Rehtaeh Parsons was a victim of misogyny, not 'bullying'

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Recently, a girl named Rehtaeh Parsons committed suicide. After having been allegedly gang-raped by four boys, a picture of the incident was passed around to her classmates, who then went on to humiliate and harass her.

 Local police callously ignored the rape allegation when it was reported to them. After attempting suicide on April 4, Rehtaeh passed away several days later in a hospital.

The public has reacted with a mixture of empathy and outrage. Petitions have been signed, Facebook pages created, and Nova Scotia has even introduced new legislation regarding cyberbullying. Nova Scotia police have also re-opened the case in order to find and prosecute the rapists.

Unfortunately, all of the discussions about the story so far have focused on "bullying," as if Rehtaeh's story is about playground squabbling; as if what happened to her could have happened to anyone. In reality, her story had a lot to do with being female in a patriarchal society. Rehtaeh was killed by misogyny. 

Violence against women is still a significant problem in Canada. One out of ten women will be a victim of domestic violence at some point in her life, and one in four will be raped. Even when men or boys are raped, they are usually raped by other men; and they often have some other characteristic, besides maleness, that makes them vulnerable -- youth, poverty, race (in a racist society). Women and girls only need to be female to be targeted for sexual violence.

Male victims of rape are also more likely to be believed; their injury is more likely to be perceived as a real violation of who they are and what they are worth. The ongoing sexual abuses in the Church, for example, have sparked outrage and brought many of us to act primarily because it is one of the few cases where most of the victims are boys.

In society at large, girls are four times more likely than boys to be sexually abused. But this fact does not cause outrage or make it into the evening news. There is no desperate scramble to get justice for each and every girl in the same way that there is for boys. Sexual violence against boys is seen as unacceptable, while the same violence directed at girls is seen as natural and normal.

And that is why it took a suicide for Rehtaeh's pain to be taken seriously. By itself, her rape meant nothing because her life and freedom meant nothing to a woman-hating society. If Rehtaeh had been a boy, there wouldn't have been any discussion about her drunkenness. She certainly wouldn't have been called a "slut" and harassed for more sex. Boys are not accused of having "deserved" any kind of abuse. 

The boys who raped and humiliated Rehtaeh are not psychopaths; they are products of their environment. The environment that created them is not a pretty one. It is an environment in which boys learn that violence and aggression are an integral part of being male, and that they are not "real men" if they do not comply. It is also an environment in which violence against women is not just normalized, but is even public entertainment. The pornography industry, which largely exploits poor women, has grown exponentially in the past few decades. It has become the wallpaper against which young boys develop their relationship to sexuality and to women.

The basic message of pornography is simple: she wants 'it'; do it to her. No matter how cruel, painful, or humiliating 'it' is, she always wants 'it.'  In fact, she loves 'it.'

In the 1980s, when pornography was starting to become more mainstream, experts on violence against women (such as Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon) pointed out how police reactions to rape were beginning to change. Before, a picture or video of the event was considered an important (even if insufficient) piece of evidence. But with the proliferation of pornography, pictures or videos of a rape -- even when depicting overt violence or a woman physically resisting -- were increasingly taken to be proof of consent. With increased exposure to pornography, police officers and (male) jury members became increasingly desensitized to force, and were more likely to think that there was consent in cases where it was clearly lacking. Rape obviously pre-dates the modern porn industry, but it is difficult to overstate the harm that pornography has added. 

The police who initially dismissed Rehtaeh's case as "lacking evidence" were not just being lazy. Their callousness was directly related to what are now mainstream attitudes towards women and rape. When Rehtaeh tried to explain -- first to her classmates and later to the police -- that she really had not wanted it all along, she had to prove that she had ever had a right to bodily integrity in the first place; that she was a significant being whose body was not simply 'there' for the taking. She was up against the entire belief system of male-supremacy. She is neither the first nor the last Canadian woman to have her abuse dismissed and even ridiculed.

The rape, humiliation and dismissal that Rehtaeh suffered were all political. Both her rapists and the police acted the way that they did because of what they had learned over a lifetime about women; all of their actions and attitudes stem from male power. Every part of her story tells us something about the kind of power that men have over women.

The outrage that many people have expressed over Rehtaeh's story shows that many of us do care. But we can't prevent more cases like this from happening as long as we're hiding behind generic "anti-bullying" rhetoric. Justice for Rehtaeh means confronting the misogyny that she experienced, and ending it so that other women and girls won't have to go through the same thing.

Platitudes cannot replace human dignity, and economic opportunities cannot make women equal to men as long as we continue to live with the threat or reality of violence against us.

To understand why and how women are still not equal, we do not need to parse through wordy legislation or get into philosophical debates. We simply need to take a good look around us. There are millions of Canadian women who are raped, beaten, humiliated, bought and sold, neglected, marginalized, and forgotten on any given day.

Each and every single one of them has something important to say about male power and misogyny, because it has been sewn into the fabric of her life.

It's time we started listening.

Maya Shlayen is a feminist activist and a journalism student at Ryerson University. 


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