rehtaeh

When I heard about the suicide of Rehtaeh Parsons, I was devastated. We’ve lost another young girl, who – after being allegedly raped by four boys who distributed photos of the attack online – was bullied mercilessly by her peers to the point where she decided to take her own life at 17 years of age.

A year-long investigation by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police was closed when it was decided that “there was insufficient evidence to lay charges.” Insufficient evidence– although many people saw the photos taken of the rape (which occurred when she was only 15), knew of the attack and witnessed Rehtaeh being bullied at school.

Her mother, Leah Parsons, told Canadian news source CBC “She was never left alone. She had to leave the community. Her friends turned against her. People harassed her. Boys she didn’t know started texting her and Facebooking her asking her to have sex with them. It just never stopped.” Things got so difficult that the Parsons moved to another city, but the bullying had taken its toll. Rehtaeh’s parents watched their once lively and high-spirited teenage daughter become increasingly depressed and withdrawn. After the move, Rehtaeh made some new, more supportive friends and heard from some of her old friends, who relented and decided to stand by her. But it wasn’t enough to undo the damage. Last March, she checked herself into the hospital for suicidal thoughts. And then on April 4, she hung herself in her parents’ bathroom.

Since her death, the police have reopened the investigation based on new evidence and a witness who is willing to verify the identity of the suspects and cooperate with investigators. Cyber-activist hacker group Anonymous has also claimed to have evidence that one of the attackers has admitted to raping Rehtaeh although he knew she was too intoxicated to defend herself.

Everything about this story is tragic and misguided – from the crime itself to the police’s handling of the case. But what also stands out to me is the bullying – the girls and boys that taunted Rehtaeh so cruelly that she ended her life. “People texted her all the time, saying ‘Will you have sex with me?’” says Leah Parsons. “Girls texting, saying ‘You’re such a slut.’” Teenagers aren’t exactly known for their maturity and this level of harassment is (sadly) not surprising. But why did so many of her peers turn on her? Why did so many other girls – some of whom may conceivably have endured similar experiences – call her a slut and disown her as a friend?

Undoubtedly, the blame for the crime rests on the shoulders of the alleged rapists. But if Rehtaeh hadn’t endured the bullying that she did, she might be alive today. The National Education Association estimates that 160,000 children miss school every day due to fear of attack or intimidation by other students.  According to Yale University studies, bullying victims are between 2 to 9 times more likely to consider suicide than non-victims. And technology such as cellphone cameras and social media have made bullying that much easier for teenagers. Snap a picture, and it can be distributed to the whole school with one click.

This type of cyber-bullying is not uncommon. A few weeks ago I wrote about the Steubenville case: the rape of a 16-year old girl; photos of the night gone viral on the internet; months of constant bullying from her peers; and the subsequent conviction of two star football players for the crime. Steubenville garnered a lot of attention. But what about Audrey Pott, a 15-year old Northern California girl who killed herself after allegedly being sexually abused by three young men who released explicit photos of the rape on the internet? She committed suicide just days after the photos went viral.

How does it feel to be that teenage girl who everyone is whispering about in the halls? To be called a slut/whore/skank by people who barely know you? To be judged for engaging in sexual activity, as most curious teens do? For some girls, it is utterly life-destroying.

Most people, whether they realize it or not, have slut-shamed before – shaming and/or attacking a woman or a girl for being sexual, having one or more sexual partners, acknowledging sexual feelings, and/or acting on sexual feelings outside of marriage. I’ve seen people do it countless times. Sadly, I’ve done it to others in the past, and even to myself. But I want to change that. The double standard remains: why is it that a girl who has sex is a whore/slut but a boy who has sex is a stud/player? In movies, on television, in magazines and in our communities, people throw around the term “slut” in reference to women willy-nilly. But how many of them think about what their words imply? That a girl or woman is a prostitute because she has sexual desire? That because she is female, she should save herself for marriage or she is a whore? That women should ignore/not act upon sexual desires even though men can/do? Why do we accept sexual exploration from our sons but not our daughters?

Next time you want to call a girl a slut, rethink your choice and start chipping away at the double standard. If we support one another – and remember that we are all human beings just living, learning and changing over time – we just might succeed in changing this societal mindfuck.

Sign this Change.org petition to get justice for Rehtaeh by launching an investigation into the RCMP’s handling of the case.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.