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Rehtaeh Parsons' death caused by more than bullying

Image of Rehtaeh Parsons
By: 
Evan Johnston

April 27, 2013

On April 7, after months of abuse and harassment from her classmates, 17-year old Rehtaeh Parsons died in hospital following a suicide attempt which left her brain lethally damaged.
 
As many around the world now know, the harassment stemmed from a party she attended when she was 15, where she was gang-raped and photographed by four boys after blacking out.
 
The pictures began to circulate among her classmates and in her community, and instead of people seeing the photos as evidence of rape, it became evidence of her being a "slut."
 
According to her mother, Rehtaeh 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."
 
Rehtaeh's family called on the RCMP to investigate, but after a year, they concluded that it was merely a "he said she said" case. Despite the photographic evidence and the reports of the rapists bragging about the rape to their classmates, RCMP investigators apparently failed to find enough evidence to lay any charges. In fact, Rehtaeh's family was told that the photographs of the rape were "not a criminal issue," despite the fact that Rehtaeh was only 15 at the time.
 
From this pathetic display by the RCMP, it's no wonder that rape continues to be one of the most under-reported crimes in Canada, with only 8% of sexual assaults actually reported to police.
 
Blaming the victim
 
National Post columnist Christie Blatchford, a right-wing bigot with a history of anti-native racism and homophobia, has recently weighed in on the case by blaming Rehtaeh. In a textbook case of victim-blaming, Blatchford claims that "the girlfriend of Rehtaeh’s who was at the party told police Rehtaeh was being flirtatious," and that there is "no evidence that Rehtaeh was so drunk that she couldn’t consent."
 
Blatchford's vitriol is matched only by her predictability. One of the oldest and most common ways of discrediting survivors of sexual violence is to suggest that they were somehow "asking for it," which effectively shifts the focus away from the actions of the rapist and onto the behavior and appearance of the woman.
 
Indeed, Toronto Police officer Michael Sanguinetti's 2011 comment to students at York University that "women should avoid dressing like sluts" if they don't want to be sexually assaulted sparked a global movement of Slut Walks, which have been at the forefront of challenging the dominant discourse of rape culture.
 
Rape culture is an important concept that more and more people have begun to use in order to understand incidents of sexual violence, particularly in the aftermath of the Steubenville High School rape case which drew as much attention to the problematic reactions of the Stuebenville community toward rape as it did to the specifics of the case itself. Rape culture refers to the norms, attitudes, and beliefs that systematically excuse, justify, or ignore incidents of rape, and that accrue empathy toward the perpetrators of sexual violence and suspicion toward the victims.
 
Additionally, rape culture functions so as to obscure the truths about sexual violence, replacing them instead with well-worn myths. For example, the crucial fact that over 80% of sexual assaults are committed by someone known to the victim is often obscured by the discourse of the stranger, which results in institutions and talking-heads attempting to police the bodies of women, telling them where they should and shouldn't be, and for how long.
 
 
As Alana Prochuk of Vancouver's Women Against Violence Against Women writes, "By making rapists out to be random wacko deviants, rape culture deflects attention from itself—that is, from our society’s insidious normalization of sexualized violence (through the cultural equation of masculinity and aggression, the objectification of women, the assumption that active consent is unnecessary, awkward and unsexy, and the gazillion other guises of rape culture)."
 
In a powerful blog entry that has since gone viral, Rehtaeh's father, Glen Canning, blasted back at Blatchford and cut right through her blatant rape apologism, clarifying the issue of consent that rape culture frequently mystifies.
 
As Canning writes: "The two boys involved in taking and posing for the photograph stated Rehtaeh was throwing up when they had sex with her. That is not called consensual sex. That is called rape. They also stated they had to get her dressed when they were finished. She was passed out. That is the story they told to anyone at Rehtaeh’s school who would listen. That is their account of what happened. There are numerous people who heard that and shared that. No evidence she was so drunk that she couldn’t consent? How drunk does someone have to be? Drunk enough to get sick or drunk enough to not remember?"
 
Beyond bullying
 
But as pundits and politicians of all stripes grapple with how to make sense of Rehtaeh's case, they have increasingly relied on the framework of bullying - cyberbullying in particular. On April 20, people gathered in Halifax for an anti-cyberbullying concert in support of Rehtaeh and her family. Additionally, the Nova Scotia government has introduced the Cyber-Safety Act, and is setting up the first ever cyberbullying investigative unit.
 
Just as in high schools, where "Stop Bullying" campaigns are most prominent, such an approach distorts what is at the core of the bullying: who the victims of bullying tend to be, the content of the bullying, and the larger social context within which particular bullying tactics take shape. In other words, the problem in most high schools isn't bullying as such; rather, it's homophobia, sexism, racism and ableism, which has more to do with our society's reproduction of these oppressive systems than with a given set of bullying tactics.
 
This isn't to say that "bullying" as such shouldn't be fought against, and there are plenty of great programs being implemented to do exactly that in schools across Canada. However, if we want to ensure that what happened to Rehtaeh Parsons does not happen again, we all need to uproot the sexist ideas that are at the core of rape culture, and that are given expression by bullying - be it online or in person.

 
There's a button I like to wear that reads: "Unlearn Sexism." It's simple and direct, yet expresses much more than it may appear. I like wearing it because of the reaction it provokes, and the ensuing conversation that often begins with: "Unlearn sexism? I don't know what you're talking about - when was I taught to be sexist?"
 
And that's precisely the point. None of us ever take a class called "Sexism 101." None of us get an official Government of Canada brochure on why violence and discrimination against women and trans people is acceptable practice in our schools, our communities, and our families. Sexist ideas and values are rarely made explicit in our high school curricula or during our job orientations, and it's for this very reason that sexist ideas so often go unnoticed. But the tragic death of Rehtaeh Parsons reminds us of why it's so urgent for us to call out these ideas for what they are, to fight them wherever they rear their ugly head, and to recognize that while these ideas may often be disguised in the form of 'jokes', they have severe consequences for women, men, and gender non-conforming people everywhere.
 
Calling attention to this might make me guilty of committing sociology in the eyes of Stephen Harper, but we owe it to Rehtaeh to do so. When Harper isn't feigning concern for Rehtaeh and her family in front of the cameras, he's been cutting funding for Status of Women Canada, turning a blind eye to the hundreds of missing and murdered native women, blocking foreign aid for family planning services, and overseeing a government that has been repeatedly attacking a woman's right to choose. It doesn't even take a sociologist to recognize such blatant acts of hypocrisy.

 

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