Pornography as Rape: The Rehtaeh Parsons case

If you are a woman or girl seeking justice, the Canadian legal system is an abject failure.

Whether the case is instantiated at the provincial or federal level; the judicial decisions reflect the values of society, regardless of the assumed impartiality of the judge. The judge is not the only actor who plays a pivotal role in upholding the status quo; the police (especially the RCMP) are complicit in reproducing violence against women and girls. Rehtaeh Parsons is just one woman who did not receive an adequate police response; she was raped while boys (now men) produced pornographic images of her, she was intoxicated to the point of vomiting profusely at the time. The boys circulated the pornographic images of her rape, yet the police and the court decided that there was “insufficient” evidence to lay sexual assault charges. A woman cannot consent when she is drunk. A woman cannot consent when she is vomiting out of a window. A woman cannot consent when she is not aware of who is raping her.

Such as with images of women in pornography, there is a belief that the sexual nature of women (and girls) is licentious. The pre-pubescent girl that lures the older man with her nymphic charms or the oversexed school girl whose body torments all of the boys in class. The male sexual value system classifies women as virgins or whores — Rehtaeh Parsons was labelled a whore and whores cannot be raped. The ruling on Rehtaeh’s rape emblematic of the presumed nature of women’s sexuality. We are taught to believe she brought this upon herself because she is whorish. Her sexuality was her sin and she paid for it in life and death. She endured insidious abuse from her peers and her community because she is a female, because the sexual nature of females is constructed as whorish. The suspicion surrounding her character is moralistic — she experimented with partying and sex. If this was the reality of a male similar in age, there would be no moral posturing in question; under the patriarchal paradigm male nature is posited in polar opposition to female. Male sexuality itself is dominance, female submission. The pornography produced by the rapist is an act of domination. The symbolic gesture of a “thumbs up”, signifying his conquest, his success in dominating another. Rape is male sexual entitlement; he wanted it, knew he could, so he did. The distribution of pornography was a conscious choice; she deserved to be humiliated for being a whore.

Pornography is used as a tool to humiliate women. Our humiliation is what arouses men. The ethos of pornography is to portray women as whores who are deserving of torment and punishment. The question whether or not Rehtaeh consented to what occurred was the focus, rather than whether the boys had raped her. While the intention to harass and humiliate her through the production and distribution of pornography is overlooked. The court makes a distinction between adult and child pornography; which is not an arbitrary distinction, assuming that not all pornography is violence against women. Pornography depicts the raping of women and girls in various ways and styles; women are brutalized and forcibly penetrated, women are verbally and physically abused. The subordination of women is eroticized, her humiliation is normalized. Rehtaeh Parsons appeared in the pornographic images, just as many women do in pornography; she was forcibly penetrated from behind, there is no indication of consent or enjoyment. How can one distinguish between rape that is “fantasy” from rape that is reality? Rape happens to real women whether in pornography or outside of it.

Pornography is the propaganda of woman-hating, it normalizes the subordination of women and girls as something natural that is deserved. The notion that women are responsible for their humiliation depends on her nature posited by the patriarchy – that we could all be whores: It doesn’t matter if she was too intoxicated to consent, she would have. It doesn’t matter that she was harassed insidiously to the point where suicide seemed like the only escape. She was somehow responsible and complicit in the violence enacted by boys.

The routine and universal objectification of women and girls contributed to the ruling of this case coloured by rampant misogyny. The boys who raped Rehtaeh Parsons saw her as an object; not a person with a life who would experience consequences of others’ actions upon her body as object. The pornographic images of her which circulated online and among her peers demonstrate how the objectification of women and girls is normalized. Regardless of the context, people consumed the images, and partook in the spectacle, the documentation of the enjoyment in raping a 15 year old girl.

At this point, the men have not yet been charged with rape. When the RCMP consulted with the Crown, they determined there was insufficient evidence to lay charges. One of the men was charged with child pornography. Canada’s Youth Criminal Justice Act protects minors, the sole consequence for the man (who was 17 at the time of the assault) was conditional discharge or probation. He received the latter upon the recommendation of both he defense and the crown (THE CROWN!). This man should not only be charged with production of child pornography, he should be charged with rape. The second man pleaded guilty to a charge of distributing pornography (to be sentenced in early 2015).

