It was only last month that the verdict was handed down in the Steubenville rape case, in which two boys raped a girl while she was unconscious, and seemingly an entire school community played a part in publicly shaming and harassing her via social media. The case was notable for its demonstration of rape culture, as well as the cruelty and insensitivity of mass numbers of people.
This week, a disturbingly similar case was reported in Canada. 15-year-old Rehtaeh (ruh-TAY-uh) Parsons was allegedly gang-raped by four boys at a party. The boys took pictures, and distributed them in their school and community. Rehtaeh was then relentlessly bullied and harassed via social media. 17 months later, at the age of 17, Rehtaeh hung herself.
It’s hard to know how to contextualize or understand these tragedies. Teenage suicides due to bullying have reached seemingly epidemic levels in the past few years, and the details of each case are always appalling. According to Rehtaeh’s mother, one of Rehtaeh’s rapists was giving a “thumbs-up with a big smile” in the picture of him raping her. Somehow the circulation of this picture resulted in Rehtaeh being harassed. As a classmate explains in the article above, students at her school were “putting the blame on Rehtaeh.” I don’t know what on earth they were blaming her for, but apparently her faults were enough to justify unrelenting harassment, in the form of boys asking her to have sex with them since she “had sex with their friends,” and girls texting Rehtaeh just to call her a slut. The mind boggles at the level of cruelty and insensitivity. Is there not a point at which even a callous person has a moment of conscience, and declares “this has gone on long enough – I won’t be party to it any longer”? Sadly, we know from cases like this that if those moments of conscience do come, they are too few and far between.
The next question then is what can we do about it.
To begin with, a great deal of educating needs to be done on the subject of rape. Many people frankly do not know much about rape – what it is, who it is perpetrated by, what emotional scars it leaves. The popular discourse is full of comments from people who think that if you penetrate a woman’s vagina with your finger it isn’t rape, or that if a person is drunk it isn’t rape, or that as long as she didn’t say “no” (regardless of whether she had the chance) it isn’t rape. A high school English teacher, Abby Norman, writes about the time she discovered this moral confusion among her own students. Her class was discussing the Steubenville rape case:
I realized then that some of my kids were genuinely confused. “How can she be raped?” they asked, “She wasn’t awake to say no.”
Well there you have it! The girl was out cold – clearly anything you do to her couldn’t be considered an assault!
These words out of a full fledged adult would have made me furious. I did get a good few minutes in response on victim blaming and why it is so terrible. But out of the face of a kid who still has baby fat, those words just made me sick. My students are still young enough, that mostly they just spout what they have learned, and they have learned that absent a no, the yes is implied.
Clearly, our teenagers need to be having these conversations now.
And they are done a disservice by adults who minimize the consequences of rape, as many news organizations did in their coverage of Steubenville, or who perpetuate the myth that rape is committed only by evil criminals who will stop at nothing. Most rapists are their victims’ friends, boyfriends, neighbors, or classmates – people they know and trust. Most rapes are committed by people who could have acted better, had they been taught more about compassion and less about entitlement. We know that telling rapists not to rape works. So let’s do that, and not accept any attempts to distort the issue.
There is also the need to take bullying more seriously. From the description of Rehtaeh’s case, it sounds like there was no small number of students making hell for her over the fact that she was raped. You mean to tell me that her school knew nothing? They were able to do nothing? Throw an assembly! Sit the entire school down for a talk! There couldn’t have been a more important teachable moment than the time when an entire community gangs up on a child. Let no one repeat the lie that sticks and stones may break our bones, but words can never hurt us. The results are in on that experiment, and it is hogwash. How many more children have to take their lives, or come close to it, before adults decide that we are not going to let this happen?
The hard-to-face truth about the bullies and the rapists that we’ve seen in the international media is this: they’re normal teenagers. They aren’t monsters, or psychological outliers. They’re the kids we knew growing up – our neighbors, our friends, and our classmates. They are a manifestation of human possibilities. Here’s Amy Norman again:
It is a strange thing about looking into the face of a 15-year-old, to really see who they are. You still see the small child that their mother sees. You see the man or woman they will be before they graduate. They are babies whose innocence you want desperately to protect. They are old enough to know better, even if no one has taught them.
So we have to teach them.
Adolescence is a formative time in a young person’s life – every teenager will make decisions about what paths to take. We need to do a better job of pointing the way.
Image source: Youtube