Rehtaeh Parsons’s father, Glen Canning, took to his website to share his anguish over his daughter’s death: “[T]hey knew they would get away with it. They took photos of it. They posted it on their Facebook walls. They emailed it to God knows who. They shared it with the world as if it was a funny animation.” He ended his blog with a plea to Nova Scotia’s Justice Minister: “For the love of God do something.”
It’s a plea to us all. Yes, we must do something. But what? More anti-bullying campaigns aren’t the answer.
Rehtaeh’s story is heartbreaking. The 17-year-old hanged herself this month after a sexually humiliating photo, or photos, of her were circulated on the Internet. Her family says they were taken during an assault at a drunken party two years ago. After that, she was constantly harassed, tormented and slut-shamed.
The first thing to do is resist the urge to vigilante justice. The identities of the boys involved in her alleged assault are an open secret; the hacker group Anonymous claims to know who they are. A lot of people, with good reason, are outraged that the police dropped the case (although they now say they’ll reopen it). But no one knows what really happened. Rehtaeh could be your daughter – but those boys could be your sons. Let’s not ruin more lives with a rush to judgment.
The second thing is to differentiate between bullying and crime, and more effectively address the latter. There are two types of crime here – sexual assault and transmitting sexual images of a minor on the Internet. Police are sometimes reluctant to pursue sexual assault cases when they believe the evidence may be too weak. Pictures of the victim, of course, can be compelling evidence; but, too often, the authorities don’t have the digital expertise to trace them to their source. This must change.
In Canada, the authorities can use existing child-pornography laws to prosecute people in cases such as Rehtaeh’s. But we should proceed with care, cautions Emily Bazelon, a wise and sensible voice on bullying. Teenage offenders probably deserve different treatment from adults, who are subject to harsh mandatory minimum sentences. We also need, as Ms. Bazelon reminds us, to acknowledge the difference between voluntary sexting – when a girl sends a naked picture of herself to her boyfriend, who then sends it to his friends – and involuntary sexting, when pictures of a girl are taken and circulated against her will. Most important, kids must understand that sexting can be a criminal act with serious consequences.
I don’t think that what happened to Rehtaeh means teenage boys are more predatory than ever, or that our society is waging war on teenage girls. I do think the Internet has exponentially magnified the harm that teenagers can do when they behave like pack animals – when they torment and harass, humiliate and shame. It’s a dreadful fact that some boys assault girls at drunken parties, then brag about it. That was as true 50 years ago as it is today. But now the girl can be a triple victim – victimized again by sexting, then again when the cyberbullies pile on. These bullies feel the Internet gives them a licence to be far more vicious than anyone would ever be face to face.
Parents have a job to do here, too. You can’t protect your kids from everything. But you can be vigilant. You can insist on the right to know what they’re up to online. You can say no to unsupervised parties. You can tell them where the bright lines are. That’s how you can remember Rehtaeh.