Historically, feminists have been the only ones to speak truth regarding male violence against women (thank you foremothers, Andrea Dworkin, Catharine Mackinnon, Audre Lorde). Surrounding the Rehtaeh Parsons case, radical feminists have been the only ones to speak truth that is not a watered down, blind, misinformed version of what is “true.” Feminists have been unequivocal in naming the problem: Male violence against women. Rape is male violence against women. Pornography is male violence against women. Both have been used against Rehtaeh Parsons.

Rehtaeh is not the only female teen who has experienced this type of misogynistic attack. While new legislation surrounding “cyber bullying” and exploitative “sexting” are groundbreaking and useful, the language itself degenders the act. The story of Rehtaeh shares many similarities with yet another teen who succumbed to the abject failures of our criminal justice system – Amanda Todd – we cannot lose sight of the fact that this phenomenon is gendered and affects girls to the point of death. This type of sinister harassment happens predominantly to young girls and women. Young girls are preyed upon in real life and online. The climate of sexism in Canadian society is responsible for what happened to these girls. The education system, the police, the judicial system are all complicit in their deaths. This case had the potential to set a precedent for young women and girls seeking justice. Instead we are taught again that male violence against women is not a legal, social or political priority… but we already knew that.

We need to hold the Canadian Justice system accountable. We need our patriarchal institutions to acknowledge rape, stop victim blaming, take responsibility for its gross negligence and the embedded violence within that commits crime after crime upon women and girls who dare to survive sexual assault. ENOUGH.

Join us in civil action on Monday, January 26th at the Criminal Court (222 Main st) at 12 pm, Vancouver, B.C to protest this abomination.

EmilyScreen-Shot-2014-06-27-at-12.13.09-PM-300x300 Monaghan is a second year student at UBC, a member of the Guerilla Feminist Collective and an organizer for TBTN UBC. Predominantly disheartened by the pop culture feminist climate of the status quo.

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  • C.K. Egbert

    I can’t join you in protest, but solidarity!

  • copleycat

    Thank you for writing this article, I’ve been out of my mind over the facts that the court saw that Parsons was being raped – had the evidence presented to them and then claimed it was insufficent, and that there’s been absolutely no acknowledgement by the legal system of the damage that the photos did. The doctrine of porn culture was being applied here; the picture is porn therefore it’s not rape and the porn itself isn’t harmful because porn must be allowed to florish.

    This keeps happening and I think we need to develop ways to psychologically protect the women and girls it happens to and ways to radically step up the legal consequences for the perps. Can MacKinnon and Dworkin’s ordinance be resurrected as one possible means of attacking on the legal front?

  • Lee

    Never forget: porn is the 8th wonder of the world and society and democracy will collapse if teenage boys don’t have after school access to Gang-Bang Teens 7000.

  • Terry

    I agree with everything said. But what bout gay porn? Analysis please.

    • “But what bout gay porn? Analysis please.”

      You’re kidding right? You’re just pretending to be so self-absorbed and indifferent to sex hierarchy as evidenced by the physical, emotional and psychological torture of a human being (of the lower class) that you’d post a command that someone (of the lower class) take time to serve you up some off-topic information (that is readily available on this very website as well as countless other places if you could pull your self-absorbed brain out of your misogynist asshole, get off your lardy ass and find it yourself), right?

      Your post is almost decent satire of lowest-order trolling.

      Almost.

      • Morag

        Terry. A girl is dead because she was gang raped and because her gang rape was turned into pornography for men to consume. She couldn’t live with what was done to her.

        But, you, Terry, want to know if YOUR stash of porn is safe from feminist analysis? That’s all you have to contribute to a conversation about this kind of male violence, this kind of tragedy? Shame, shame on you.

