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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