It’s hard to absorb and write about stories that break your heart. When I saw the headline about Rehtaeh Parsons, who was gang-raped when she was 15 and committed suicide two years later, I thought the writer must be mistaken, and meant a teenager in California, Audrie Pott, who was also gang-raped while drunk, also a victim of suicide, also the victim of re-victimization if not “virtual” re-raping through the circulation of images of the assault. Actually, they’re two instances of almost the same story. And the list can be expanded, to include the Steubenville, Ohio case, also of an intoxicated girl, gang raped at a party, and a woman raped in her sleep by a Cornell wrestler.
It makes me want to vomit. It seems from the coverage that the Nova Scotia case was treated cavalierly by the police, until the victim killed herself. And, it was perhaps only then treated seriously because of techno gum-shoes at Anonymous who identified the rapists in less than two hours through social media.
Indeed, social media was as proactive as the law was dormant. Social media cut both ways in these cases. It magnified the offense through the circulation of images, and texts. The circulation of this material, obviously, was devastating to the victims. The membranous world of social life online has corroded our protective epidermis, and made adolescents, who already feel so exposed, acutely vulnerable to social toxins. It reminds me of bald eagles, who once faced extinction because their egg shells had become fatally thin. The chicks had no protection against the world’s infiltration, and they died during incubation. Maybe this is how the world felt to these young women—entirely thin, transparent, and with no protection. Much as my mother described her life growing up very much in the pre-feminist and pre-Facebook era in a small Southern town, where everyone knew everything, and just as many judged.
But by the same token, it’s due to the tenacity, courage, and persistence of Anonymous and a blogger and amateur tech-detective in Steubenville that there is some promise of justice. As Anonymous pointed out, it wasn’t as if the perpetrators felt any extraordinary compunction to hide their actions or identities.
“This kept me up all night,” a reader noted about the Nova Scotia case. I know what she means. The story has haunted me. The others have, too. They return to my consciousness at random moments in the day, amid the banalities.
Pott left heart-wrenching comments before her suicide. “My life is ruined,” she wrote. “My life is over…I have a reputation for a night I don’t even remember.” In Audrie’s perception, the “whole school” knew about this, although school officials say that under a dozen actually knew. What she apparently didn’t write was, “I was raped.” Or, “I’m a survivor of rape.”
That absence or silence, around rape, is what it feels like to be in a post-feminist world, where young women are mocked for being victims of rape, where they think it’s their fault, and ruins their reputation. Adolescence can be socially painful in the best of circumstances. But add to it the vulnerability of having been raped, and then having others know, the burden of not having another resource by which to manage that tragedy, except to internalize shame. This is what it looks like when there’s only a faint political voice to exert pressure on the otherwise sluggish, inertia-inclined institutions from which we seek action, because it seems that these young women had to kill themselves to get our attention. The underwhelming reaction in Nova Scotia and Steubenville is the place where feminism used to stand, and agitate. This is what happens when all the bystander horror that keeps us up at night doesn’t get transliterated into politics or activism.
Feminism helps to make different sense out of sexual violence, to offer the consolation that victims of sexual assault are survivors of violence, and even warriors. Feminism distinguished between hooking up or having sex, and rape; between violence and “promiscuity” (Indeed, the double standard is revived and well in these cases: While rape is treated casually, a teenager’s reputation gets un-casually ruined for having been a victim of it, and she’s mocked as a slut).
That feminist voice still exists, certainly. And I think it’s about to resurge. But it’s been ridiculed for decades, feminist literacy isn't that strong, and it’s less accessible in culture and our lives. It’s not like feminism's absence in the cultural toolbox doesn’t show.
I feel as if in these stories I’m encountering something quite chilling: the banality of rape, to recall Hannah Arendt on evil. The prevailing impression in all of these cases, at least from the evidence that’s available, is that the perpetrators and many of the bystanders, both male and female, didn’t really think there was much morally or legally wrong in what they were doing. Rather, it was homosocial fodder for male bonding, and in almost all cases, rampant alcohol abuse played a part, too.
Maybe cruelty by blasé default happens when we don’t take rape seriously, when we deride the movement that pays attention to such things (that would be feminism), when we don’t set high standards for consent—not just in sex, but in any relationship, since individual free will is foundational to American culture—and when we belittle the idea of rape between acquaintances, which is how a large majority of rapes happen (this trivialization started with self-absorbed, career-advancing tripe written against date rape in the early 1990s and moved forward to a world where national politicians speak casually about pregnancies resulting from rape, and to these cases).
How are we raising our children? It’s important to keep perspective: Most young people aren’t rapists, or cruel, or inclined to inhumanity. At the same time, enough young people to make a haunting list seemed to assume that unconscious, drunk, or sleeping women are there for the taking, and that the question of consent is rendered moot, or their consent can be inferred. Meet the new boss, same as the 1950s old boss.