        I hope you feel every word of lizor’s comment and my comment like a slap across your self-absorbed face. Stop masturbating for a little while and wake up. Girls and women are human; what happens to us and our daughters matters.

  • martin dufresne

    Hello,
    I would very much like to translate in French and circulate this excellent essay.
    Sample:
    De la pornographie comme viol: L’affaire Rehtaeh Parsons

    Si vous êtes une femme ou une fille en quête de justice, le système juridique canadien est un échec lamentable.
    Que la cause soit entendue à l’échelon provincial ou fédéral; les décisions judiciaires reflètent les valeurs de la société, sans égard à l’impartialité présumée du ou de la juge. Ce n’est pas le seul acteur qui joue un rôle essentiel dans le maintien du statu quo; la police (et en particulier la GRC) est complice dans la reproduction de la violence contre les femmes et les filles. Rehtaeh Parsons n’est qu’une des femmes à ne pas avoir bénéficié d’une réponse adéquate de la police; elle a été violée alors que des garçons (qui sont aujourd’hui des hommes) produisaient d’elle des images pornographiques, à un moment où elle était ivre au point de vomir abondamment. Les garçons ont diffusé les images pornographiques de son viol, mais la police et le tribunal ont décidé que la preuve était «insuffisante» pour porter des accusations d’agression sexuelle. Pourtant, une femme ne peut pas consentir quand elle est ivre. Une femme ne peut pas consentir quand elle vomit par une fenêtre. Une femme ne peut pas consentir quand elle ne sait même pas qui est en train de la violer. (…)

    • Meghan Murphy

      Yes, please go ahead, Martin. Thank you!

  • Sabine

    I feel absolutely sickened and beyond outraged at this horrific crime. Those rapists have blood on their hands. I can’t even get into the gross injustice that’s been displayed at every turn. Where is the fucking HUMANITY for god’s sake???? This article is spot-on. I so wish I could physically join the protest in BC but sadly I’m on another continent. Is there an online petition we could get started if there’s not one already? I’m sure many thousands of people would sign in order to put pressure on the government.

    • derrington

      I too cannot attend but am with you in spirit and an on line petition about government, media regulations and the justice systems inadequate and quite frankly discriminatory approach to half the world’s population through the media promotion of violent sexism against women and children really has to be challenged. Male complicity in case after case of violence against women or children whether in being the perp or defending or shielding the perp due to gender bias really has to be rooted out and stomped on.

  • FrustratedRadFem

    I wish I could go but Im not Canadian all I can do is send my support online. It’s not fair she died. Why couldn’t her harrasers leave her be. It obvious it was rape (not that should harass her ever). Did any one who saw the video try to help her. This could have any girl.   How is the video not sufficient enough? 

    There’s no point in going to the authorities. The perpetrators will get a slap on the wrist if you’re  lucky. Most of the police, lawyer and judges watch pornography so theyve been taught the rape myths porn teaches. How are we supposed to trust any of mens instituitions after this? If I was raped and went to the police I’d have a hard time believing he had any real sympathy Id worry whether I was categorised as a madonna or a whore. 

    And how is her drinking a justified excuse for raping her? People drink at parties even when they are underage. I bet the victim blamers did it too. Nobody calls them anti alcohol or killjoys for telling women that if they drink alcohol they deserve what happens to them.

    I hope Rehtaeh is at peace now.           

  • Pam

    Would it be safe to assume that the photos in the link below could be “objectification of women and girls”. I was quite disappointed when I discovered who the photographer was 🙁

    http://www.modelmayhem.com/portfolio/119777/viewall

    • Meghan Murphy

      Who is the photographer? I don’t know him?

      • Pam

        It’s Glen Canning.

        • Meghan Murphy

          Who is that?

          • Pam

            Rehtaeh Parsons father

          • Meghan Murphy

            What?!!! That is insane.

          • Meghan Murphy

            FYI I’ve emailed him to confirm that the photos are his.

          • Pam

            They are his. If you follow the link it takes you right to his website. Keep me posted on his reply…if he does. Personally I found the pictures to be unsettling, considering his daughters torment.

