How Bad Is 'Viral' Rape Shame? It Pushes Teenage Girls into Killing Themselves

Three boys have been arrested for assaulting a 15-year-old in California who hanged herself. If that sounds familiar, the arrests came one week after a 17-year-old in Canada hanged herself after an alleged attack by four boys at a party. There were photos. Indeed, if the combination of rape, victim-blaming, and a social media tornado from small towns to national outrage seems like something of a trend this year, perhaps this is the brutal new reality in age of Steubenville, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

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Seven months after 15-year-old Audrie Pott posted a grim Facebook message and hanged herself near Santa Clara, California, police arrested three 16-year-old boys on sexual battery charges late Thursday, amid allegations that she was "savagely assaulted by her fellow high school students while she lay on a bed completely unconscious" — only to have cellphone photos of the attack get shared amongst the 1,400 students at Saratoga High School.

If this kind of tragedy sounds familiar, the arrests arrived exactly one week after 17-year-old Rehtaeh Parsons hanged herself in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where her mother has taken to Facebook — and Anonymous has taken the Canadian case to the masses — with a plea for swift justice for the four boys she says raped her daughter, then passed photos of the attack around Cole Harbour High.

Indeed, if the combination of rape, victim-blaming, and a social media tornado from small towns to national outrage seems like something of a trend this year, perhaps a cold new reality has arrived: In the aftermath of a football party rape in Steubenville, Ohio — the most high-profile underage case, of an average 207,754 sexual assaults reported every year in America, to reveal the horror of high-school rape culture in an age of Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook — it may take these deaths to wake up students, parents, and the rest of social media that something needs to be done. Here's how these three tragedies are intersecting right now:

Audrie Pott

Pott was a sophomore in high school, a musician and soccer player who loved horses. She killed herself on September 10, 2012 — eight days after she was allegedly sexually assaulted after passing out at party. "Based on what we know, she was unconscious, there were multiple boys in the room with her," the Pott family attorney, Robert Allard, told NBC's Bay Area affiliate Thursday. "They did unimaginable things to her while she was unconscious." At least one of the boys — two of the suspects were classmates in Saratoga High School, near Santa Clara and San Joe, and a third was a student down the road in Gilroy — also took at least one "viral" photo of the girl naked and being assaulted, the lawyer said.

That photo apparently made its way around the party by way of text messaging and email and, eventually, to Facebook, where Pott's family says she ended up posting her own message — "worst day ever" — before taking her own life.

Her parents did not know about the attack in question until after she died. They are now taking Audrie's story public in their quest to have the three boys tried as adults, and to bring attention to the pressure put on their daughter from the school community. "Teens can say whatever they want on a typed screen," a local teen counselor told NBC, "and then push 'send' without having to think and feel about the ramifications and see the feelings, the results of what that can do to a peer."

Rehtaeh Parsons

Parsons committed suicide last Thursday and died over the weekend, some 18 months after four boys allegedly attacked her at a house party. A single photograph had apparently surfaced from that November 2011 incident as well, and her parents said she was never the same. Her mother, Leah, posted an emotional message on Facebook earlier this week: of those boys took a photo of her being raped and decided it would be fun to distribute the photo to everyone in Rehtaeh’s school and community where it quickly went viral. Because the boys already had a “slut” story, the victim of the rape Rehtaeh was considered a SLUT. This day changed the lives of our family forever.

Leah described the fallout to a local radio station like this, according to Canada's Global News:

They told the story that Rehtaeh had sex with them all ... So everybody turned against Rehtaeh and she was a ‘slut’ and she was the one that they targeted.

Leah says that Rehtaeh became depressed after the picture was circulated, that school became difficult, and that ultimately Rehtaeh was driven to suicide by bullying. "People texted her all the time, saying 'Will you have sex with me?' Girls texting, saying 'You're such a slut,'" Leah told The Chronicle Herald"She acted on an impulse, but I truly, in my heart of heart, do not feel she meant to kill herself," Leah wrote on the Facebook page.

Leah's boyfriend, Jason Barnes, blamed adults as well as the children at the school. "The justice system failed us completely," he told the Star. "The education system didn’t seem to do much of anything." The local school board and government officials said this week that they are considering whether to reopen the case — not just the attack but the fallout, and how it could have been handled different. (Update, 3:55 p.m. Eastern: Citing a break in the case with "new and credible information," the Mounties have re-opened their investigation into Rehtaeh Parsons, reports Toronto's CP24, now that "the person who provided the new information is willing to verify who they are, the reason they're providing it and is willing to work with investigators." The Mounties insisted that the information did not stem "from an online source.)

