I get the desire for vigilante justice for the boys who allegedly raped Rehtaeh Parsons. Her story is so sad, her life so short, her death so unnecessary that we desperately seek some sort of response – and we’re outraged that there’s been none. So we fantasize about naming and shaming the boys, shaming and hounding the police, making heads roll, knowing that we can’t right the wrongs done to Rehtaeh but wanting to make damned sure the wrongdoers suffer even a fraction of the pain she suffered for months and years before it became too much.
I get it. But it misses the point.
Rehtaeh went to a party when she was fifteen. What happened at the party is, according to press reports, a matter of he-said/she-said: she said she was raped; he – or they, four unnamed “boys” – apparently said she consented to sex. That there was sex is undisputed: one of the boys took a picture, and sent that picture around, and the people who got it forwarded it on, and soon enough it seemed that everyone had seen it. And they shamed Rehtaeh, and called her a slut; they texted her, even if they didn’t know her, and asked for sex; they harassed her on Facebook; they wouldn’t leave her alone, wouldn’t let up about it, even when she moved away. They tormented her for years – maybe not constantly, but enough. Whether or not Rehtaeh had other troubles; whether or not she suffered mental illness – the shaming, the tormenting, the harassment was enough.
I’m choosing my words carefully here because I have an important point to make and I want to make it as clearly as I can without being misunderstood, so bear with me, and if you can’t believe I’m saying what I’m saying, please ask me if that’s what I’m really saying. Here’s what I want to say:
It matters a great deal whether or not Rehtaeh consented to have sex with anyone at that party when she was fifteen. It matters because we each have an unassailable right to control our bodies, to decide whether, when, with whom and how to have sex. It matters because each of those decisions is immeasurably more fraught when faced by a kid, a teen, especially (I think) a teen girl, especially at a party, especially when there’s booze, especially when there are cliques and judgment and pressure and hormones and confusion. It matters because sex with an unconsenting partner is not cool, or masculine, or expected, or just one of those things – it’s rape. So when I say what I’m about to say, I don’t mean to suggest that it doesn’t matter whether or not Rehtaeh was raped. For the reasons I’ve just given, and a thousand reasons besides, it matters a great deal.
But it also doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter, because the manner in which she was treated is unacceptable and unforgivable regardless of whether she consented to sex that night. Assume, just for a moment, just for the purposes of illustration, that she consented to have sex at that party. Assume that she knew, and in a moment of madness and indiscretion did not object, when someone in the room took the picture. How – how in the world – how would that possibly make it okay to share the story, and the picture, with everyone at school? And once the picture went around – a picture that we’re assuming, just for the moment, was taken with knowledge and consent, showing consensual sex – once that picture went around, how would the circumstances possibly justify shaming her, calling her a slut, harassing her on the phone and on Facebook?
Assume everything that the boys said was true, and you’re still left with a fundamental human failure – a failure of empathy, of humility, of respect. Now add the barest suggestion that things weren’t consensual, and that failure – a failure entirely separate from the failures of the law and law enforcement – is compounded a hundred- and thousand-fold.
By all means, let’s figure out how the system failed Rehtaeh Parsons. Let’s find out whether the police dropped the ball in their investigation, failed to act quickly, failed to make every effort to develop a case against the boys. Let’s figure out whether our laws are too lax, whether they could be revised, or new ones written, to prevent, or at least punish, the undisputed conduct here. Let’s treat this as a failure of the system, and let’s address that.
But let’s not pretend that legal reform, or disciplining police or prosecutors, or meting vigilante justice on the accused will fix the failures that drove Rehtaeh Parsons to suicide. Those were human failures, and it’s not up to the police, or the courts, or the law to fix those. It’s up to us.