What happens in the Rehtaeh Parsons case affects us all

I’m over the term “cyber bullying”. I can’t stand the sight of it. Every time I read an article that rehashes the gruesome details surrounding the Rehtaeh Parsons case I feel chills of horror that I would never associate with the schoolyard mischief that the often-used term suggests. It is the same horror that I felt while watching the news during the Steubenville trial, and when Amanda Todd committed suicide after being harassed, stalked, and extorted online.

There are complexities to the issue. It’s not that people don’t see the evils in the acts of online harassment. It’s simply that many of our institutions have not caught up to the digital age and therefore there aren’t many laws in place that allow people to take action against their attackers.

A new report that was commissioned following the global response to the handling of Parson’s case shed light on many gaps in Canada’s criminal code. No charges were ever laid in the alleged sexual assault because of what the RCMP cites as a lack of evidence that could lead to a conviction.

Regardless of whether a sexual assault can be proven in court, the act of circulating a photo of someone in a sex act of any kind without their consent should be punishable by law. Thanks to global outcry and the findings of this report consequences for such actions online could come in to effect.

A law was passed in Nova Scotia that allows victims of “cyber bullies” to sue their tormentors. The following day, the RCMP announced that two 18-year-old men were arrested in connection to the Rehtaeh Parsons case. The case was reopened  in April, because police said they had “new and credible information.”  One of the men was charged with two counts of child pornography; the other with one count of making child pornography and one charge of distributing child pornography. The two accused will never have their identities revealed because they were minors at the time of the alleged offence. Under Canada’s Youth Criminal Justice Act, anyone who identifies them could be charged.

Meanwhile, Parson’s father tells Global News, he still receives threats and vicious messages about his daughter from people online who hide behind their anonymity. Rehtaeh and her family, the victims of the attack, were ostracized from their community after photos of the alleged attack went viral. The trauma and backlash that followed drove the 17-year-old to take her own life.

The law protects us in most respects. However, we are still navigating our way through the post social media world. There are many things the law can’t protect us from online. What people love about the internet is that it puts the power in the hands of the people, but so often we see power falling in to the wrong hands. The report identifies that a lot of our laws are outdated. Sadly, it is only through tragedies such as this and global pressures that these issues are just starting to get dealt with.

A big issue with this case is that there was an obvious victim in this instance, one girl was allegedly attacked by four boys. “Slut shaming” is a huge part of most cultures, and this demonstrates the true danger of the practice; because it’s not what most people would like to think, that victims are attention seeking teases who post photos of themselves in bikinis and pose provocatively. Here it is at our doorstep, any regular young girl going to a party with people she considers to be her friends could find herself in a threatening situation and it is the our responsibility to stop judging young women based off of their sexual behaviour, or in this case victimization.

It is also our responsibility to change the way we view these crimes. It is not okay to sit idly by while things like this happen in our communities. By not addressing these issues, we are teaching young boys that sex can be used as a weapon, to be thrown around as the measure of a girl’s worth. By ignoring the issue altogether, we are dooming some young women to never realize their true worth or potential.

So it’s not simply bullying. Social media is the medium but it is people who turn the internet in to the monster it has become. A place where it is okay to slander, harass and spread hate with little to no consequence. If something does not directly affect us, we can observe, gossip and comment through social media, but that still makes us participants in online hate culture. While we wait for our laws to catch up with the digital world, it is vital that we change the way we think about victims of sexual assault and teach those younger than us the true impact of their actions both online and offline.

 

I live to write, create, and tell stories. I'm a freelance journalist with a strong curiosity about the way online culture translates into our everyday lives. I drink too much coffee, shop a little too much and invest way too much emotion into fictional characters. What can I say? I live in extremes.

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