Remembering Rehtaeh: The Story That Sparked New Laws on Consent
Disclaimer: The contents of this blog post may be triggering and contains information about sexual assault and suicide.
When Leah Parsons was 13 years old, she came up with the name “Rehtaeh.” She held onto that name until the day she gave birth to Rehtaeh Parsons – a cautious, sensitive, and compassionate girl who had more empathy in her tiny finger than most adults by the time she was four years old.
As she was growing up, her mother would have conversations with her about what it means to be a woman, what it means to stay safe, and the importance of consent. Her mother felt safe knowing that Rehtaeh carried what she had learned from her mother with her out into the world.
When Rehtaeh turned 15 and started high school, she made a group of new friends. One night, while Rehtaeh was having a sleepover with one of her friends, they decided to go to a small gathering. They began drinking and Rehtaeh was left alone with four boys.
One of the boys sexually assaulted her, while a second took a picture while it was happening.
When Rehtaeh showed up at school the following week, the photo had been publicly shared amongst her peers. Rehtaeh immediately became the target, her peers blamed her for what happened, labeled her a “Sl*t”, and bullied her relentlessly.
Two days later, Rehtaeh and her family reported the assault to the RCMP and in the investigation of the allegations they stated that there was not enough evidence to proceed and that the photograph that was taken was not a criminal issue even though Rehtaeh was underage.
The family made the decision to move from Cole Harbour to Halifax in hopes that it would help Rehtaeh feel safer and improve her well-being, but Rehtaeh continued to experience mental and emotional challenges because of the torment she faced from peers and the justice, hospital, and school systems.
In 2013, two years following the sexual assault, Rehtaeh attempted to take her own life. She was rushed to the hospital, but died days later after her parents made the decision to take her off of life support.
After dismissing charges while Rehtaeh was alive, the authorities retracted their initial decision after her death, but the two boys only received charges related to child pornography-related offences and nothing involving sexual assault.
The Nova Scotia government responded by drafting a legislation to combat cyberbullying but a judge rejected it two years later.
Rehtaeh’s story would go on to spark national outrage across Canada for how the institutions and authorities failed to provide support that could have helped save her life and pursue charges when the report was initially made.
In the years following Rehtaeh’s death, there have been progressive changes made within the justice system because of her story. In 2015, the federal government made the distribution of explicit photos or video recordings without consent a criminal offence, this was enacted under the Privacy Act as “Non-Consensual Intimate Image Distribution.”
The government of Nova Scotia also launched a new task force within their department of Justice called Cyber Scan that assists victims of Non-Consensual Intimate Image Distribution and Cyber-bullying.
Although, none of this changes the fact that Rehtaeh lost her life because of sexual violence, we can continue to honor and remember her by sharing her story. As her mother said, “Every time her name is mentioned, her story is told — that keeps her alive in so many ways.”
What can be learned from Rehtaeh Parsons’ story?
- When someone experiences sexual assault, it is never their fault, it is always the fault of the individual who committed the assault.
- Consent is a voluntary agreement to engage and participate in sexual activities. Consent has to be voluntary, ongoing, enthusiastically given and can be retracted at any time. This means that consent must be clearly communicated when engaging in sexual activity with someone, if you are unsure if the person is comfortable, it is important to ask. If the person consents to one sexual activity and not another, it is important that you respect that decision also.
- If you engage in sexual activity without the consent of the other person, it is sexual assault. If someone is under the influence of alcohol or drugs, they cannot consent therefore, it is sexual assault. If you enforce power or control over someone to fulfill your own sexual desires, it is sexual assault.
- It is a criminal offence to distribute an intimate image or video of someone else without their consent. Even if the individual consents to the photo being taken, that does not mean they have consented to it being shared.
The information shared in this article was compiled from the following sources:
CBC News (2013). Rape, bullying led to N.S teen’s death, says mom.
CBC News (2014). 1 year later: What’s changed since Rehtaeh Parsons’ Death by Irene Ogrodnik.
TEDx Talks (20160. Being Female is Complex by Leah Parsons
CBC News (2018). The Legacy of Rehtaeh Parsons by Elizabeth Chiu.
Global News (2018). Redrafted Nova Scotia anti-cyberbullying law comes in force.