          • Meghan Murphy

            Yeah I since figured that out. This is all very upsetting.

          • Sabine

            When I clicked the link I got a message saying “the user is not here atm. bye.” Judging by the other objectifying images on the website it looks pretty grim if this poor girl’s father has been peddling the same kind of trash given what happened with his own daughter.

    • ArgleBargle

      What do Glen Canning’s choices have to do with the rape of Rehtaeh Parsons ?

      • Sabine

        Connect. The. Dots.

      • Meghan Murphy
      • ArgleBargle

        Nod, I see the connection. Meghan’s article regarding this covers the issue brilliantly. Should the narrative around Rehtaeh change or be diverted when it is discovered that her most ardent male champion, her father, is complicit in the pornification of women? No. Why not? Because, no surprise. Glen Canning was always championing his daughter, never women in general.

      • Derrington

        Hes her father. If she grew up round a parent that objectify girls and women she will have been socialised into being treated like a whore and to behaving to fit that part ie heavy drinking, behaving in a hyper sexualised way to fit her fathers gender expectations. She probably will have been exposed to porn and other sexist media and gendered hate speech, lowering her self esteem and making her liable to not recognising risky situations as dangerous but seeing them as exciting/wild. Fathers sexism does a lot of damage to their daughters.

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  • RadForward

    The tragedy is not only Rehtaeh’s case. It’s the entire criminal justice system in Common Law jurisdictions. I know people who work prosecuting sex crimes, they see any day in court as a victory because so much falls over or never gets to them. The criminal justice system in common law jurisdictions is hopeless in dealing with rape, as it requires physical evidence and is so easily undone with a defense representative who mortally wounds the moral character of the victim in the trial, whether it’s illegal to do so or not. The notion that some how those under the age of 18 lack capacity to be punished like an adult would for serious crimes is a joke, and Canada needs to be ashamed of itself for allowing such antiquated notions. Australia has demonstrated it will try and sentence young males if they go out and commit rape – the Sydney gang rapes had perpetrators 16 and 17 getting 5 years+, and an intellectually disabled man who got at least 5 years. While that was a series of assaults and this only one, discounting that plus the bullying demonstrates there are some similarities in the misogyny perpetuated in the attacks. It is also a serious insult to all men, brushing aside the notion that they can be held responsible for rape, normalising it, rather than saying the ones who are incapable of controlling themselves should be removed from society and caged (incarcerated) like the animals like they behave.

    • Morag

      “Australia has demonstrated it will try and sentence young males if they go out and commit rape – the Sydney gang rapes had perpetrators 16 and 17 getting 5 years+, and an intellectually disabled man who got at least 5 years.”

      This is very interesting, RadForward. From a legal standpoint, yes, but also as part of the continuing discussion about how misogyny is transmitted to boys, and how it’s also found, fully formed, in men who otherwise have a low capacity for learning. There doesn’t seem to be, when it comes to woman-hating inspired behaviour, any dividing line between immature/mature men, or between men who are intellectually gifted, average or disabled. Not sure what I’m getting at yet — I’m just thinking about these facts, and how they relate to the seeming intractability of male violence against females.

      I read recently that one of the British boys (now a young man) who ran off to join ISIS, and to commit atrocities, has been caught and brought back to be tried. His lawyer is saying that, according to assessments, this young man’s intelligence is far below normal. Well, he was still, apparently, a very “good fighter” and even trained other men. He posed for pictures with the bodies of their victims, and he bragged on twitter about his accomplishments. I wonder how many girls he raped?

      I just wonder what maturity and intellectual capacity have to do with the violent crimes men commit. Nothing, it would seem.

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  • Amanda

    If the criminal justice system does nothing to the men that rape, they are sending a clear message that it’s OKAY for men to rape, as nothing will be done about it. The would-be rapists will figure “I can get away with this..I won’t be punished..” And so it goes on…Meanwhile, the rape survivor’s lives shall be ruined (if they are lucky enough to live), and the victims will continue to blame themselves for what happened to them. And so it goes on..