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Sexting and slut-shaming have to stop

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NEW HAVEN, Conn. — On Monday, after the suicide of her 17-year-old daughter, Rehtaeh, Leah Parsons, from a suburb of Halifax posted a wrenching note on a Facebook memorial page. Some of the details will be familiar from the recent rape case in Stuebenville, Ohio: a few boys apparently out of control, a girl who said she was raped and who was humiliated in pictures that spread around the community. In this case two outcomes differed than from Steubenville: the suicide, and before that, the authorities’ decision not to prosecute. Why didn’t they?

Here is the mother’s post, which tells much of her story:

"The Person Rehtaeh once was all changed one dreaded night in November 2011. She went with a friend to another’s home. In that home she was raped by four young boys ... one of those boys took a photo of her being raped and decided it would be fun to distribute the photo to everyone in Rehtaeh’s school and community where it quickly went viral. Because the boys already had a ‘slut’ story, the victim of the rape Rehtaeh was considered a SLUT. This day changed the lives of our family forever. I stopped working that very day and we have all been on this journey of emotional turmoil ever since.

"Rehtaeh was suddenly shunned by almost everyone she knew, the harassment was so bad she had to move out of her own community to try to start anew in Halifax. She struggled emotionally with depression and anger. Her thoughts of suicide began and fearing for her life, she placed herself in a hospital in an attempt to get help. She stayed there for almost six weeks. The bullying continued, her friends were not supportive. She needed a friend and eventually along the way a few new friends came along and a few old friends came forward."

The police investigated Rehtaeh’s allegations of rape and the circulation of the photo. But no charges were brought against anyone involved. The police say there was not enough evidence. Leah Parsons’ story about her daughter has gone viral, with a radio interview (it will make you weep), media coverage, and a petition with thousands of signatures calling for an inquiry into the police investigation.

The Canadian police won’t disclose details about the investigation. Instead, Cpl. Scott McRae said this week, "We have to deal in facts and not rumours. We may not be able to go down certain roads because of the tragic circumstance." Nova Scotia Justice Minister Ross Landry defended the decision not to prosecute Tuesday, saying "If the evidence isn’t in place, we can’t second-guess every investigation." (Hours later, Landry shifted, saying he’d asked for "options" from prosecutors, which could mean they are leaving the door open to prosecute one or more of the boys. We’ll see.)

Leah Parsons says that her daughter was trying to put her life back together. She’d left her local school and town, apparently to live with her father, but then came back and found new friends. "She was doing better. She was back in her old community," Parsons said on the radio. And on Facebook: "Just two weeks ago she stopped smoking pot, started looking for work and with the help of one of her teachers and a new therapist she was making progress."

But Parsons also wrote, "Rehtaeh is gone today because of the four boys that thought that raping a 15-year-old girl was OK and to distribute a photo to ruin her spirit and reputation would be fun. Secondly, all the bullying and messaging and harassment that never let up are also to blame. Lastly, the justice system failed her."

I’m congenitally cautious about stories of suicide and blame, especially at the outset of the news coverage. But if the facts as we now know them are true, they are profoundly upsetting on a lot of levels — and they make me want the police to give this case renewed attention. "Undoubtedly, there is much we don’t know about the girl and her family, but it seems that the sheer magnitude of the trauma — the sexual assault, the humiliation caused by distributing the picture, the lack of validation stemming from the inaction of the police and criminal justice system, the extreme harassment and shaming behaviour of peers, and the abandonment by friends — would likely have overwhelmed any 15-year-old, even without pre-existing vulnerabilities," Ann Haas, senior director of education and prevention for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, wrote to me in an email Wednesday. "One of the most tragic aspects is that it seems the girl and the family did many of the right things — recognizing her depression and anger, getting her hospitalized and then out of the environment temporarily."

Here’s what I think we know for sure. A girl had sex that she felt awful about. (Rehtaeh’s mother says her daughter had been drinking and only partially remembered what happened that night, though she did hear the click of the photo being taken.) Someone took a picture and sent it around, and Rehtaeh felt like a victim of slut-shaming. This part of the story is an awful parallel to the facts in Steubenville that recently led to convictions of two high school football players for the sexual assault of a 16-year-old. And it’s eerily analogous to the story of another Canadian girl, Amanda Todd, who took her own life after pictures of her flashing a webcam circulated online and she was stalked and blackmailed.

The anguish in these stories and the fact that they are so similar and seem to keep happening, in this country and over the border, should leave us with this pressing question: The malicious sexting and the slut-shaming causes serious damage and has to stop — how can we make that happen?

It’s not a question with a short answer, but in a case like this, law enforcement and the signals it sends matter. In Canada, as in many states in the U.S., posting a photo of an alleged rape of a minor can be an offence under child pornography law. Often, prosecuting a teenager for child pornography is the wrong fit. (To address this, some states have created a separate offence, with lesser penalties, for sexting by juveniles.) But if one of the boys who allegedly raped Rehtaeh, or someone else, widely circulated this kind of explicit, debasing photo to humiliate her, charges are warranted. This kind of reputational harm is searing and scary. Teenagers and adults have to take seriously the injury that’s involved, and a prosecution in a case like this can underscore that. Digital evidence led to indictments and convictions in Steubenville even though the victim didn’t remember the sexual assault she’d experienced because she was unconscious. Why can’t the police make more use of it here?

As for the slut-shaming, this is one of the worst forms of harassment girls experience — harder on them than nonsexualized kinds, according to experts I talked to for my book, Sticks and Stones. It’s just so disturbing to think about how many generations of teenagers have had to go through this. It happened when I was Rehtaeh’s age in the 1980s, it’s portrayed with classic Tina Fey acumen in the 2004 movie Mean Girls, and the Internet has only coarsened the discourse and created a sense of distance — an empathy gap — that somehow allows teenagers and adults to say harsh things that are hard to imagine they would ever say in person. We shouldn’t need stories like this one to make us see how sad all of this is. But somehow, it’s a lesson we have to learn over and over again. At a different girl’s expense each time.

We have to get kids talking about how sexting affects their lives. We have to address the empathy gap technology can induce, by building kids’ social and emotional skills from a young age on up and guiding them into the world of social media and the Internet, rather than pushing them through the door and expecting them to figure it out on their own. We have to talk honestly about the sex teenagers are having, the good and the bad, and the slut and bad-boy stereotypes that still plague them. Sexting is a problem we can address — and we have to.

Emily Bazelon is a Slate senior editor and writes about law, family, and kids. Her new book is Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Empathy and Character.

 — Slate

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