It’s been five days since Rehtaeh Parsons, a 17 year-old girl from Coal Harbour, Nova Scotia, was taken off life support following a suicide attempt that left her in a coma. As her family grieves her death, and outrage spreads throughout the global community, many are left wondering how we managed to fail – yet again – a young girl who experienced sexual violence and harassment at the hands of her peers, and who was so tormented by them that she took her own life.
After the gang rape of a young woman in Pitt Meadows, British Columbia, after the gang rape of a young woman in Steubenville, Ohio, and after the suicide of Amanda Todd, a young woman who lived in my own community of Port Coquitlam, British Columbia, I had hoped – perhaps somewhat naively – that we were all learning our lessons, youth and adults alike. I had hoped that the anti-bullying campaigns, the days of wearing pink shirts, and the insistence that such tragedies will never happen again would somehow materialize into a cultural shift in our attitudes towards both the teenage perpetrators of rape, other forms of sexualized violence/harassment, and their victims. While I am acutely aware that change takes time, I am increasingly doubtful that the current rhetoric of “bullying awareness” is at all a viable strategy. What I am convinced of, now more than ever, is that we need to teach our youth – and do this by modeling it ourselves – a deep form of empathy based on how we treat others’ experiences and stories.
It is strange, as someone who survived rape as a teenager, to say, with utmost confidence, that I am very grateful that my assaults took place more than a decade ago, when social media and cell phones were scarce, if not completely nonexistent. When I was raped at 15 (the same age as Rehtaeh was when she was raped) I was most certainly isolated and silenced in my experience, but at least I knew that my story, my awful secret, my most vulnerable moment, was mine to tell. The fear of having photographs of myself distributed amongst my classmates with a click of a mouse or the pressing of a button was not a fear that ever crossed my mind. The terror of being relentlessly pursued online – and knowing that the harassment against me could seemingly forever be preserved in the archive of the Internet – was also not a fear that ever crossed my mind. Despite the fact that when I finally chose to tell my story, I was met with an appalling lack of inaction, I at least had the option of being able to maintain my privacy.
The late media expert Marshall McLuhan told us, quite famously, that “the medium is the message.” As media that rapidly duplicate and publicize experiences, texting and the internet not only share victims’ rapes with the world, but suggest that as pieces of information that can be rapidly and casually shared, photographs and stories about rape, can be quick, casual things that we take as seriously as any of the number of memes that circulate online. But we all remember the ways in which the childhood game of “Telephone” taught us that messages and stories can be rapidly distorted as they are passed from person to person: the same principle applies to how a victim’s story, identity, and sense of security can be distorted, mangled, ripped apart, and destroyed.
This form of invalidation, casual indifference, or, at worst, malicious mocking, is not merely “bullying” or “harassment.” It is a form of secondary traumatization, and as any victim of rape will agree, can be as bad if not worse than the actual assault itself.
Rape is an experience in which control is taken away from a victim, often viciously, and by the people we expect it from the least. What I recognize now, as someone who researches trauma and storytelling every day, is that it is not only the opportunity to tell one’s story that matters, but the ability to reassert control by deciding how, where, when, why, and to whom we tell that story. For Rehtaeh, and other young women who experienced similar situations, I can painfully imagine that the culmination of several losses of control over her story – from the distribution of photographs, to the harassment, to the gossip, and to the lack of a day in court to speak out against her attackers – was simply too much to bear.
And lest we believe that we, as adults, must not be part of the problem of this culture of second-hand victimization, I would suggest that we think carefully about how we speak about others, and what kinds of information we casually pass around online. When I see others gleefully sharing allegedly-hilarious photographs of overweight individuals in Walmart, “slutty” girls in nightclubs, or not-so-witty advertisements that clearly promote rape culture, I realize how easy it is for many to start seeing people as pixels, and daughters as data.
We must not only teach our children media literacy, but recognize that it is profoundly connected to emotional literacy. Programs that teach empathy cannot stop before youth transition into high school, when relationships, sexuality, and issues of consent absolutely require ongoing reinforcement of emotional intelligence and moral and ethical action.
We must not shy away from including a frank discussion of sexual assault and violence alongside sex education in our schools.
We must empower our children to understand that photography is not merely a 2D representation of a person, but a powerful and life-altering medium, and that the schoolyard chant of “sticks and stones may break my bones / but words can never hurt me” is nothing more than a lie that has been passed down from dysfunctional generation to dysfunctional generation.
I wish I had answers. I wish I had a curriculum to implement, or justice to serve. At the moment, however, all I have is a deep sense of sadness for Rehtaeh and her family. All I can do is keep speaking about my own experience, offering an ear to those who have survived sexual violence and harassment, and keep trying to advocate for change. Tomorrow I go back to work, writing with a heavy heart and reluctantly adding another name to add to the list of those to whom I dedicate my research:
For those whose names I will never know.
For the Jane Does of Pitt Meadows and Steubenville.
For Amanda Todd, November 27th, 1996 – October 10th, 2012.
For Rehtaeh Parsons, December 9th, 1995 – April 7th, 2013.