Is this justice for Rehtaeh?

Last week we saw major developments in Canada’s ongoing response to the death of Halifax teenager Rehtaeh Parsons: two men were charged with making and/or distributing child pornography (of Rehtaeh), and a new piece of civil legislation was introduced to address “cyber-bullying”. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure how I feel about either one of these developments.

Firstly, I despise the term “cyber-bullying” and would like to kill it with fire. It is so conceptually broad as to be meaningless, it infantilizes behaviour that adults are just as prone to as kids are, and it depoliticizes social aggressions that are often quite political indeed (think sexist harassment like slut-shaming, harassment of gay or gender non-conforming people, or harassment of low-income kids for things like wearing hand-me-downs). I agree with Jesse Brown, who would “rather have laws against specific crimes, rather than against vast swaths of vaguely defined human behaviour”.

Secondly, I have a very basic problem with civil legislation as a response to revenge porn or online harassment: it costs money to sue someone. Sure, you might find a lawyer who’ll take your case pro-bono, but the likelihood of incurring high costs means that only those who can afford justice really have access to it. Our criminal justice system is already deplorably selective about who can access justice (see, for example, the astronomical overrepresentation of indigenous and Black people in Canadian prisons), but at least if you’ve been the victim of a crime, you don’t pay money for your legal representation. This is one reason why I’m a bigger fan of a potential Criminal Code amendment (proposed by Dartmouth NDP Member of Parliament Robert Chisholm) than I am of dealing with the problem in civil court.

This proposed legislation would make it a crime to share intimate images without the subject’s consent. The legislation needs some work (in my humble, non-legal-expert opinion), as it currently places the burden of proof on the accused. If the accused cannot furnish evidence that they obtained consent from the subject, their intent is automatically deemed malicious and guilt is assumed. In past posts I have argued for just this kind of legislation, and there is a certain beauty to its open-and-shut-ness, in that it would circumvent all of the gendered character judgments and “he said, she said” (emphasis on the “he said”) that influence court decisions about sexually-charged crimes. But at the end of the day, I can’t advocate for legislation that merely circumvents the biases and bigotry of our criminal justice system (you know, the same ones that pervade our broader culture) at the expense of the rights of the accused. We need to tackle those biases themselves, not find ways to sidestep them.

This brings me to my ambivalence about the arrests. While Rehtaeh was still alive, she and her family sought justice by attempting to press charges against Rehtaeh’s alleged rapists for sexual assault and child pornography. The RCMP’s re-opened investigation did not result in sexual assault charges. They did, however, charge the alleged rapists with making and distributing sexually explicit images of Rehtaeh during the incident. The RCMP’s decision to press charges on one crime and not the other suggests that they felt the evidence was too murky to conclude that Rehtaeh did not consent. Meanwhile, Rehtaeh was allegedly vomiting out a window while one of her attackers raped her, and our current laws indicate that a person cannot legally provide consent while extremely intoxicated.

That is rage-inducing, but it is also indicative of the culture in which our criminal justice system is embedded and serves to uphold. We have national columnists (to whom I refuse to link) slut-shaming her in death, if that’s any indication of how our culture tends to understand consent when a survivor was intoxicated at the time of the attack. Why would our justice system be any different, even if our laws explicitly spell things out differently (*sob*)?

So I can, quite frankly, understand why the Parsons family wanted to use any tool available to them in our broken system to try and find their own version of justice – including charging the attackers with child pornography, despite the fact that her non-consent (not her nudity or sexuality writ large) was the crux of the violation. That said, I think it sets a precedent that may create problems down the road. For example, imagine a minor’s consensual sexting is discovered by a horrified parent, who sees child pornography charges as a way to punish the kids involved and clamp down on youth sexuality in general. Also, what if Rehtaeh had been 18? Capturing and distributing that photo would have been just as morally abhorrent, just as damaging. This is why I think the legislation proposed by Robert Chisholm fills a necessary gap.

Realtalk though: this legislation wouldn’t be necessary if our culture learned to understand sexually-charged violations in a more equitable and just way. If law enforcement officers, lawyers and judges didn’t build their careers in a culture steeped in sexism, they might quite easily interpret revenge porn as a form of criminal harassment (a law already on the books in Canada). As we saw recently in the case of an appropriately-named former MP’s assistant, Cody Boast, some law enforcement officers and judges already do draw those conclusions. But too many people inside and outside our criminal justice system are quick to blame the subjects of the images for consenting to their capture in the first place. It is this underlying mentality that needs to change. Otherwise we’ll just have another new selectively enforced law on the books.

That’s why I’m glad to see that, despite its shortcomings, the civil legislation in Nova Scotia also includes interventions at the level of the public education system. While those have their own problems (Jesse Brown has some great analysis therein), I appreciate the marriage of legal and educational interventions. To introduce the former without the latter would be putting the cart before the horse. What our education systems really need, though, isn’t a “Cyber SCAN investigation unit” – it’s frank discussion about consent, respect and privacy in sex and relationships (online and offline), and how societal systems of power impact these dynamics on an individual level.

#sheparty is the best party

Sometimes feminists on Twitter use the #sheparty hashtag to host live-chats about a wide variety of topics. Yesterday, @jarrahpenguin (Vancouver) and @OpinionessWorld (Boston) co-hosted a two-hour #sheparty and invited me to be a special guest for the first hour. From 3pm-4pm ET we discussed revenge porn, which anyone who follows my blog knows is an issue of major importance to me. I mean I’ve only written about it, like, 30% of the time.

