TRIGGER WARNING for sexual assault, victim-blaming, revenge porn.
On Sunday, rape culture and revenge porn claimed another teenage girl: 17-year-old Rehtaeh Parsons of Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. A year and a half ago, 15-year-old Rehtaeh was allegedly gang-raped by four boys in a friend’s home, one of whom took a picture of her rape on his mobile phone and distributed it to the school and community at large.
You can probably predict what happened next. The community rallied around her in disgust that someone would take and share such a photo? Oh, haha, you must be new here, Decent Human Being. Nope, she received a barrage of text messages and social media posts calling her a slut, begging her for sex, and generally shaming her for having been caught with her clothes off, despite the fact that it was allegedly not her choice.
She tried to escape the misery by switching schools and later checking into a hospital, but ultimately the trauma of the alleged assault and ensuing barrage of harassment proved too much. On Thursday, April 4th, Rehtaeh hung herself. On Sunday, April 7th, her parents took her off life support and the world said goodbye to a bright young woman with a promising future.
To add insult to injury, the RCMP did not seem to invest much effort into investigating either the assault or the photograph’s distribution (though they are apparently now investigating the “sudden death of a minor” – useful, thanks). I won’t get into their failure on her rape case, as Anne Thériault has already done a good job of that. I want to ask why the fuck Rehtaeh’s mother was told by the RCMP that the distribution of the photo was “not really a criminal issue, more of a community issue.”
I’m sorry, but I’m pretty sure distributing nude photos of a 15-year-old constitutes a criminal issue: child pornography. The RCMP admitted they were able to trace the photo to one of the boys’ mobile phones, but apparently couldn’t determine who had snapped the picture. What about who distributed the photo, RCMP? The photo was allegedly sent to the entire school and surrounding community – surely a path to the sender exists. And surely our federal police force has access to the latest and greatest technologies to investigate these things.
It’s especially fishy because I seem to remember our Public Safety Minister making a widely lambasted pronouncement that anyone who opposed his draconian internet surveillance legislation “stood with the child pornographers.” (Remember that, Canada? LOL.) So yeah, I kinda figured distributors of child pornography would be a favourite target for the internet-savvy members of our law enforcement community. How foolish of me.
I guess this isn’t the easy, popular kind of child pornography to prosecute – the kind where the distributor is a sweaty 55-year-old man living alone in a basement. I guess when the distributors are close in age to the child, law enforcement decides it’s too much of a “he said/she said” situation for them to get involved. “A community issue.” This sounds suspiciously like how law enforcement tends to treat other forms of sexual violence.
That revenge pornographers with teenage victims are not treated as the child pornographers they are says a whole hell of a lot about bias and failure in our justice system. But really, while minors are the most vulnerable and deserve the most protection, restricting legal recourse for revenge porn survivors to those under 18 would be a failure too. People of all ages have been subject to the malicious distribution of nude and sexually explicit photos intended for private use (I’ve written about it before). Why do we place a higher premium on the photographer’s intellectual property rights than on the subject’s right to privacy?
I’m going to spitball an extremely obvious solution: why do we not have a law requiring the distributor of a sexually explicit photograph to provide written consent from the photo’s subject? Why do we place the burden of proof on the subject to show that she did not consent to the photo’s distribution, rather than on the distributor to show that she did consent?
I think the answer might lie in the commonly held, subconscious perception that women’s bodies exist for public consumption. It’s a problem with deep social roots, but that doesn’t mean our legal system can’t begin to address it. Let’s get cracking, cops and prosecutors. This isn’t a community issue.