Thursday, she locked herself in the bathroom and hanged herself. She was taken off life support on Sunday, April 7.
What, if anything, can we do to keep things like this from happening over and over again? Unlike some people, I don’t think trying teen boys as adults and sending them to jail for long periods of time is in any way a solution to the problem. Prison does not rehabilitate people; if anything, it takes young, troubled men and places them far beyond any hope of learning empathy for others. However, I do think there are some ways we can reduce the incidence of violence and cruelty, which include:
-Work to create a culture in which young women are not valued for what they do or don’t do with their bodies, but what’s inside their minds. This means teaching kids a healthy outlook on sexuality thatÂ emphasizesÂ enthusiastic consent and condemns slut-shaming and victim-blaming.
-That last one is extremely important; teach kids (via mandatory school programs) that rape is never the victim’s fault, even if said victim is dressed a certain way, has had a few drinks, or has had prior sexual contact with the rapist.
-Adults can model good behavior with regards to the aforementioned ideas. Don’t want to raise a rapist or a bully? Don’t call women “sluts” or teach your sons that a woman is ever “asking for it” or “less valuable” because of her dress or level of sexual experience.
-Not all teen rapists are high school athletes, but an alarming number of them are. Get the fuck over high school sports and stop making teenage boys feel like demigods who can do no wrong.
-Provide as many places as possible for young girls to turn if they feel they’ve been assaulted or if they are being bullied.
-Teach kids that their actions towards others have real consequences. Educate them about Rehtaeh Parsons, Amanda Todd, and other young people who committed suicide due to relentless bullying.
-Work on transformative justice solutions, i.e. non-violent ways of dealing with violence that go beyond the flawed criminal justice system. This broad concept includes support for victims as well as therapy and community accountability for perpetrators. (Here is one detailed report on such methods.)
Rape culture is a large, multifaceted, and insidious foe, so I don’t pretend to know exactly how we are going to defeat it. But I think these ideas are a start. Feel free to contribute some of your own.