The case of Rehtaeh Parsons: Canada’s Steubenville?

April 10, 2013

It’s been called Canada’s Steubenville.

Rehtaeh Parsons, just 17 years old, was taken off life support Sunday after she’d attempted suicide Thursday by hanging herself in the bathroom. Her story, though, began almost 18 months earlier when she was 15 years old and four boys allegedly raped her at a friend’s house in November 2011.

Rehtaeh Parsons died Sunday, nearly 18 months after an alleged rape by four high school boys. (Facebook)
Rehtaeh Parsons died Sunday, nearly 18 months after an alleged rape by four high school boys. (Facebook)

Like the rape of the West Virginia girl by two high school football players in Steubenville, Ohio, the victimization didn’t stop with the sexual assault.

One young man had snapped a photo of the incident with his phone, and that photo was sent to every student in their school, according to Parsons’s mother Leah Parsons. This is the part I don’t understand: Instead of siding with a teenage girl who’s been violated, some of Parsons’s classmates called her “a slut.”

“Rehtaeh was suddenly shunned by almost everyone she knew,” her mother wrote on the Facebook page she set up in her daughter’s memory. “The harassment was so bad she had to move out of her own community to try to start anew in Halifax.”

Rehtaeh struggled with depression and thoughts of suicide, even checking herself into a psychiatric hospital for several weeks.

After learning of the alleged rape, the family reported it, but too much time had passed for a rape kit. Without that kind of evidence, the case turned into her word against that of the boys, and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police concluded there was insufficient evidence for prosecution after a year-long investigation.

Tuesday, Nova Scotia’s Justice Minister Ross Landry said he is now looking into ways to review the case, reversing his earlier position.

The justice system “failed” her daughter, Rehtaeh’s mother wrote on Facebook. She blamed her daughter’s death on three factors: The boys who raped her and then thought it was “fun” to share a photo “to ruin her spirit and reputation;” the “bullying and messaging and harassment that never let up;” and the failure of the justice system to prosecute the case.

Just as social media was used to harass her in life, it has now come — too late to save her — to her defense, with calls for justice.

This isn’t an isolated case. We have  Lizzy Seeberg at Notre Dame, we have the West Virginia girl raped by Steubenville football players, and we have the case of my best friend’s daughter, who was raped by three student athletes her sophomore year of high school at a party in a suburb of Kansas City, Mo.

Again, the victimization did not stop with the rape. Stories circulated about that night and she was labeled a slut. Friends dropped her. She wanted to forget it. She did not tell her parents until after a suicide attempt and a bout with anorexia.

Now, nearly five years later, she still struggles.

Her mother believes these cases “are incredibly common,” she told me. “I don’t understand this victimization of the victim and having people turn on her.” She blames a culture that nurtures student athletes, elevating them to a “god-like status” and allowing them anything they want. She also wonders if some of the girls who were so hateful to her daughter will someday look back and realize their behavior was wrong.

And she wonders if her daughter will survive.

Diana Reese is a freelance journalist in Overland Park, Kan. Follow her on Twitter at @dianareese.

Diana Reese is a journalist in Overland Park, Kan. Follow her on Twitter at @dianareese.
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Mary C. Curtis · April 8, 2013