Role of sexual assault is being overlooked in Rehtaeh Parsons’ suicide

Linda Baker and Peter Jaffe, Special to QMI Agency
Friday, April 12, 2013

There is a lot we don’t know about the tragic suicide of Rehtaeh Parsons in Nova Scotia. We do see hundreds of media headlines about cyber-bullying and comparisons to other high-profile cases. We fear the media are missing the real story.

The cyber-bullying may have been the final straw that broke her will to live, but what is overlooked is an understanding of sexual assault and violence against women.

Rehtaeh was 15 years old when she reportedly was sexually assaulted by four boys at a friend’s house. There were pictures taken — one of which her mother said showed one of the boys with thumbs up and a big smile. The pictures of the alleged sexual assault were shared with everyone in her Cole Harbour high school. Rehtaeh received derogatory messages about being “a slut.” She changed communities and schools, but never overcame the traumatic experience.

The RCMP indicated initially that Rehtaeh’s sexual-assault report was a case of “they said, she said” and couldn’t pursue criminal charges, but their actions are under review. The school administration indicates it knew nothing.

Unfortunately, sexual assault is not rare. Police records show that more than 90% of sexual-assault victims are women. Young women like Rehtaeh, are the most vulnerable and they are most at risk from young men they know. The consequences of this gendered violence are devastating. Yet, only 10% of victims report this crime to police and few convictions result.

It is not surprising that a victim would experience barriers to reporting sexual assault. Imagine the embarrassment, shame or guilt a young woman feels in answering a stranger’s questions about the sexual assault she experienced. Add to this, the belief that no one will believe her because too many still believe victims, not perpetrators, are really to blame for sexual assaults.

The harm sexual-assault victims experience is exponentially intensified when images related to the assault are distributed throughout their world. Technology-related sexual violence severely erodes a victim’s sense of security and privacy. Her sense of a safe place, a safe distance and even a safe person is threatened. The degrading words and images multiply and exist for a long time, or even indefinitely. The shame, embarrassment and horror of the assault live on and on.

While deeply distressing to anyone, such a violation of a young person amplifies the self-consciousness and embarrassment readily experienced in adolescence and thwarts a teen’s need to belong and be accepted by their peers. And when a victim is only 15, technology-related sexual violence that distributes pictures of a sexual assault is child pornography.

The reported circumstances of Rehtaeh’s situation involve a triple whammy: sexual assault, child pornography and cyber-bullying. All are unacceptable, illegal and result in serious consequences for victims. When we reduce her apparent experience to cyber-bullying, we get it wrong and greatly minimize and discount her reported victimizations.

Against the odds, Rehtaeh overcame many barriers and reported that she was sexually assaulted in the offline world and the virtual world. Regardless of whether policy was followed or not, the individuals this young woman needed to respond to her reported violations failed her.

Our hearts weep for Rehtaeh and go out to her family. As parents, we want to know that our daughters will be safe and that our sons will not perpetrate sexual violence. However, if we cannot even name the issue — sexual assault and violence against women — then how can we even begin to deal with it?

There are some important questions that need to be addressed in order to prevent similar tragedies in the future.

How much understanding do adults and students have about the frequency of sexual assault and the ongoing attitudes about victims that suggest it is their fault for being at the wrong party at the wrong time or drinking too much? Do we understand the link between gender inequality and sexual violence? How do boys see a vulnerable female peer as wanting to have sex with four boys at a time?

The recent rape trial in Steubenville, Ohio, is a painful reminder of how some boys look at girls. How do we see sexual assault as entertainment and something that has to be captured in pictures and videos to post on social media? Do we have compassion for victims of sexual violence or see them as “sluts” who need to be further humiliated?

Aside from a lack of awareness about sexual violence and its serious consequences, we also have to think about the impact of media violence on our youth. Our great concern is the steady diet of violence in video games, music and movies. Pornography is most popular among 12-to-17-year-olds, which is not sex education, but rather lessons on new ways to denigrate and humiliate girls and women. Research on pornography suggests the greater the consumption, the less the sensitivity to rape victims and the belief that women may resist at first, but are ready sexual partners.

Media violence and pornography don’t create rapists all by themselves. The insidious impact is what it does to youth in general. For instance, it promotes stereotypes about relationships and high-risk behaviours, encourages imitation and perhaps most importantly, causes emotional desensitization. Rather than peers being “upstanders” to prevent violence and be the first line of response, they become passive bystanders by telling themselves that it is not that bad and they have no responsibility. To hell with the victims, lest they be labeled squealers and rats.

These critical conversations need to happen at every dinner table and in every high-school classroom. Rehtaeh is not just an isolated tragedy but rather, a reflection of a national problem.

Linda Baker is director of the Learning Network and Peter Jaffe is a professor at the Centre for Research & Education on Violence Against Women and Children in the faculty of education at Western University.

The Canadian Resource Centre for Victims of Crime offers support, research and education to survivors and stakeholders.

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