Why Rehtaeh and Audrie's Cases Look Like Steubenville

It's not just because outraged media outlets call Rehtaeh's case "Canada's Steubenville," or just because as word broke out of Santa Clara Thursday night, many started to say it's "not just Rehtaeh." The primary reason that Steubenville keep returning to the fore is, that the lessons we were supposed to learn from Steubenville haven't been learned — the Ohio attorney general's office says it's monitoring social media 24 hours a day to prevent more victim shaming after two teens were arrested for threatening the victim's life following the verdict in which two football players were found guilty in juvenile court of raping the 16-year-old from across state lines.

But in all three cases there is photo evidence from drunken teenage parties, of a girl in various states of undress — photos passed around immediately from suspect to fellow partygoer, from classmate to classmate, from cell phone to text message to email, and eventually to Instagram and Twitter and Facebook. And, often too late, to parents and educators and police. 

In Steubenville, photos and videos of Jane Doe — her family has not gone public with her name, as is customary for victims of sexual assault — were taken at multiple parties. Many of them were shared among students that night. But most of them, with the exception of one Instagram photo (pictured at left) that went viral and a few more that were presented at the trial, were immediately deleted. One of the convicted rapists, Trent Mays, was convicted of "illegal use of a minor in nudity-oriented material."

Three boys involved in Pott's attack have been arrested, but the extent of the social media activity — which is under renewed scrutiny in Canada — remains unclear as the case in California gets underway. USA Today reports:

Santa Clara County Sheriff's Lt. Jose Cardoza said it arrested two of the teens at Saratoga High School and the third, a former Saratoga High student, at Christopher High School in Gilroy on Thursday. The names of the suspects were not released because they are minors.

Cardoza said the suspects were booked into juvenile hall and face two felonies and one misdemeanor each, all related to sexual battery that allegedly occurred at a Saratoga house party.

Why Halifax Might Be Worse Than Steubenville

A key difference in the case of Rehtaeh Parsons — and perhaps why it's become so gripping of a news story, from Canada to America and even internationally — is that no one was ever charged with a crime. And that's the second layer of this case: After one year of investigation by the police  no one has been charged. Canada's Global News reports:

RCMP Cpl. Scott MacRae said the Mounties and Halifax Regional Police launched a joint investigation in November 2011 into a report of a sexual assault and an inappropriate photo. He declined to name the alleged victim or talk specifically about the case, citing privacy concerns.

"That investigation was completed and in consultation with the Crown, there was insufficient evidence to proceed with charges," MacRae said Tuesday.

Macrae acknowledges that there is a photo — or are multiple photos — but says there may be more to the story than what Rehteah claimed:

I know some people are saying you know, it’s simple, there’s photographs and go with it. But there’s identification processes — where did the photo come from. So there’s more to this story and that’s really important.

So at the heart of this story, there is a family claiming rape. There is a photo of the alleged attack — not deleted but out there in the wilds of teenagers and their social media accounts both public and private, and it's illegal to take sexual photos of a minor in Canada. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police found that there wasn't enough evidence to proceed with charges. The entire school community seemed to know something was wrong, but nobody did anything. And then Parsons ended her life, which her mother maintains was due not just to the shaming in school but to a lack of prosecution — a decision that wasn't solely up to the Mounties:

Two prosecutors were assigned to review the case. One looking into a possible sexual assault charge and another who specializes in child pornography cases to analyse the photographic evidence.

We looked at all of the evidence surrounding the photo and we did a real sort of 360 view of that very thoroughly and there just was not the evidence to warrant a realistic prospect of conviction,” says [Nova Scotia Public Prosecution spokesperson] Chris Hansen.

Leah Parsons says the four boys she claims assaulted her daughter were not questioned until 10 months after the incident was reported which seems off. In the U.S., the convicted Steubenville rapists were arrested eight days after Jane Doe and her family came forward. The justice minister in Nova Scotia is expected to meet with Leah soon in determining whether the case should be reopened: "I am committed to exploring the mechanisms that exist to review the actions of all relevant authorities to ensure the system is always working to the best of its ability, in pursuit of justice," Minister Ross Landry said Tuesday. Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper late this week praised the court, and suggested that bullying should be considered a crime.

