What Rehtaeh Parsons' Death Teaches Us About Rape as a Conformity

Why are so many boys so sure they can get away with rape? Or learning that their status is enhanced by sharing photo-documentary evidence of their actions? As one boy asked at a recent talk I gave: "How is forwarding a picture a girl sends me of herself different from forwarding a picture of my toaster?"
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This week, two more stories of 15-year-old girls gang-raped, photographed and shamed came across my desk. I get a lot of information like this every day. I don't share most of it, because it gets overwhelming and people don't want to hear it. These were sad stories. Sometimes, the news is more positive and includes victims, almost always girls, fighting back. Those stories help to shift the ground a little more away from rape tolerance toward rape intolerance. However, as it is, we clearly live in a culture where it is safer and better to be a rapist than to be a rape victim.

What we are refusing to acknowledge as a society is that raping is conforming to norms.

I am going to focus on young girls raped by young boys in North America. For every one that is raped, there are at least one, sometimes several, boys who rape. Some of them don't even know they are raping. No one's ever taught them. They think it's funny. When they take and send pictures this would indicate that they think others will agree. These are not people filled with shame.

Last year, Lizzy Seeberg, a 19-year-old freshman at Saint Mary's College committed suicide after accusing a Notre Dame football player of sexually assaulting her. Not only did Notre Dame fail to respond even remotely appropriately to her claim, but she was warned, "Don't do anything you would regret," and, "Messing with Notre Dame football is a bad idea."

In California, three 16-year old boys were just arrested for photographing their brutal sexual assault of 15-year-old Audrie Pott while she was incapacitated at a party. The boys took their photos, shared them and then she was shamed, bullied, propositioned, embarrassed, and humiliated. She hanged herself.

Yesterday, 17-year-old Rehtaeh Parsons' father wrote a heart-rending letter about his daughter. She was allegedly gang-raped, photographed, and shamed under similar circumstances. On Sunday he and his wife had to take her off of life support. Her mother writes: "Everybody turned against Rehtaeh and she was a 'slut' and she was the one that they targeted." She left her school and struggled for more than a year before trying to kill herself. Her father's letter included a plea to Nova Scotia's Ministry of Justice, which declined to reopen an investigation. Anonymous is now involved in much the same capacity they were with the Steubenville case.

Her case is being compared to Amanda Todd's, whose excruciating suicidevideo has been viewed more than 14 million times. There are, sadly, no shortages of comparisons that can be made.

There are many factors that contribute to a person's desire and will to end his or her own life. These four girls all appear to have had different experiences with depression, from never experiencing it prior to their rapes to struggling with related issues before their assaults. Emily Bazelon has just written a great book about bullying that touches on these topics. However, these girls all killed themselves in connection to events resulting from their rapes. They were girls who were all shamed and humiliated because they were raped and dared to say so.

The issue is: Why are so many boys so very sure that they can get away with raping? Or learning that their status and prestige are enhanced by sharing photo-documentary evidence of their actions? They think they can get away with it because we teach them that they can and that they might even be rewarded for it. Their victims feel shame and are shamed. What we have to do is reverse this trajectory.

The shameless conformists are the rapists. The transgressors -- who are treated as whistleblowers -- are the victims who dare to speak up. When they are bullied and threatened, it is by others who are conforming to silence and abuse of power and expect the raped to as well.

These lessons start when they are very young.

Here is where I pick on Catholic schools. Not because they are the only problem, but because they provide so many good examples of how early rapey acculturation begins and how seamlessly it's married to traditions, stereotypes, double standards, institutional tolerance, and gender-twisted ideas about "morality."

This week I saw a news about an incident at Paul VI Catholic High School in Virginia. A 16-year-old girl was expelled after sending, in response to a dare, a topless photo of herself to two 16-year-old friends, who were boys. Don't forget, she's probably grown up with them, being told that she is their equal in every way, and might expect them, as friends, to treat her that way and with kindness. At least one of the boys then sent her photo to the team. Katie JM Baker's Jezebel piece describes what happened next, which I'll summarize here:

The Dean of Students called Alexis into his office and told her that what she did was "outrageous," especially because she wasn't dating either of the boys (???). She was suspended for a day. A week later she was called into another meeting where she was asked if she knew what pornography was and "whether she felt she had 'harassed'" the boys. Among the questions she was asked was one about "what justice" the boys should receive. As Baker explains, "Alexis and her parents assumed the administration was referring to Jason and Peter's punishment, but they actually "wanted to know what I should do to make them feel better if they were distraught," Alexis said. Her mother explained, "What upsets me is that Alexis was worried about covering for these boys, since they're star athletes," Carol said. "She knew if they got in trouble people would get mad at her." The meeting ended with her "withdrawing" from Paul VI. Jason and Peter -- the boys who dared her and shared the photo and who already have lacrosse commitments at D-1 universities -- remain penalty-free. I called the school and they would make no comment. As one of the boys explained to Alexis at a party recently, "What happened to you was your fault. You did this to yourself."

