Trigger Warning for discussions of sexual assault/abuse, bullying and Rethaeh Parson’s suicide. Please skip this post if you need to.
Today is meant to be the question of the week. I’m sorry but I can’t. Like many of you, I’ve been reading about Rehtaeh Parsons, a young girl who died at only 17 years old. I’m sure a lot of you have read the statement her father posted yeseterday. It’s beautiful and devastating. I know I’m not the only who read it, cried and wondered why this happened.
I’m looking for answers. I’m hearing stories, reading articles that point the finger squarely at bullying. Rehtaeh was harassed at school and her classmates called her a slut. Someone took a picture of the assault and students posted it all over Facebook. There are some really cruel kids out there today and easy access to social media and technology makes them ruthless. Rethaeh took her own life because she was mocked and humiliated. Bullying caused this.
Or so the story goes. And I’m seriously disturbed by the glaring omission in that story. Rehtaeh Parsons wasn’t just bullied by her peers. She was sexually assaulted by her peers. When she sought the support from community, she was essentially told “Sorry. Nothing we can do.” The bullying was undoubtedly rough salt being rubbed in, but that’s not what caused the wound. We’re telling the story wrong. And in doing so, I feel like Rehtaeh Parsons’ experiences are being dismissed all over again.
(Aside: I’m going to use the words “we” and “us” lot in this post. I mean it in the general “we as a society” sense and not the “you and I as specific individuals” way).
When we turn this into a story about a girl who committed suicide because she was bullied, we’re spinning a convenient truth that absolves us – the adults who are largely in charge of things around here – of our responsibility. We agree that Rehteah Parsons’ death is tragic. We offer her pothumus sympathy. We empathize with her loved ones. And we tell ourselves that we didn’t do anything. It’s the kids who were wrong. They bullied her. We reassert our determination to vanquish the scourge of bullies from our school and restrict online access (because the Internet is kind of wrong too).
Yes bullying is a thing. It’s a real problem that can absolutely break people’s spirits and drive them to desperate acts like suicide. It’s not okay that people harassed this girl or called her names. And finding ways to end bullying is important, necessary work. But the taunts and social media slander are only symptoms of what for me is a much bigger problem. Retheah Parsons was raped and we – the adults who are largely in charge around here – don’t take sexual violence seriously enough.
We don’t like people who are raped. And we really, really don’t like people who are raped and then tell us they were raped. If we know about it, we’re supposed to do something about it. We have to think about it and that’s really unpleasant. I’m not certain of the reasons for our reticence. I do have some theories but I’ll leave for those for another post.
When people like Rethaeh Parsons tell us – the adults who are largely in charge around here – that they’ve been sexually assaulted, what do we do? We turn them into defendants. We ask them why they got raped? Haven’t we told you over and over again not to let yourself get raped? We concede that sexual violence is terrible, we’re not saying that anyone deserves it. We just want to know, what did you think would happen when you put on that oufit, went to that place, drank all of those drinks?
Yet we don’t understand why Rathaeh Parsons classmates called her a slut.
When people like Rethaeh Parsons tell us that they’ve been raped, we don’t want them to be “victims”. We don’t want to know how deeply sexual violence can hurt or see the raw, messy parts of their pain. We like people who endure rape and sexual abuse in a quiet, dignified way We’re supportive of counselling, therapy and other coping methods that involve going away and dealing with it discreetly. We just can’t get too involved – not the school, not the police. Adults in positions of power and authority but we can’t help.
Yet we wonder why Rethaeh Parsons peers didn’t say anything?
We talk about people who have been raped as though they aren’t human. After Stubenville, CNN lamented the fate of two young men by describing, their scholastic acheivements, their extra curricular activities and their histories. They were portrayed as people. People who’s futures had been tragically thwarted when some girl thoughtlessly left herself vulnerable to raping. In Rethaeh Parsons’ case her father, a man gutted by grief, who tells us that she was a person. She was a living, breathing, thinking, feeling, valuable person with a past and future that was tragically altered into something she couldn’t live through. His letter was stands in heartbreaking contrast to our habit of describing people as dehumanized cautionary tales.
We ask ourselves- how students could circulate a picture of a peer being raped?
Prime Minister Harper has said we need to “call out bullying”. As usual, he’s missed the point. Yes, Rethaeh Parsons was bullied. And that is absolutely not okay. But it’s not fair for us – the adults who are largely in charge around here – to say “Hey, kids, what you did was wrong,” when we created the environment that supports this type of bullying. This story we’re telling – the one where Rethaeh Parsons died because of bullying – obscures the issue of sexual violence. That act of pushing it into the background is what promotes the type of bullying we say we need to stop.
The youth who slut-shamed and dehumanized Rethaeh Parsons need to understand that what they did was wrong. It was destructive and almost certainly caused harm to someone who couldn’t endure more pain. But bullying isn’t just cruel actions disconnected from thoughts or emotions. The belief that Rethaeh Parsons deserved to be treated so poorly came from somewhere.
I’m pretty sure, it’s coming from us.