I’m congenitally cautious about stories of suicide and blame, especially at the outset of the news coverage. But if the facts as we now know them are true, they are profoundly upsetting on a lot of levels—and they make me want the police to give this case renewed attention. “Undoubtedly, there is much we don't know about the girl and her family, but it seems that the sheer magnitude of the trauma—the sexual assault, the humiliation caused by distributing the picture, the lack of validation stemming from the inaction of the police and criminal justice system, the extreme harassment and shaming behavior of peers, and the abandonment by friends—would likely have overwhelmed any 15 year-old, even without pre-existing vulnerabilities,” Ann Haas, senior director of education and prevention for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, wrote to me in an email Wednesday morning. “One of the most tragic aspects is that it seems the girl and the family did many of the right things—recognizing her depression and anger, getting her hospitalized and then out of the environment temporarily.”
Here’s what I think we know for sure. A girl had sex that she felt awful about. (Rehtaeh’s mother says her daughter had been drinking and only partially remembered what happened that night, though she did hear the click of the photo being taken.) Someone took a picture and sent it around, and Rehtaeh felt like a victim of slut-shaming. This part of the story is an awful parallel to the facts in Steubenville that recently led to convictions of two high school football players for the sexual assault of a 16-year-old. And it’s eerily analogous to the story of another Canadian girl, Amanda Todd, who took her own life after pictures of her flashing a webcam circulated online and she was stalked and blackmailed.
The anguish in these stories and the fact that they are so similar and seem to keep happening, in this country and over the border, should leave us with this pressing question: The malicious sexting and the slut-shaming causes serious damage and has to stop—how can we make that happen?
It’s not a question with a short answer, but in a case like this, law enforcement and the signals it sends matter. In Canada, as in many states in the U.S., posting a photo of an alleged rape of a minor can be an offense under child pornography law. Often, prosecuting a teenager for child pornography is the wrong fit. (To address this, some states have created a separate offense, with lesser penalties, for sexting by juveniles.) But if one of the boys who allegedly raped Rehtaeh, or someone else, widely circulated this kind of explicit, debasing photo to humiliate her, charges are warranted. This kind of reputational harm is searing and scary. Teenagers and adults have to take seriously the injury that’s involved, and a prosecution in a case like this can underscore that. Digital evidence led to indictments and convictions in Steubenville even though the victim didn’t remember the sexual assault she’d experienced because she was unconscious. Why can’t the police make more use of it here?
As for the slut-shaming, this is one of the worst forms of harassment girls experience—harder on them than nonsexualized kinds, according to experts I talked to for my book, Sticks and Stones. It’s just so disturbing to think about how many generations of teenagers have had to go through this. It happened when I was Rehtaeh’s age in the 1980s, it’s portrayed with classic Tina Fey acumen in the 2004 movie Mean Girls, and the Internet has only coarsened the discourse and created a sense of distance—an empathy gap—that somehow allows teenagers and adults to say harsh things that are hard to imagine they would ever say in person. We shouldn’t need stories like this one to make us see how sad all of this is. But somehow, it’s a lesson we have to learn over and over again. At a different girl’s expense each time.
We have to get kids talking about how sexting affects their lives—check out this great radio example. We have to address the empathy gap technology can induce, by building kids’ social and emotional skills from a young age on up and guiding them into the world of social media and the Internet, rather than pushing them through the door and expecting them to figure it out on their own. We have to talk honestly about the sex teenagers are having, the good and the bad, and the slut and bad-boy stereotypes that still plague them. Sexting is a problem we can address—and we have to.
Correction, April 11, 2013: This article originally misidentified Leah Parsons, mother of Rehtaeh Parsons.