Three years ago in Nova Scotia, four teenage boys raped a 15-year-old girl as she vomited out a window, far too drunk to give consent. They documented the attack with a photograph, which they shared widely. They were never charged with rape and a year and a half later, the girl ended her own life. On 15 January, the young man who was photographed raping Rehtaeh faced one charge of distributing child pornography and, like his friend who took the photo, was sentenced to 12 months of probation and told to apologise to Rehtaeh’s parents. Across the continent, reporters and commentators have reacted with horror and disgust, but let’s be honest: we’re not surprised.
The girl’s name was Rehtaeh Parsons. I can tell you that because I’m writing in the United States. A court order issued at the end of September prevents the publication of her name in Canada, a ban that, as her father Glen put it, “came across as insulting, it came across as too little too late”. Halifax reporter Hilary Beaumont started the hashtag #youknowhername in place of “Rehtaeh” because, a year and a half after her death, most of us do know her name.
I never met Rehtaeh. But as I write this, a wallet-sized photo of her – the last school photo she ever took – sits in its 2×3 frame on the corner of my desk. Her father gave it to me at the end of my visit to Nova Scotia this past spring, where I spent a week interviewing people who knew Rehtaeh for Slut: A Documentary Film. All I know about Rehtaeh I learned from him, over mugs of coffee upstairs at a café in downtown Halifax, and from her mother, Leah, while one of the family’s dogs snored on the couch next to us, and, of course, from the many, many news stories I have watched and read from the opposite end of the continent.
The widespread coverage of Rehtaeh’s death and the circumstances leading up to it has brought to light the details of this insane, unfair tragedy. But the coverage only started after her death.
Before she died, we didn’t care. The only attention Rehtaeh got was from her classmates, including the very boys who raped her, as they ostracised and harassed her for being a “slut”. For a year and a half she suffered, transferring schools multiple times, eventually turning to drugs as she fell into depression. Her parents did their best to help her, even admitting her to an in-patient hospital program for treatment, but Rehtaeh was deeply changed by the rape and the “slut” shaming that followed.
It was during that time that we should have cared. It was during that time that we should have reached out to support her, should have taken her allegations seriously, should have pressured the Halifax police to investigate the events that traumatised her so deeply. It was during that time that she needed help, and we failed her.
As I said, I never met Rehtaeh. And you might not even have heard of her before this week. So how could we have failed her, if we didn’t even know her?
We failed her because what happened to her didn’t happen in a vacuum. She lived and died in this world, in North America, where 1 in 4 people will be sexually assaulted. Where otherwise kind, well-meaning people roll their eyes at rape victims’ stories and ask, “Well, what did she expect?” Where an estimated 90 per cent of sexual assault survivors do not report to the police, and where fewer than half of those who do come forward, including Rehtaeh, see the report lead to a criminal charge. This is our world, our culture, and our responsibility. Rehtaeh’s death and its aftermath have made headlines, but her story isn’t unique.
In pointing this out, I don’t mean to erase Rehtaeh’s individuality. She was a beautiful, gifted girl, shy at first but silly with her friends and family. She loved crows, maths, and her little sisters.
We can’t undo what happened to Rehtaeh. But we can work to prevent it from happening to another girl. We can’t prevent Rehtaeh’s rape, but we can educate the boys in our lives about consent, decency, and respect. We can’t delete the photo that was shared, but we can refuse to look at or share explicit photos that we know were stolen or snapped without consent. We can’t support Rehtaeh through the trauma of rape and ongoing humiliation, but we can listen to and validate sexual assault survivors without judging them for being alone with boys, drinking too much, or doing any of the countless other things that are so often twisted around to blame victims for the crime committed against them.
The other option is to do nothing, to wait for another girl’s death to make headlines, and to wonder, again, how something like this could have happened.
Learn more and contribute to the crowd-funding campaign to finish Slut: A Documentary Film. Through Rehtaeh’s story and the stories of four North American women who overcame sexual shaming in various forms, the film explores how we can work on individual, community, and cultural levels toward a world where sexual assault victims get the support they need and where the word “slut” doesn’t even make sense as an insult. Watch the pitch: