Rehtaeh Parsons, 17 years old.
Audrie Pott, 15 years old.
These two girls took their own lives after pictures of boys sexually assaulting them were plastered across the entire context of their social worlds. They could not live with the shame. The loss of these girls is an undeniable tragedy, and if we are going to avoid more of these fatalities, we need to talk about how the world has changed, and how we can protect all our children in this new world order.
This won’t be an easy conversation to have, and I am extremely reluctant to add to the pain the families of these girls are going through, but I feel like the cultural conversation surrounding these deaths is leaving out a few important things.
First, I’d like to put the loss of the girls into a specific context: youth suicide. Rehtaeh lived in the province of Nova Scotia in Canada. The overall suicide rate in Nova Scotia in 2004 was 9 per 100 000, slightly below the national average (p.29).
The overwhelming majority of people who took their own lives were men: 84% (p.32).
Age adjusted rates appear to show the same ratio for youth suicides, defined as between 15 and 19 years of age: 90% young men (p.33).
The loss of every single one of those people is obviously a tragedy and something we wish we could prevent. But there is something worth noting in the media hysteria that surrounds young women who take their lives that just doesn’t happen when the victims are male, despite the fact that most victims of suicide ARE male.
Here is the story of Adam Cashen, just one of the boys who took his own life in Nova Scotia in 2009. It’s heart-breaking to read, and notable for being an uncommonly told story. Culturally, we simply don’t react to men taking their lives the way we do to women.
Part of the media reaction can be accounted for by the circumstances surrounding the loss of these girls: both Audrie and Rehtaeh were raped, had photos taken of the assault and those photos were circulated widely within their social circles.
There are two things worth discussing here: what were the specific circumstances that led to the assault, and why did the pictures get so widely distributed?
Let’s talk about the latter first: why were those pictures posted and reposted, tweeted and retweeted?
In the Daily Mail, Rehtaeh’s mother says “She was a friend the day before and the next day she’s a slut? And they’ve know her their whole life?”
Why would Rehtaeh’s friends, people whom she has known her whole life, turn on her like that? It seems obvious to me: they’re terrified. Absolutely, utterly terrified that something similar could happen to them. Rejecting Rehtaeh was a simple defense mechanism against the fear of becoming a victim themselves.
And that leads directly to the hardest part of the conversation: if the only way Rehtaeh’s friends could think of to protect themselves was to scorn her, we need to offer some new defense mechanisms.
This is where I will get screamed at for victim-blaming, but I’m going to go ahead and talk about this anyways. Without a doubt, what happened to Rehtaeh and Audrie was criminal. There is no question that they were incapable of giving consent, and they were assaulted. Why is there no question? Well, first of all, there are photos of the assaults. But mostly?
Because they were both blind drunk.
Rehtaeh had been drinking straight vodka and smoking pot. Audrie had been drinking Gatorade mixed with hard liquor.
They both ended up passed out.
Both were at the homes of people they didn’t know particularly well, with no adult supervision.
And both those girls ran into the wrong people. Let’s not pretend, either, that it’s only ever boys who will take advantage of young women who are vulnerable thanks to isolation and drunkenness. Yesterday’s post is a testament to the fact that putting yourself in dangerous situations with little girl psychopaths can have some pretty horrific outcomes, too.
The very simple fact is that the world has changed: the kinds of situations that happened to Rehtaeh and Audrie have happened to countless other girls over the course of time, too. This isn’t something new. The Rape of the Sabines was written somewhere around 750 BCE, and it’s the same old story: a big party, the ladies get trashed and then carried off and raped.
What HAS changed is the aftermath. A girl can no longer wake up after an experience like that and resolve that she will NEVER be drinking that much vodka with boys she doesn’t know again. Lesson learned.
Now there is evidence. A trail of photographs and texts, tweets and Facebook updates that reveal her judgement and assault to the whole world for verdict. She cannot keep her shame to herself. She must share it with everyone.
It doesn’t help to demand that texting pictures of naked minors be illegal. IT’S ALREADY ILLEGAL! So is drinking alcohol under a certain age, and smoking pot. That doesn’t stop teenagers from doing it.
It also doesn’t help to teach boys not to rape. The vast majority of them NEVER WILL. Treating all boys as potential rapists in need of training is demeaning and insulting and engages some of the grossest stereotypes about boys and men: ones we would never accept about any other social group.
You can’t teach criminals not to be criminals: they DON’T CARE what the laws are or what’s allowed in regular society. That’s WHY they’re criminals.
What we CAN do is teach our sons and daughters not to put themselves into vulnerable, dangerous situations in the first place. We don’t seem to have a problem culturally in telling travelers how to avoid getting mugged in unfamiliar places far from home.
Nor do we have any problem conducting research into how the way you walk makes you more or less likely to be victimized.
We’re perfectly comfortable teaching our kids “basic street sense” like avoid dark alleys, stick with people you know and trust, and tell your parents where you will be.
But for some reason, our cultural hackles go up when it comes to teaching our teenagers how to avoid situations that will make it very difficult, if not impossible, to fend off a rapist, should they happen to run in to one.
This isn’t about fearing or mistrusting all boys, because ALL BOYS ARE NOT RAPISTS.
Reality check: some of them are.
Another reality check: some girls are rapists, too.
No one deserves to be raped. Or mugged. Or punched in the face. Or robbed. Or to get hit by a car. It’s infantile to suggest that offering precautions to avoid those things is equivalent to suggesting someone “deserved” whatever it is they got.
We need to be having incredibly frank and open discussions with both our sons and daughters about the fact that they CAN be sexually assaulted, and that a single camera phone present at the time of the assault could very well ruin their lives as they know them. There is nothing controversial about acknowledging that bad people exist, and if we want our kids to be able to avoid those people, we are going to need to equip them with some updated street sense.
Never get drunk with people you don’t know well
Always travel with your friends
Have a pact with your parents AND your friends that if you get pass out drunk, someone will call your mom or dad to come and get you
Don’t go to house parties if you don’t know the people very well
If you ever see pictures of someone being assaulted, tell your parents. Do not RT, ever!
Those are just the basics. I still have a few years before I will have to confront the new reality of teenage sexuality and social media and the ubiquity of camera phones, but you can be certain I will be teaching both my daughters and my son how the new world works.
And how they can be hurt.
And how they can avoid that.
If Rehtaeh and Audrie have anything to teach us, it’s this: we can’t put off this conversation any longer.
It’s a matter of life and death.
And we don’t need one single more devastated Dad, weeping over his beautiful angel.
Lots of love,