How Our Society Failed Rehtaeh Parsons

by April 12, 2013
filed under Activism


On the heels of the Steubenville trial, and right behind the Torrington case, comes a heartbreaking story of a young Canadian woman who has committed suicide after a year long investigation into her assault.

Rehtaeh Parsons was raped at 15 years of age, and photos of the rape were distributed to her peers and on Twitter and Facebook. Instead of outrage at the attackers, allegedly 4 of her fellow students, she was cyber-bullied by her high school community to the point that her parents took her out of school and transferred her.

I first saw the story on Twitter from the Chronicle Herald with the headline Who Failed Rehtaeh Parsons?

Who didn’t?

It appears nearly everyone did from the boys who raped and photographed her, to the social media sites that allowed for it, to the students who helped the photos go viral and participated in online bullying of the 15 year old.

“People texted her all the time, saying ‘Will you have sex with me?'” she remembered. “Girls texting, saying ‘You’re such a slut.'”

Who else failed her? The RCMP who didn’t do their due diligence in separating the accused before alibis and stories could be come up with, who didn’t prosecute those who took the photos or who had photos on their cameras (illegal by the way, since it was possession and distribution of child pornography).

“But then there is the question of how the adults handled the alleged sexual assault that Rehtaeh described to her mother.

The RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) investigation took a year, said Parsons.

RCMP spokesman Cpl. Scott MacRae confirmed the police are now investigating a sudden death involving a young person. “An investigation into an earlier sexual assault was completed, and in consultation with the Crown, there was insufficient evidence to lay charges,” MacRae said.”

The system of support failed, as the scared gurl couldn’t bring herself to admit that it happened until she had a breakdown in the kitchen. Too late for tests, at that point, it left Rehtaeh without the options she might have had if she could have gone directly to police.

This is horrible stuff. Unspeakable. This is the loss of a bright young gurl who had wonders ahead of her. The rape was an assault on her body, but the cyber-bulling and betrayal by her peers, the use of social media to mock and torment her was an assault on her psyche and clearly this left her believing she had no other options.

Even more so, this is an assault on all of us. One thing that keeps coming up as a theme with these cases is the victim-blaming and online attack of victim and their defenders. We saw this in Steubenville in comment threads that were nausea inducing to actual death threats to Jane Doe after the verdict. It’s happening in the Torrington case too. Why are people treating each other this way? Why side with the attackers and not your friend?

Part of the issue may have to do with old myths about gender roles. From one Tweet in the Torrington case, posted in the NY Times piece, “Young girls acting like whores there’s no punishment for that,” one student posted the day after Mr. Gonzalez’s arrest on Feb. 20, continuing, “young men acting like boys is a sentence.”

It may also have to do with magical thinking, where we scapegoat the victim in order to believe such an act couldn’t happen to us. These things only happen to “those people” not us. She must have had the power to turn good men into monsters, yes? She did something wrong, yes?

Even considering those dynamics, these are people who knew each other, and well, for a long time. I’m finding it hard to process.

This quote, from Buzzfeed, even harder:

Rehtaeh’s mother concludes her Facebook testimonial with this message:

“Rehtaeh is gone today because of The four boys that thought that raping a 15yr old girl was OK and to distribute a photo to ruin her spirit and reputation would be fun. Secondly, All the bullying and messaging and harassment that never let up are also to blame. Lastly, the justice system failed her. Those are the people that took the life of my beautiful gurl. Rehtaeh stood up for others, showed compassion to animals and people. She was an amazing artist .She made my life complete. When Rehtaeh was born I dedicated everything to her and promised her the world. Others in this world took that away from her.”

Who failed Rehtaeh Parsons?

She was failed by friends, by her school, by the police and by a system that supports victim blaming and myths about gender and sexuality, by a culture that lifts up might and power and dominance.

It’s all of us, really. Not that any of us intend harm. We don’t. But the system is big and it’s going to take a lot of work from all of us to dismantle it. We have to teach peace, non violence, collaboration and compassion. We have to work together just like our lives depended on it, because they do.

As a mother, I cannot imagine the agony her family is going through, having witnessed so much during the year, watching their child suffer and now this needless death. I’m committing to the work it will take for a sea change, for less violence, less bullyng, more support and protection of all.

I’d like to see a lot less failure and soon.

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