Our discussion about revenge porn covered legislative responses to the problem (in Nova Scotia and nationally, as well as in New Jersey and Florida), as well as steps that parents and teachers can take to address it with youth. If you’re new to the topic, this discussion was a fantastic introduction. Don’t fret if you missed it, because you can always count on me to Storify these kinds of things for future reference! Here’s a recap of the #sheparty revenge porn discussion. I also encourage you to check out @tootwistedtv‘s Storify of the 4-5pm #sheparty discussion, which focused on feminism and (dis)ability.

Taking the Rape out of Culture

On Thursday, May 23 2013, I hosted an event at Academy of the Impossible called “Taking the Rape out of Culture”. It was an open group brainstorm (with some breakout discussions as well) to map the component parts of rape culture – what does it look like in practice? What are the sub-concepts (or as I dubbed them, “subgenres”) under the big umbrella of rape culture?

I was thrilled at the quality of discussion and the diverse range of participants we had. Participants included: people who work in violence prevention, anti-racism organizers, parents, journalists, new Canadians, trans* participants, volunteers at crisis centres. We came at the topic from a variety of perspectives and we really dove into the subject matter.

One of these days I’m going to have to get a WordPress plugin that allows me to embed a Storify, but today is not that day. I do urge you to read my Storify of tweets from the evening, which captures some of the ground we covered and provides detail on many of the “subgenres” of rape culture we discussed. We’ll likely be holding another session in the future to discuss methods of intervening and challenging the many component parts of rape culture, so stay tuned.

How we can stop revenge porn

Today I hosted an event at Academy of the Impossible to discuss how to wipe the heinous phenomenon of “revenge porn” off the face of this green earth. Revenge porn is the colloquial term for when people share nude or sexually explicit photos/video of another person without their consent. I’ve written about revenge porn here, here, here, and here. I encourage you to check out my Storify of our amazing discussion at today’s event.

The event generated a few ideas that are worth exploring, and fast. Why fast? Nova Scotia has assembled a Cybercrime Working Group to put together legislative options by June, for projected implementation in fall 2013. The Nova Scotia Justice Minister wants to implement legislation that could “make circulating an intimate image for a malicious or sexual purpose a crime” or “create a new section of the Criminal Code for distributing intimate images without consent” (two very different outlines, IMHO). We want to have a say in how they put this together.

In terms of influencing legislation, we wanted to ensure consequences for youth offenders are rooted in education and development of healthier social norms regarding sex, consent and accountability. We discussed conducting a series of formal and informal discussions with youth. Discussions would focus on their views on/experiences with revenge porn, the social consequences currently meted out and their feelings about those, what kinds of formal consequences they think are appropriate and why, and what kinds of knowledge would help them navigate these situations. The results of these discussions can be consolidated into a whitepaper and could be shared with the media (with confidentiality of participants protected, of course).

In terms of public education, we want to ensure the Ontario curriculum has opportunities built in for students to explore sexuality in a positive way through the lenses of consent, social media, and the law. If these opportunities don’t currently exist (or are not being implemented in practice), we want to form a coalition of organizations advocating for change.

In terms of public awareness, we want to further discuss the possibility of an ad campaign (e.g. posters, videos, etc.) focused on sharing explicit images without consent. This campaign may be in the spirit of the “Don’t be that guy” campaign to combat sexual violence. The next step for such a thing could be a one-hour brainstorming session wherein we free-associate words and ideas connected to the word “consent.” We’ll also be exploring potential media partners/sponsors.

Wanna get involved in any of that? Head over to “Contact” and get in touch so I can put you on the circulation list for updates and collaborative docs!

Impossible pedagogies

Are you a Torontonian who hasn’t yet visited the Academy of the Impossible? If so, you must go. It is a magical place where people learn as they teach others, which IMHO is exactly what pedagogy should be.

Unfortunately, too often learning takes place in broadcast format: I teach, you learn. The reality is that there are no “experts” – we can all learn more, even in the fields in which we’re most well-versed. In fact, the people in the best position to teach you about your field of specialization are often people who have no specialization in that area at all (unless you want to preach to the choir forever).

I facilitated two events at the Academy in fall 2012: a city-building workshop with Women in Toronto Politics, and a discussion about online identity and accountability. Thanks to the brilliant and diverse people who shared their thoughts, I learned just as much as attendees at both events. This lines up beautifully with the Academy’s philosophy of fostering the potential for collaborative meaning-making inherent in the Internet and the knowledge economy.

I’m very excited to announce that I am now a faculty member at the Academy, so I’ll be learning a lot more in the months and years to come! I hope it works out to be something like this.

My next events on the Academy docket:

  • January 24: hybrid discussion/improv session co-facilitated by newly-minted faculty member Dan Speerin, where we’ll explore how we “perform” identity on the Internet, and
  • February 2: applying the same format to an interactive training session on effective media relations for activists, politicos, and other agitators.

If you can’t come to either of these, I encourage you to check out their event calendar for other sessions that may be of interest. Courses I highly recommend include Getting Paid in the Knowledge Economy and Impossible Law School. See you there!