Sexual assault in the information age

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In this new Internet era, sexual assault seems to be assuming an even more horrifying dimension: a victim is raped, while someone takes pictures or video with a smart phone, and then bullied as evidence of the assault is passed around online.

Rehtaeh Parsons, a 17-year old girl from Novo Scotia, was one of the latest victim of this trend. According to her mother, Leah Parsons, the Parsons’ daughter visited a party in November of 2011 where she was sexually assaulted by four boys. A fifth individual took pictures of the rape. The pictures were then circulated throughout school and Parsons was bullied for months.

Her family was forced to relocate.

Rehteah Parsons
After being sexually assaulted, Rehteah Parsons struggled with depression and suicidal thoughts due to the bullying she endured from her classmates.


An investigation launched by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) was closed after a year, with no arrests made. The picture of the sexual assault could not be used as evidence, the RCMP stated; it was “a community issue.”

“An investigation into an earlier sexual assault was completed, and in consultation with the Crown, there was insufficient evidence to lay charges,” spokesman Corporal Scott MacRae said.

Parsons attempted to hang herself on April 4, 2013. When her mother arrived it was too late – Parsons lingered on life support for three more days until her parents decided to turn it off. Many of the people who knew the young woman felt that the yearlong RCMP investigation was flawed, failing to bring the boys who reaped her to justice despite the picture of Parson’s rape.

“My daughter wasn’t bullied to death,” Glen Canning, Parsons’ father, posted on his personal blog. “She was disappointed to death. Disappointed in people she thought she could trust, her school, and the police.”

“I think sometimes the courts are hesitant because showing the pictures to the jurors could be considered child pornography,” second-year Cassandra Corrado, who organized several events for Sexual Assault Awareness Month, said. “There are also concerns about the victims not wanting the pictures to be distributed to more people.”

On April 11, the Internet hacktivist group Anonymous launched “#OpJustice4Rehtaeh,” an effort to force the RCMP to re-open the investigation into Parsons’ rape. In two hours, Anonymous managed to obtain a confession from one of the rapists and discovered the names of all of the boys involved in the sexual assault.

This is not the first time Anonymous has interfered in sexual assault cases. In January 2013 they released a disturbing video of a witness talking flippantly about the Stubenville rape case; a video that several media outlets credited for bringing attention to the issue. In the aftermath of the video, Ma’lik Richmond and Trent Mays were convicted for two years in juvenile court. Anonymous seeks a similar verdict in the Rehtaeh Parsons case.

Some officials expressed worry over the actions of Anonymous, arguing that the group is promoting vigilante justice.

“To the four boys who raped Miss Rehtaeh: you have caused the death of a young girl who never hurt you in any way,” a member of Anonymous said in a video announcement. “You should be ashamed of yourselves. We have your names and we know who you are. We are giving you an opportunity to correct what you have done, and we encourage you to do this swiftly.”

In contrast to the actions of Anonymous, a Facebook group called “Speak the Truth” was set up in support of the four alleged rapists. At the same time, colorful posters appeared around Halifax, Nova Scotia. They stated “There are two sides to every story. Listen before you judge. The truth will come out. Stay strong and support the boys!”

“I feel bad for the girl commiting suicide, but the story behind it has been blown way out of proportion,” Morgan Clayton, one of the supporters, posted in the Facebook group. “I think it’s pathetic that people believe they have to kill themselves over mistakes they made… In my opinion what sounds most logical to me, is that it was a drunk mistake.”

“People keep talkin bout charging them for child porn well fuck gotta charge a whole bunch of people,” Gordon Michell posted on the Facebook page. “Every single person that got the pic I guess all of them gotta be charged as well.”

“And why is this anonymous group involved with this one and not any other of the suicides or rapes that have happened in the last 2yrs?” posted another supporter.

Despite being labeled Internet vigilantes, members of Anonymous have maintained that they respect the judicial process.

“The women and young girls of Nova Scotia should not have to live in fear or be forced to hide evidence of a rape because they will be called whores,” a member of Anonymous said in a video. “We are asking – no, we are demanding: Let a jury decide.”

On April 12, after receiving information from Anonymous, the Nova Scotia RCMP re-opened investigation into the sexual assault case.

“I want to say thank you to Anonymous for getting involved in my daughter’s case,” Parsons’ father posted on his blog. “Thank you for being the driving force behind the new information that came forward and thank you for your continued support for bringing the four men who raped and ultimately murdered my daughter to justice.

“I won’t forget this,” he concluded.

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