Since the story of Rehtaeh Parsons went public in early April, I have been mentally stewing. Simmering… slowing working things around as I piece together my thoughts.
In many ways I can relate to Rehtaeh’s story. When I was fifteen I was stalked and sexually assaulted by an older classmate that I was casually dating. My memory of that time remains fairly hazy; granted, it’s hard to go back fifteen years and put myself back into my teenage mind and body. I was young. I was naive. I had the desire to be sexual, but lacked the knowledge of what that could entail. I wanted to be grown up.
This was the late 90s. The internet was a thing, but it was new for all of us. Cellphones in school were virtually unheard of – we still took our film in to be developed. Having your own car was the pinnacle of our high school existence. And yet, stories of me and this assault wound up online. Even then, other kids used the internet as a tool to damage reputations and spread gossip. Even without photographic weapons in this attack, my teenage self was devastated – seemingly beyond repair. I was embarrassed that this happened to me. I was mortified that everyone knew. And I was heartbroken that I was the so-called “slut” according to my classmates. I can only imagine how Rehtaeh felt.
It took some time for me to come forward, but one day something sparked anger, maybe even rage, and it all came tumbling out. I told my principal, who then had me tell our school resource officer, who then had me tell my parents. There might be something to be said about re-victimization in all of this telling and re-telling, but that wasn’t nearly as bad as the silence I received on the other end. Silence from the school. Silence from the police. Silence from my family. Without physical “proof” of any assault there was no requirement to believe. Never mind that these people knew me. Never mind that I was a teenage girl who was clearly in pain. Never mind that I told them that he carried a knife – and they found it! According to the authority figures in my life, I was just feeling regret for a poor choice that I had made.
And it took many years to undo that tape playing in my head…. “This wasn’t assault. You asked for it. You participated in it. Now you just regret it.”
It took making it through high school and getting the hell out of Dodge. It took living alone. It took confiding in others. It took a support group. It took having successful sexual relationships. It took resolving things with my family. And it took and amazing period of self-exploration during my graduate degree to bring me to understand that the world is complex and messy, but I am okay.
But Rehtaeh never got that chance. And it breaks my heart.
How do we move forward with stories like Rehtaeh’s?
This has been reported as a story about the extreme consequences of bullying, but it is truly a story about the very real consequences of entrenched misogyny that persists in our culture. How can we change the conversation to be an authentic one so that there is hope for a cultural shift?
Unfortunately, I don’t have any answers. Do you?