On Teaching the Rehtaeh Parsons Case

My Canadian Individuals and Families in Diverse Societies class (CanFam for short) wrapped up their unit on gender and sexuality today. The unit covered gender and sexual identity, gender expression, patriarchy, feminism, and systems of oppression and violence targetted at gender and sexual minorities. As I usually do in the social sciences, I spent some time thinking about a case study that would highlight all the things we had focused on in this unit. I tried avoiding the obvious, but eventually, and reluctantly, settled on the Rehtaeh Parsons case.

For those of you unfamiliar with the disturbing details, a quick summary is warranted. In November 2011 at a small house party, then 15-year-old Parsons consumed at least eight vodka shots. Two older males from her high school, also inebriated, proceeded to take turns having sex with her and snap photos, one showed a boy giving a thumbs up as he entered Parsons from behind while she vomitted out the window. After seventeen months of these photos circulating and Parsons being subject to harassment, including being banned from returning to her school and grilled by RCMP officers on two separate occasions, she attempted to take her own life by hanging. Three days later she was taken off life support. At least one of the males, in a widely publicized interview, maintains that the sex was consensual despite the above evidence. No sexual assault charges were ever layed, though both males were charged with distributing child pornography.

These facts are not in dispute. What is in dispute is the meaning attached to them.

On the one side sits the two men, their parents, segments of the Coal Harbour, NS community where the assault took place and right-wing journalists like Christie Blatchford. They have subtly used the codes of patriarchy to engage in a kind of character assassination on Parsons. They use small tidbits of information regarding her family life, her casual use of marijuana and previous sexual behaviour to imply (though not outright say) that Parsons was in essence consenting by virtue of her reputation as a "fast girl” or “slut". In contrast, Blatchford, the parents and the males emphasize their traditional families and stress their own innocence as “boys” who didn’t know any better and are incapable of controlling their urges. Indeed, the male interviewees parents were more concerned that their son had engaged in a threesome and made the “mistake” of taking a picture than any of the other disturbing events surrounding Parsons bullying and death. Blatchford described this stance as “brave”.

On the other side are Parson’s family and feminists of numerous genders and convictions who highlight that the law is quite clear: consuming alcohol, especially to the point of vomitting, makes it impossible to consent. Addtionally, they have highlighted the way Parsons was repeatedly revictimized by the police, medical practitioners, the school administration and teachers, and of course other students at Coal Harbour High School. All of these instances eventually snowballed, leading to Parsons death.

Facts do not speak for themselves. People speak for the facts.

This is heavy stuff for the seventeen-year-olds in my CanFam class. It is heavy stuff for adults. I’m not a crier. There are very few times I have chocked up during a lesson. Teaching about Parsons is among one of those handful of times. I didn’t like teaching about it, or talking about it. I don’t like thinking about it. Teaching about it was profoundly uncomfortable for me. It was hard for my students, too. 

But real education is supposed to be uncomfortable. No one learns much of value by playing it safe and sticking to their comfort zone.

When we had a discussion afterward there were certainly expressions of outrage, especially at Blatchford’s abysmal apologia for a patriarchal order and misogynistic behaviours that demand the degradation and objectification of women to the point of their anihiliation. In short, Parson’s case stands as a frightening distillation of the intersection of slut-shaming, sexual violence, sexism, and the pervasive impact of patriarchy on our daily lives - all the issues we had spent the unit talking about. But what my students took away - what they learned - is that patriarchy isn’t a set of things people do. Patriarchy is the thing that permeates institutions from the family, to the school, on up to the police force and medical profession. It is the thing that condones misogyny and sexism in advance and excuses it afterwards. It is the purview of none, but the sad and ruthless burden of all - a burden borne more heavily on the shoulders of women and girls than others.

As I encounter more and more post-feminists of all genders and sexual orientations, the Parsons case stands as a tragic and heartbreaking reminder that women and girls are still not equal. That even if progress has been made, there has not been nearly enough. Feminism, or the radical notion that men and women are equal and deserving of respect and dignity, is still an aspiration in many corners of Canada, including the column inches of the National Post and the homes of self-described “good” or “traditional” families. 

I don’t want to teach about Rehtaeh Parsons again. But I know I have to. Not because I want anyone’s son or daughter to grow up too fast, but because I want them to grow up in a world that loves, values and respects them, regardless of who they choose to be.

© Braden Hutchinson 2014