Seventeen months ago a Canadian teen was allegedly gang-raped by four of her peers and the photo evidence of the rape spread across her community. But unlike the situation that unfolded in Steubenville, where the victim was at least given the comfort of knowing her assailants received some measure of punishment (even if the media took their side), this case ended in tragedy: The victim was taken off life support by her family on Sunday, three days after attempting to end her own life.
Seventeen-year-old Rehtaeh Parsons’ suicide was the harrowing end to a story involving not only sexual assault, but also the issues of harassment and victim-blaming that are problematic symptoms of rape culture. According to her mother Leah Parsons’ post on her Facebook, Rehtaeh was subject to significant bullying from her peers, who labeled her as a “slut”:
“The [p]erson Rehtaeh once was all changed one dreaded night in November 2011. She went with a friend to another’s home. In that home she was raped by four young boys…one of those boys took a photo of her being raped and decided it would be fun to distribute the photo to everyone in Rehtaeh’s school and community where it quickly went viral. Because the boys already had a “slut” story, the victim of the rape Rehtaeh was considered a SLUT.”
Parsons didn’t know about the assault until days after it happened, when Rehteah broke down in the kitchen crying. At that point, it was too late for a rape kit — which may have contributed to the fact that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) dropped their investigation after a year without charges.
But there were other issues with the investigation as well, Parsons told the Halifax Chronicle Herald: “[t]hey didn’t even interview the boys until much, much later” and “nothing was done about [the photos] because they couldn’t prove who had pressed the photo button on the phone.” She was told that even the distribution of the photos was “not really a criminal issue,” despite the fact that Rehtaeh was 15 at the time, meaning the photos constituted child pornography.
While the investigation was ongoing, Rehtaeh struggled with anger and depression leading to her hospitalization on one occasion. She also moved to a different city to avoid harassment of her peers, including a barrage of texts asking “Will you have sex with me?” and telling her “You’re such a slut.” The Steubenville victim similarly faced harassing text messages after her identity was revealed by news coverage, including threats resulting in charges against two teens.