Anonymous Returns with a Light Touch

After the do-gooder hacker collective at Anonymous amplified the case in Steubenville — from a local story to a New York Times feature to the cover-up allegations of a questionable hacking sect and quickly into a national storyline, fights with the local sheriff and all — the prosecutor there said the involvement of Anonymous had "put enormous pressure" on the victim, but also on investigators to look more new information. The leaders of Anonymous, in light of that case and as evidenced in another victim-shaming case in Torrington, Connecticut, appear to be taking a softer approach — listening to victim families even as the collective pushes on social media to bring more attention to rape cases.

Anonymous got involved in the Halifax case quickly, bringing immediate attention in America as the Canadian city wept. The four boys who have not been charged also have not been named, because they are underage. That didn't stop Anonymous from threatening to release them earlier this week in a video:

Since then, the group has relented, respecting Leah Parsons's wishes, even as she pushes for new charges.

#OpJustice4Rehtaeh is asking for Anons to withhold the names of the minors involved--for now--out of respect for Rehtaeh's mother.

— Anonymous (@YourAnonNews) April 10, 2013

A statement Thursday from the group confirmed what it had told its hacker following: "We feel that honoring the Parsons' wishes while they lay their daughter Rehtaeh to rest is the respectful thing to do."

And a message from an Anonymous member on the rallying board Pastebin reads:

At this time we can honestly say we're confident we know the identities of the people involved in Rehtaeh's rape. It would probably take us a lot longer to come up with a list of the people responsible for her death. We hope you all find some way to sleep at night.

See you Sunday. - Anonymous.

Anonymous is planning a peaceful protest in Halifax on Sunday, and the reference to Rehtaeh's mother comes from a recent CBS interview: "I want the justice system to go after those boys ... I don't want people to go after those boys," Leah Parsons said. "I don't want more bullying. Rehtaeh wouldn't want more bullying. I don't think that's justice."

Meanwhile, there are petitions, some of which have over 10,000 signatures asking for inquiry into the police investigation. And the family Facebook page, Angel Rehteah, is gaining 10,000 likes per day. The Anonymous hashtag #OpJustice4Rehteah, continues to grow just as swiftly.

There is no viral hashtag for Audrie Pott, and Anonymous has yet to get involved in California, as can be their strategy when the police are doing their job and the shaming has not yet bubbled up beyond the bubble. The hacking collective is now tweeting about the latest case to its nearly 1 million followers. But in both cases, the viral shame was contained to the environments in which these girls lived, and only the deepest tragedy — a loss of young lives — appears to be bringing the attention their alleged assaults never brought.

The Lessons of Rape Culture

No matter what the Prime Minister of Canada says, no matter what the judge in Halifax decides, and no matter how the California case unfolds, there will always be the shame of Steubenville, and the continuing victim-blaming on Twitter in Torrington, and of course the sisters and daughters of rape victims — alleged and proven — across this country, and in colleges as big as Notre Dame, and up in Canada and across the world. There will be American tourists in Brazil and too many victims in India and elsewhere. There will always be rape, and there may always be young people who don't understand it. It's not going to go away just by ignoring it.

But now there is social media, an avenue for victim-blaming to go unchecked. And the high-profile nature of this year's cases has proved that law enforcement may be learning — albeit all too late, and under the spotlight — how to learn from that. Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine has called a grand jury, scheduled to convene next week, to look for what went wrong — and who still might be charged — in Steubenville. "We want to bring finality so the community feels that justice has been done — that nothing has been swept under the rug and everyone has their day in court," DeWine said this week. (The cases of the two dead girls are powerful, but they are also mostly one sided cases in the media and on social media at this point, as law enforcement officials have not spoken out as publicly as the victims' families.)

What can educators learn from these tragedies? A Connecticut school board that lets a charity dodgeball tournament turn into a suspect-cheering Instagram photo on the front page of the paper, well, that's not very promising. Neither is a Canada school that had a 17-year-old girl walking around school being called a "slut."

Can parents learn? Audrie Pott probably wasn't crying for her parents help on Facebook when she said her life had been ruined, but now her parents are left to seek charges and justice for their dead daughter. And there are still so many questions about why kids passed around evidence of a violent alleged sexual crime, and passed it around long enough for another promising young life to disappear. When memories of rape go viral, they can lead to death. Can they ever lead to real lessons learned, about the way we talk about rape now?

Photos via Associated Press, the Audrie Pott Foundation, and the Angel Rehtaeh Facebook page.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.