Students, Technology, and What Schools Need to Do to Fight Rape Culture

The two teenagers charged in the heartbreaking case of Rehtaeh Parsons, the 17-year-old who was cyberbullied after a photograph of her allegedly being sexually assaulted was passed around her school, appeared in court last week. They're being charged with child pornography.

Rehtaeh and her family told Halifax, N.S. police more than a year and a half ago that she was raped by four male classmates at a party. After enduring seemingly endless harassment from peers who saw a picture of her attack online, and circulated it rather than believe her, Rehtaeh herself committed suicide this April—so the question of whether justice will be served seems futile.

Rehtaeh’s mother told the Huffington Post, “She was never left alone. She had to leave the community. Her friends turned against her. People harassed her. Boys she didn’t know started… asking her to have sex with them.”

In the days before the Internet, it’s depressingly easy to see how a young person’s assault might be written off as false by classmates. American culture views rape as an “unfortunate misunderstanding” if the victim exhibited certain behaviors (were they drunk, dressing “provocatively,” flirting with their attacker?); perpetuates myths about who can and cannot be attacked (she’s not attractive enough, guys can’t get raped); and continually insists that survivors are lying even though fewer people report false rapes (2 to 8 percent) than false car thefts (10 percent).

But what about now, when, to paraphrase a Jezebel commenter, attackers have begun posting their crimes online like mounted deer heads? Shouldn’t photos or live tweets of a rape outrage students, provoke sympathy and support for survivors, rather than suspicion and blame?

At Steubenville High, certain students “traded pictures of the assault while doing little or nothing to protect [the victim].” Rehtaeh was bullied online and off at multiple schools.

Yes, technology aided the conviction of two football players in Steubenville and may perhaps lead to a modicum of consequence for two of Rehtaeh’s alleged rapists, not just in the sense that a jpeg can be evidence, but because the Web provides a forum for people across the globe to demand legal action. On the other hand, it demonstrates the perniciousness of rape culture, so ingrained that students cannot believe what’s in front of their own eyes. Furthermore, cell phones and computers make shaming and blame inescapable for survivors, even when, in the case of Rehtaeh, they change neighborhoods in hopes of finding peace.

The significant portion of young people treating digital, criminal evidence as just another instance of virtual “overshare” — something the victim brought on her or his self — indicates that schools desperately need to involve students in a discussion of rape culture. Along with math, science, and history, an hour or two should be devoted to how to be an empathetic person, so that incriminating posts get immediately shared with authorities — and no one else — and survivors are treated with humanity.

I attended health classes at two different schools growing up, neither of which discussed sexual assault. Yet state-mandated, sex-ed courses provide a pre-established opportunity to work a discussion of rape culture into the curriculum. And there really is endless literature — book chapters, articles — a class could read to understand the phenomena on a theoretical level. Organizations like Take Back the Night and the Clothesline Project can make students aware of the impact of sexual violence on a personal, individual level, and, for another source, the media abounds with ads and movies to be unpacked and critiqued.

Clearly, leaving this lesson up to parents has not been successful. It’s time for our country’s many amazing educators to step up and impress upon students that when a classmate is attacked or their privacy violated, their collective reaction can mean the difference between life and death. If they are old enough to rape or retweet, they are old enough for an examination of rape culture.