Like so many others, I reacted with utter horror to the tragic events of this week in Nova Scotia, Canada, when Rehtaeh Parsons, age 17, killed herself. Over two years ago Ms. Parsons reported that she had been gang raped by four boys. And pictures were even taken while the assault was going on. No charges were ever filed. Not for the rape. Not for the electronic distribution of photos of an underage female being sexually assaulted.
For over two years after that horrific day Ms. Parsons endured bullying and harassment. People called her “a slut.” Boys sent her messages asking her if she would “have sex” with them too. She switched schools. She moved. She recently admitted herself to a mental health unit for several weeks.
In the end, she hanged herself in the bathroom of the family home.
There has been a ton of media coverage of this outrage and of her subsequent tragic death. After Steubenville, after the horrific gang rape and murder of Jyoti Singh in India, it seems that rape is finally getting the media attention it deserves. And that’s a good thing.
But among my emotional reactions to hearing about the horror of Rehtaeh Parsons’ situation was this one: an outraged voice inside my head that demanded:
Just what decade is this???
Just what century are we in???
A girl is raped, shamed, not taken seriously, and then kills herself?
I could have been reading this exact same story 60 years ago!
100 years ago!
300 years ago!
In much of the world – even in Canada, a place that likes to think of itself as pretty damned civilized – society’s attitudes toward survivors of sexual assault haven’t budged one bit. When it comes to how we treat survivors of rape, we remain nearly as backward as we were when my own great-great-great-great grandmother Margaret was born in a small town in Nova Scotia in (about) 1771. Nearly 250 years ago. My family has since dispersed around the world. But now I find myself back in the Maritimes raising a young girl who is Margaret’s great-great-great-great-great granddaughter.
And it terrifies me to see how little has changed.
There are people who think they are so damn smart that they get to declare that we no longer need feminism. That it has served its purpose. That we are now in a “postfeminist” era.
But we’re not. We are still in an era where a young woman reports being gang raped, is not believed.
There is nothing “postfeminist” about any of this.
If anything, the era we are in remains pre-feminist.
It is too late for Rehtaeh Parsons. But I still need this world to change. I need it to change for my daughter. For all of our daughters.
And I need it to change now.