There’s been some public comparison of Rehtaeh Parson’s death with Amanda Todd’s suicide and with Steubenville. And there are a number of connections between those tragedies. Both Amanda and Rehtaeh committed suicide. Rehtaeh and the unnamed young woman in Steubenville were raped. All three of these women acted on a misguided (and unwarranted) assumption of trust in people and, more specifically, in men that was betrayed. But the major connection between these women is not that they were sexually violated, assaulted and victimized. The major connection between these women is that their experience was made public and they were hounded, shamed and blamed for what happened to them until two of them killed themselves.
MORE THAN ONE CRIME
In an interview a spokesperson for Anonymous said that “The real guilty parties here are the adults that violated Rehtaeh. . . . I would like to see the police and the school system pay for what they did to that girl. They had a responsibility to be there for her, to protect her and to relieve her torment.”
As far as it goes, that’s true. Both of those public institutions had a responsibility to all of those women, and they failed every one of them. The institutions need to be held accountable for their lack of care for the women.
The guilty parties here, first of all, aren’t just the school and the legal system. The boys who raped her are guilty too, and need to be held accountable. Saying, “I would like to see those boys punished for what they did because I think it sets a terrible example for the other young men” very subtly exonerates them of their guilt. The message sent to other young men isn’t the point here. The point is that they did is wrong, and illegal, and they need to be charged with rape because rape is wrong. Not because it sends a bad message (even though it does).
But the people at the party, the witnesses and the photographers who first of all took the pictures and then put them online are guilty as well. And I want to stress here that they are not “more guilty” than the others. They are equally guilty of a third crime for which we don’t yet have a name.
Rape all by itself is a horrendous thing to experience, and the effects last a lifetime. It’s especially traumatic in the situations that these women experienced because of the involvement of alcohol and our society’s attitude toward rape victims that, unless they were very lucky and very well taught, these women would have internalized to some degree. (I thought we’d dealt with that 30 or 40 years ago, but apparently the lessons were forgotten). I don’t doubt that the woman in Stuebenville is going to spend the rest of her life partially blaming herself for what happened. To have to deal with that privately is bad enough and damaging enough.
FOREVER AND EVER, WORLD WITHOUT END
But to see yourself on the internet in the most helpless, vulnerable and humiliating experience of your life, from outside, as other saw it. Bad enough to have to relive it from inside your skin, as you experienced it. But to see it as others did – with the onlookers laughing and jeering at you as you are stripped of dignity, virtue and humanity, and to relive the feelings and experience when you see it. To know that anyone with an internet connection can see it as well, not just today and tomorrow but for the rest of your life, and beyond. To walk into school and experience the condemnation, the slurs, the exclusion and the blame. To have your friends turn away, not because of anything you did, but because of something that was done to you, without your consent, and when you were so helpless you couldn’t protest, refuse or defend your self. I cannot imagine the experience, but at the very least it guarantees that you will be raped again and again and again, whenever anyone refers to it, or excludes you or blames you for what happened. Healing? It is to laugh. And since what is on the internet is on forever that means you’re never going to get away from this.
And none of these people are being held accountable. At the very worst, the photographer in the Parson’s case will be charged with something relating to child pornography, which to me feels like another violation somehow. But the photographer, and the people who were there are as guilty of rape as the men who lay on top of her. Because their posting it, their referencing it, and their spreading of it guarantees that she will be raped again every day for the rest of her life. Is it any wonder she chose to die rather than endure that?
MORE THAN BULLYING, MORE THAN SLANDER
We are going to have to find some way of making people accountable for this kind of behaviour. In the past, if word of this had gotten out, if the photos had been circulated by hand and gossip and rumour had taken their toll in her school and town, Rehtaeh and her family could have moved away and given her a new start in another part of the country – a place that didn’t know what happened, where people didn’t have access to the photos that told a lie. She could have recovered from the rape, gathered the bits of her life back together and gone on – scarred and beaten, but not bowed and broken. That is no longer possible, and we have to recognize that this kind of public slander and defamation have far more impact and can do an untellable amount more damage than older forms of technology could do.
This is not bullying, this is not defamation of character or slander. This is voyeur rape – enjoying and vicariously participating in the victimization and degradation of women via the internet. And it should apply not just to Stuebenville or Rehtaeh Parsons. It’s what happened to Amanda Todd and to every woman whose nude photos are posted on revenge sites.
We need to recognize that the people who do this are every bit as guilty and culpable as the men who raped her in the first place and we need to hold them every bit as accountable for the damage they continue to do to her by posting photos and videos of her experience on the internet.