Think about this. At the very least, the boys and girl should have been collectively dealt with and disciplined. The breach of trust, privacy and violation of consent in the sharing of the photographs was egregious, even if it happens every day. These teenagers and all the others around them were just taught some seriously bad lessons about consent, autonomy, compassion, justice, control, responsibility, accountability who is important for what reasons. As the school's website says, "At PVI we instill the idea of lifelong learners." This is the problem we have.

In my experience, and I attended three very good ones, Catholic schools are no place for children. How's that for a sweeping statement? Not done, though: It's no place for children, especially when it comes to social justice and how it's applied differently to boys and girls.

In addition, like all conservative, traditional cultures this one has a demonstrable sex-based hierarchy and isn't teaching kids to question the dominant culture -- basically thinking for themselves and challenging authority. Aren't these the exact things we need children to do when they see an incapacitated girl being dragged around and sexually acted upon by a group of powerful athletes? Teenage witnesses in Steubenville were concerned but didn't help Jane Doe.

To be clear: this isn't a "Catholic" thing, it's just that Catholic schools illustrate the issues so well, over and over again. Amanda Hess recently wrote about a recent incident involving high schools in Cincinnati. In an effort to "crack down on sexting" in a situation where hundreds of students were suspected of sharing nude photos, 10 girls are being disciplined. The ones whose images were most popular. This post is already too long to delve into this fiasco.

Hess cited an interesting new study, which revealed that while boys and girls take selfies and sext in equal measure, boys are twice as likely to forward pictures of girls and girls' photos travel farther and faster. Phones aren't making these decisions; people with ideas about whose bodies are communal and how they can be treated are making these decisions. Last month I was invited to speak at a college, about sexual assault on campuses in the U.S. The Q & A session turned to sexting when a boy asked a question that I think about every day since: "How is forwarding a picture a girl sends me of herself different from forwarding a picture of my toaster?"

What if Alexis had been drinking and at a party, like Savannah Dietrich? Dietrich is the Louisville, Kentucky, teen who took to Twitter and risked jail last year to protest a lenient judgment against two boys who assaulted her. The boys got community service because they regretted thinking that photographing themselves sticking their fingers into her vagina while she was unconscious, and circulating the photos among their friends, was hilariously funny. Was the fact that the prosecutor was an alumnus of the boys' (all-boys Catholic) school relevant to their ridiculous sentence? A lawyer for one of the defendants insisted that Dietrich ruined the boy's life: "He was on course to a scholarship to an Ivy League school to play sports and that may be jeopardized... He's just overwhelmed and devastated by what started from the conduct of this young girl..." Just WOW.

It's a strange thing, but when you're a girl and someone sexually abuses you, maybe puts things in your body without your knowledge or consent, you take it seriously and consider it an assault and a violation. When girls and boys who are friends together do something like share inappropriate photos that fit the definition of child porn, the girl isn't thinking she's the only one who will be blamed even though she will be. When these things happens, a boy's future -- athletic or not -- isn't the first thing that pops into your head. The fact that it does to adults with authority is surreal. It's a lie to tell these kids they're equals.

If boys don't want to risk penalties then they shouldn't sexually assault people.

When girls like Dietrich step forward, with their parents and communities support, it is courageous and sets an example for others who know they will not be alone.

Children, boys and girls both, need to be held accountable for their actions and taught to respect other people's bodily integrity and that starts when they are very small. Sexual assault is not something we want to think about when we're teaching small children how to play with one another or when we choose the words we do. But we have to if we are serious about stopping stories like these. Schools like Paul IV fail to do what is necessary, so they cultivate rape tolerant attitudes instead and perpetuate the kind of blameless boy privilege that result in men like Paul Ryan saying that forcible insemination (i.e., rape pregnancy) is just "another method of conception." Maybe he should ask a toaster what it thinks and get back to the boy I spoke to.

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