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.