The Rape and Death of 17-Year-Old Rehtaeh Parsons
The story is disturbingly familiar.
A teenage girl goes to some kind of get-together, maybe a party.
She is raped by multiple assailants.
The rape is photographed and distributed via social media.
The girl is subjected to horrifying acts of bullying and shaming. She is branded a slut. Her life becomes a living hell.
This girl is not Steubenville’s Jane Doe, although their stories bear a remarkable resemblance. This girl is Rehtaeh Parsons, a 17-year-old from Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, who hanged herself on April 4th, a year and a half after being raped. Her family took her off life support this past Sunday.
Reading the account of what happened to Rehtaeh is like watching a deadly accident slowly, methodically unfolding in front of you. And there are bystanders, plenty of bystanders, who had any number of opportunities to step in and do something, but none of them do.
And, in many ways, you are one of these bystanders, too. I am, too. We all are.
Rehtaeh did not have a rape kit done because she was too ashamed to tell anyone about her rape until several days later, at which point it was thought to be too late to retrieve medical evidence.
The boys (there were four of them) accused of raping Retaeh were not interviewed until long after the family tried to press charges.
They were not separated for their interviews; they were interviewed together, meaning that they were easily able to corroborate each others’ stories.
The investigation took over a year. In the end, it was decided that there was insufficient evidence of sexual assault, no charges were laid, and the boys got off scot free.
No legal action was taken with regards to the photographs of the rape that were distributed through social media. Rehtaeh’s mother was told that this was because there was no way of proving who had taken the pictures.
Rehtaeh struggled to survive for seventeen months. She moved to Halifax, unable to cope with the fact that her rapists were also her high school classmates. She checked herself into the hospital when she felt suicidal and stayed there for six weeks. She made new friends. She saw a therapist. She fought to live. She fought hard.
And then one day, she couldn’t fight any longer.
And when I read her story, I can’t help but wonder:
Where the fuck were all the grownups?
Where were the grownups who were supposed to love her and protect her? Where were the grownups who should have kept her safe? Where were the grownups who were supposed to make sure that she received some kind of justice for what she suffered?
And I don’t mean her parents, because it’s clear that they, too, have been struggling for the past seventeen months, doing what they can to try to help and advocate for their daughter. I mean where the fuck were the school officials, the members of the law enforcement, the people who should have made sure that she had adequate follow-up mental health care after her hospitalization? Where were they, and why didn’t they do anything? Or if they did do something, why didn’t they do enough?
Rehtaeh’s rapists are still out there. They are still in high school, they are still going to parties and they are, quite likely, still raping. Why wouldn’t they? They got away with it once, didn’t they? Rehtaeh’s rapists are still living normal, untroubled lives, and she is dead.
She’s dead, but even in the wake of her suicide and the attention her case has gained, government officials are refusing to review why the RCMP declined to lay charges against Rehtaeh’s rapist.
Instead, Nova Scotia’s justice minister, Ross Landry, released this fucking joke of a statement:
“As a community, we need to have more dialogue with our young people about respect and about support to educate our young boys and our young girls about what’s appropriate behaviour, what’s not appropriate behaviour,” Landry said.
“We have to make sure
that we’re cognizant about what gets online and what doesn’t get online and what the impacts are, so it’s having that dialogue.
“That still doesn’t take away the fact that we’ve lost a beautiful young woman … and I’m very upset about the loss.”
Saying that we need to educate boys and girls about appropriate behaviour is victim-blaming. Saying that this wouldn’t have been a problem if the pictures hadn’t ended up online is like saying that rape is fine, but publicly broadcasting it isn’t. Calling Rehtaeh’s death a tragedy because we’ve lost a beautiful young woman is a joke – seriously, what bearing does her appearance have on how sad her death is? And since Landry is refusing to open an official review into how the RCMP handled this, isn’t he basically saying, “I think she was lying about the rape, but gosh, she sure was hot”?
All of this, every single word of this statement, all of the things that Rehtaeh endured, every single detail presented here is rape culture.
This is rape culture. This is our culture.
I never thought in a million years that I’d be saying this, but I wish that Rehtaeh’s case had had the same outcome as Jane Doe’s. Because while Jane Doe had to endure some spectacularly vile, awful shit, at least she made it out alive. At least her rapists suffered consequences. At least her case actually made it to trial.
When Rehtaeh was fifteen, she was raped by four boys. When she was seventeen, she committed suicide.
She is dead because we, as a society, failed her.
There is a petition up demanding an inquiry into the police investigation of Rehtaeh’s rape. I’m not sure if it will do anything to help, but signing it sure as hell won’t hurt. Right now, this petition and bringing awareness to what happened to Rehtaeh seem like the only concrete ways of helping her. Right now, I need to do something, anything to stop myself from feeling like a bystander. I’m not going to just shake my head and sigh over this. I’m going to raise my voice until everyone knows what happened to Rehtaeh.
Edited to add:
Ross Landry now says that he will be moving forward with a review of Rehtaeh’s case. Thank God. An excerpt from the article I linked to:
Justice Minister Ross Landry said today, April 9, he has asked senior government officials to present options, as soon as possible, to review the Rehtaeh Parsons case.
“This situation is tragic, I am deeply saddened – as I think are all Nova Scotians – by the death of this young woman,” said Mr. Landry. “As a parent, I can’t imagine the pain this family is going through at this time. My thoughts are with them.”
Mr. Landry said he hopes to meet with Leah Parsons, Rehtaeh’s mother, to discuss her experience with the justice system.
I know that law enforcement and the public prosecution service do their best, every day, to administer and enforce the law,” said Mr. Landry. “It’s important that Nova Scotians have faith in the justice system and I am committed to exploring the mechanisms that exist to review the actions of all relevant authorities to ensure the system is always working to the best of its ability, in pursuit of justice.”
Mr. Landry said he has been reviewing details of the case and consulting with officials throughout the day, and expects options within the next few days.
Also, you should read Rehtaeh's father's incredibly moving post, (but first make sure you have a hanky.)