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Author | Illustration Meags Fitzgerald

Understanding the Effects of Victim Blaming and Cyber Bullying through Rehtaeh Parsons’ Death

Last Sunday, 17-year-old Rehtaeh Parsons was taken off life-support following a failed suicide attempt. Depression led Rehtaeh to take her own life, but what led to her depression is heartbreaking and disturbing.

 A Facebook memorial page set up by her mother states that in November 2011, Rehtaeh was allegedly raped by four young boys while drinking at a friend’s house. One of the boys took a photo of her rape, which then went viral and spread throughout her school and community of Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. Rehtaeh was labelled a “slut”, shunned by friends, and harassed to the point of having to move out of Dartmouth to Halifax. She struggled with depression and checked herself into a hospital for six weeks after she began experiencing suicidal thoughts. Her rape was investigated by police but they concluded that there was not enough evidence to lay charges. (The case has since been reopened.)

What’s upsetting about Rehtaeh’s story (besides the fact that no one has been charged with her rape) is that victim blaming and bullying denied her recovery from such a traumatic experience. What’s worse is that it came at the hands of her attackers, peers, and so-called friends – not unlike the recent Stuebenville, Ohio rape case. The 16-year-old victim in that case had photos and videos of her appearing to be unconscious at a party posted online, and was blamed for how much alcohol she consumed on the night of the rape. While each case has had a different outcome, both raise important questions about the way society views rape and sexual assault, and the impact of cyber bullying.

Let’s first get one thing straight: rape is never, ever the victim’s fault. No one asks nor deserves to be raped and attaching the word “slut” to an attack encourages such beliefs. When these beliefs manifest themselves in the form of cyber bullying, they become dangerous.

There was no such thing as cyber bullying when I was growing up, and I’m thankful for that. Being without the internet made homework a hassle, but those who were bullied or teased at school were allowed some sort of peace from it all when the school day ended. If you’re a teen today, chances are you’ve experienced cyber bullying in some form, be it victim, bully, or observer. As Rehtaeh’s case shows, text messages, pictures, Facebook comments, and tweets can have just as much impact as – if not more than – physical bullying. All it takes is a click to destroy someone’s life. And while not every case of cyber bullying leads to suicide, some do, and that’s some too many.

It may be impossible to put an end to cyber bullying, but it’s not impossible to change people’s – specifically youth’s – approach to it. Let’s first recognize that cyber bullying can be a crime, particularly when it involves distributing compromising photos of a person or causing someone to feel threatened. It’s also important to understand that what you post on the internet is forever, living on in the form of screen grabs and retweets. Do you really want hurtful and embarrassing things you wrote about someone to pop up when, say, a future employer happens to Google you? No, you don’t. Not to mention the lasting impact what you post will have on the person it’s directed towards.

No lives should be lost because of victim blaming or cyber bullying but, as Rehtaeh has shown us, sadly, some are. If there’s one thing we can learn from her death, it’s that words can hurt just as much as sticks and stones.

6 comments
MikeJakermen
MikeJakermen

Just like when i leave my wallet at a store and somebody takes it. That its not at least half my fault for leaving it were somebody could steal it? Yes, she a victim. But by getting drunk. She put herself in a very vulnerable situation. Tell Women that they shouldn't think before getting drunk or whatever is dangerous. It's like women who hits a random stranger who could very violent is also dangerous. Sure she shouldn't have been shamed. But still.

haleycullingham
haleycullingham

As the editor on this piece, I can't speak for the writer, but can say that journalistic ethics demands that unless someone has been charged with a crime, you state the crime is alleged. 

Doing so doesn't suggest any kind of judgement towards the victim or statement about the crime itself - in fact, that's the entire point. Until someone has been convicted, a journalist cannot and will not assign blame. Caitlyn's use fo alleged was in this context, not in a victim-blaming one, which I think is fairly clear from the piece. 

PrimaFeminista
PrimaFeminista

Hey there. I have some issues with this article. First, if a rape is photographed how is it "alleged" as you state in the opening line of your second paragraph? Suggesting that a rape is alleged rather than fact is perpetuating victim blaming by suggesting that the "rape" is hearsay. You may as well suggest that women will cry rape at the drop of the hat. Like the boy who cried wolf. "Alleged" is a heavy word with heavy connotations, especially if we are discussing a girl who has taken her life as a result of trauma.

Secondly, "cyber bullying" is not some Internet, new age, next generation anomaly... Cyber "bullying" is another form of human rights violation. The language associated with bullying and cyber bullying discredits survivors by discounting their experiences as something similar to school years bullying, which is still of course wrong. A girl was raped. Then victim blamed to the point of suicide. This isn't bullying. This is straight up human right violation. To call it by any other name is infantilizing.

Lastly, who are we to discuss some one else's experience. I am no one to add to the constant media hype that speaks for someone who took their own life. They had a voice and it was stifled by the same society that uses it as "examples" and "red herrings" for generations future.

Good article but I feel there are some critical oversights that need to be a part of the discussion if we will toward any real change.

Best wishes from your writer and comrade, prima.

OWENF1
OWENF1

@MikeJakermen She was a a child Whomever supplied the booze is at fault. You have it wrong. Women should expect to be safe when drunk around men. Any men. Telling them they shouldn't feel safe is part of rape culture and excusing the acts of rapists.