Trigger warning for discussion of sexual violence.
Another young Canadian woman is dead as a result of sexual abuse, exploitation, and subsequent victim-blaming, and, yet again, public discussion and media coverage is reducing this story from one of gender-based violence and oppression to one of bullying.
Rehtaeh Parsons, 17, died in Nova Scotia on Sunday night after having hanged herself 3 days priors. Her family is attributing her actions to the fact that in November 2011, when she was 15, she was allegedly* raped by 4 of teenage boys at a house party. A photo was taken of the alleged attack and distributed it amongst her schoolmates. Parsons’ family says that the police investigation was slow-going and made strategic errors, like failing to separate the boys for interviews. Police and crown prosecutors declined to lay charges due to a lack of evidence and Parsons’ family says that they were told that the photo was a community, not criminal, issue.
The media is reporting this as another tragic example of bullying. Nova Scotia’s Minister of Justice, Ross Landry initially said that he wasn’t going to order a review of Parsons case. He stated that, “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.” He also stated, “We have to make sure that we’re cognisant about what gets online and what doesn’t get online and what the impacts are, so it’s having that dialogue” and stressed that bullying is a community issue. After public outcry, Landry has reversed his decision and has reached out to Parsons’ family, asked senior officials to present him with options for the case, and has met with provincial ministers for Status of Women, Community Services, and Education to discuss bullying.
Bullying. Not the alleged gang rape of a 15 year old girl and the exploitative circulation of documentation of the alleged attack and subsequent sexual harassment or, more broadly, the sexual violence young women face and the impunity their assailants enjoy even when they document their crimes, but bullying.
In actuality, ground zero for these awful events is an alleged rape. Repeat that until it sounds absurd to talk about Parsons case as bullying. Ground zero for these awful events is an alleged rape.
This isn’t to suggest that bullying isn’t a serious issue deserving of attention—it is. However, bullying has become a catch-all term that means everything and nothing. Its ubiquity renders it benign as a concept, which is a disservice to those who are bullied as well as those who are dealing with other kinds of conflict and violence. Were there elements of bullying in what Parsons endured? Absolutely. Is focusing on “cyber-bullying” as the primary concern brought to light by her death accurate or even useful? No.
When a sexual assault, circulation of documentation of an assault, and vicious victim-blaming for an assault are subsumed into the bullying narrative, it obscures the truth of what happened. If such things are filed away under bullying, we fail to name them as instances of gender-based violence, exploitation, and harassment that are enabled by a culture that minimizes, dismisses, and normalizes violence against women.
When we don’t place a story like Parsons within the context of violence against women, people in positions of power address the issue by talking about teaching youth appropriate behavior and to be cognizant about what they put online. We see media reporting that the young boys “allegedly had sex with” Parsons or that she “had sex she felt awful about” instead of explicitly identifying it as an alleged rape. We see the circulation of documentation of alleged sexual abuse being linked to “sexting” instead of harassment and exploitation.
What we should be doing is teaching youth about and linking this story to is sexual consent, violence against women, and how to intervene in abuse when you can, NOT fueling ideas of how girls should act to avoid sexual assault or urging assailants to better cover their tracks. We should be discussing how tragedies like this are part of a broader context of oppression of women that extends beyond peer conflicts amongst youth—a context that young women aren’t going to simply age out of.
If we want to prevent future tragedies like Parsons’, we must insist on telling her story truthfully and explicitly link it to the broader context of violence against and oppression of women that it occurred within. If we allow the narrative of this story, and the reporting of sexual violence amongst youth in general, to remain focused on bullying (and, to a lesser extent, sexting), we are contributing to the ongoing minimizing, dismissing, and normalizing of violence against women.
*I absolutely hate putting terms like ‘alleged’ front and centre when writing about sexual assault, but I have to because charges haven’t been laid or gone to court. I will use this footnote as an opportunity to remind readers that the false reporting rate for sexual assaults is no higher than false reporting rates for other crimes.