Earlier this month, a teenager from Nova Scotia, Rehtaeh Parsons, committed suicide. Two years earlier, when she was 15 years old, she had gone to a house with boys she thought were her friends. Instead, she was raped by four boys, who then decided to take pictures of their crime and spread it around to others at the school that both the victim and the unprosecuted perpetrators attended. The bullying she subsequently received is horrifying to contemplate, and it forced Rehtaeh to leave the school and her family to relocate:
“Rehtaeh would want her story out there,” she said.Adding even more fuel to the fire was the fact that just as in Steubenville, Ohio, the adults in the community failed Rehtaeh as well:
For one thing, social media can be toxic, said the mother. After Rehtaeh left her school, other kids were relentless.
“People texted her all the time, saying ‘Will you have sex with me?’” she remembered. “Girls texting, saying ‘You’re such a slut.’"
Canada's Chronicle Herald reports that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police completed a yearlong criminal investigation of the sexual assault, but "there was insufficient evidence to lay charges." A police spokesman told the newspaper that authorities are now "investigating a sudden death involving a young person."In the years since the incident, Rehtaeh suffered from depression and mood swings, and ended up locking herself in a bathroom and hanging herself. Unfortunately, this story is far from isolated. Last fall, 15-year-old Audrie Pott killed herself after allegedly being gang-raped while unconscious by three teenage boys, who commemorated their vicious crime to posterity by sending photos of the incident to their friends, as if it were something to be proud of. And of course, only those who have been living under a rock would need a reminder of the horrid sequence of events in Steubenville, Ohio, when an unconscious teenage girl was raped by high-school boys who, similarly, thought it was fine and dandy to spread photos of the crime.
In an interview on CBC Radio program "Maritime Noon," Leah Parsons said that the family was "devastated" when they learned criminal charges would not be filed.
"[The police] said that they would go talk to them and that [the boys] realized what they did was wrong, but [there was] nothing they could do, criminally," Parsons said. "It was a slap in the face."
What does it say about our society when it is an all-too-common sentiment among teenage boys that girls who are physically unable to give consent are theirs to do with as they please—and not only that, but that doing so is something to be proud of and digitally shared with friends? Even worse, what does it say about society that their fellow classmates, both boys and girls, will perpetuate a culture of victim-blaming by bullying the victim until she kills herself? Rape culture is the easy answer: we have a cultural narrative that blames women for the crimes committed upon them if they dare to engage in activities, such as drinking with friends or going to a party, that wouldn't give a man a second thought. The larger question is how to change it, as I'll discuss below the fold.
"Teaching men not to rape," a common phrase that has arisen as a result of discussion around these incidents, is also an easy answer. It's certainly hard not to agree when young men are raping unconscious women and openly bragging about it by taking pictures of their crime and sending it to all of their friends. But in the case of Rehtaeh and so many others, the rape was only the beginning of the tragedy. What ultimately drove Rehtaeh to take her own life was the constant bullying and harassment from fellow high school students of both genders, who viewed it as perfectly acceptable to slut-shame her for having had sex, regardless of whether it was consensual or not.
Ending the emotionally destructive practice of slut-shaming and teaching men not to rape at the age where it matters most can go hand-in-hand, and it starts with responsible sex education. Abstinence-only sex education is often grossly misinformed in its curriculum, thus leading to increased rates of sexually transmitted diseases and teen pregnancy; but the problems go far beyond that, as a shocking report on New York schools explains:
The report found that lessons on reproduction and human anatomy were often inaccurate and incomplete, especially because nearly 2 in 3 school districts excluded any mention of female genitalia in their instruction. One school district referred to the vagina as a “sperm deposit.” The courses also lacked practical instruction — while 80 percent of the districts included in the study included some mention of condoms, only about one in three districts taught students how to use them. And a heterosexual and religious bias runs throughout the states’ sex ed curricula, either ignoring or stigmatizing LGBT relationships and emphasizing shame-based messages about sexuality and abstinence.If we are, indeed, to teach men not to rape, sex education has to discuss the meaning of consent: that women have sexual agency. But how can we even get started having that conversation if girls are taught in the classroom that sex is so shameful that that the word "vagina" cannot even appear in the instructional materials? Ending rape culture and ending the bullying that drives rape victims to suicide must begin with a rebellion against the failed abstinence-only policies that have become so prevalent lately.
Thankfully, we have a role model to emulate. Katelyn Campbell, a high-school senior in West Virginia, took a stand against her school's promotion of a slut-shaming abstinence-only speaker. And rather than be intimidated by a principal who threatened to call the college to which she had been accepted and report her as having "bad character," she filed an injunction against him instead.
Ending sexual violence against women will be hard, but the first step must come from eliminating the cultural practices that blame the victim. We can start by demanding comprehensive, non-judgmental sex education that teaches the unequivocal necessity of consent and ends the shaming of female sexual agency.