Images of alleged sexual attacks on teen girls that were texted and posted on social media add to the shame of rape and are a new assault on the victims of sexual violence. What can and should be done about it?
It has been a little over a week since the parents of Rehtaeh Parsons decided to have the life support turned off for their comatose 17-year-old daughter in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
As the grief takes hold for her family and a reeling public, new questions are emerging about the circumstances that led to this bright-eyed teen taking her own life. How did social media contribute to the sexual assault of Parsons? And how should society and the law analyze and handle the contribution of cyberbullying to already grievous sexual attacks?
Not only was Parsons purported to be sexually abused — allegedly raped by four of her peers at a party while she lay unconscious — her attackers have been accused of sharing photos of the attack, which proliferated well after the abuse. Parson's mother has spoken out about vicious and lascivious taunts Parsons received over Facebook and texts to an extent that she felt she could never move on from the humiliation. Parsons experienced tumult, anguish and depression for 18 months after the attack, ending in her ultimate suicide, as reported extensively by Canada's National Post.
According to The Telegraph, Parsons was forced to move schools and communities after being bullied by other students. She was branded a "slut" by her peers and "received regular text messages from boys asking for sex," The Telegraph reports.
Her father wrote in the Huffington Post that the posting and sharing of the alleged attack on his daughter could not be simply called bullying.
"Why was this treated like a minor incident of bullying rather than a rape? Isn't the production and distribution of child porn a crime in this country? Numerous people were emailed that photo. The police have that information (or at least they told us they did). When someone claims they were raped is it normal to wait months before talking to the accused?
"You have the opportunity here to do something good and lets face it; the court system in Nova Scotia was just going to rape her all over again with indifference to her suffering and the damage this did to her.
"My daughter wasn't bullied to death, she was disappointed to death. Disappointed in people she thought she could trust, her school, and the police."
As other similar stories unfold, the issue raised is whether social media have become a weapon, potentially changing the nature of possible crimes themselves.
"The photos become a trophy, proving and celebrating the hunt and the conquest of the victim," says Michelle J. Anderson, dean of CUNY Law School in New York and a leading scholar on rape law. "What they end up doing is becoming a mechanism for extraordinary and intense degradation of the victim in the immediate aftermath. And then a mechanism for a lifelong potential harassment."
Parson's story echoes that of Audrie Potts, the 15-year-old girl who committed suicide in September 2012, a week after alleged sexual abuse by three teens. Potts was passed out at the time of the abuse.
"This is the worst day of my life," Potts wrote on her Facebook page when she believed that a photograph of her attack was circulating among her peers. She was not referring to the day of the assault but to the day she saw peers huddled around a humiliating cellphone image.
"We have tons of stories going way back that the rape victim says that the shame about the rape is worse than the actual rape," Thomas Wold, a doctoral candidate in psychology at Norwegian University of Science and Technology told Business Insider recently. "And the assault being shared over social media just adds to the shame.
"[Blaming the victim] is a traditional problem that's being amplified because it's so easy to share and everyone is connected all of the time."
The similarity of events in these recent cases begs an investigation into how to stem the power of social media to deepen the already vile nature of sexual assault.
"I don't think [the prevalence of social media] changes the nature of the rape or assault," says Anderson. "It does change the nature of the long-term harm of those crimes."
The potential to criminalize the social media harassment has emerged.
"We should have laws that specifically address teen sexting," Emily Bazelon wrote in Slate last week.
Bazelon spoke with Marsha Levick of the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia. "We should draw the line between my daughter stupidly sending a photo of herself to her boyfriend and her boyfriend sending it to all his friends to humiliate her," Levick said. "The first is stupid. The second is more troubling and should be criminal."
In the ongoing trial of two football players in Steubenville, Ohio, found guilty of sexually assaulting an unconscious teen girl over the course of a night, legal punishment for posting an image of the assault online is being embraced. In addition to the charge of rape, the judge handed down a sentence of one extra year in jail to one of the perpetrators, Trent Mays, for disseminating a photograph of a nude minor.
And this week, two teen girls were arrested and charged with misdemeanor counts for threatening the Steubenville victim with bodily harm and her life on Twitter and Facebook.
"Cyberbullying should be taken seriously," says Anderson, "whether it's photographing someone during a vicious attack or videotaping someone kissing someone of the same gender and sending that around. This kind of cyberbullying is very serious and has long-term consequences.
"The challenge with the law would be to figure out the intent of the person sharing the photo. Is it reckless mental state or a knowing mental state."
The misdemeanor charges in Steubenville suggest the cyberbullies' clear intent to inflict emotional distress on the victim.
Anderson is wary, however of the slippery slope of legal definition.
"We don't want to over criminalize bad behavior," she says. "Whether or not we want to criminalize this behavior is a difficult social question that is emerging now."
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