The XX Factor

Non-Consensual Sexting Leads to Child Pornography Charges for Two Men in Rehtaeh Parsons Case

As in Steubenville, Anonymous and the Internet hive mind played an indispensible role

Rahman Roslan

Last April, after the suicide of her 17-year-old daughter Rehtaeh, Leah Parsons wrote an anguished post on Facebook. She said:

The Person Rehtaeh once was all changed one dreaded night in November 2011. She went with a friend to another’s home. In that home she was raped by four young boys…one 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. I stopped working that very day and we have all been on this journey of emotional turmoil ever since.

Leah Parsons also said that she and her daughter had gone to the Halifax, Nova Scotia police, but were told months later that there would be no prosecution. “The justice system failed her,” Parsons wrote. Even if it would be difficult to charge the boys with rape, she said, what about the circulation of the photo?

Her post, along with another from Rehtaeh’s father, Glen Canning, caused the Internet-driven version of a hue and cry. A petition demanding an inquiry into the police investigation gathered more than 450,000 signatures. Members of Anonymous said they’d uncovered the identities of the boys Rehtaeh had accused, and asked the police to take action. There was a protest in Halifax on her family’s behalf, and, after names started leaking out, a counter protest led by some of the boys’ families. Nova Scotia Justice Minister Ross Landry defended the decision not to prosecute and then shifted his position hours later, saying he would asked for “options” from prosecutors. Prime Minister Stephen Harper said he was “sickened” by Rehtaeh’s death. “I think we’ve got to stop just using just the term bullying to describe some of these things,” he said. “Bullying to me has a connotation of kids misbehaving. What we are dealing with in some of these circumstances is simply criminal activity. It is youth criminal activity. It is violent criminal activity. It is sexual criminal activity, and it is often Internet criminal activity.

The Halifax police soon said they would reopen the case, citing “new and credible information,” though they stressed that it “did not come from an online source.” Whatever. It’s entirely clear that the online pressure mattered a great deal in this case. And today, the police made a cryptic announcement that they’d “made two arrests in relation to the Rehtaeh Parsons investigation,” of “two males at their respective residences.”

Does that mean charges are about to be brought? The statement says, “No further information is being released at this time,” but it sure looks like it. The person, or people, responsible for circulating the photos of Rehtaeh could be charged under Canada’s child pornography laws. [Update, August 9th: Two 18-year-olds were indeed charged Friday with child pornography offenses in connection to the case. Their names were not released.]

There’s no question that the hive mind of the Internet played an indispensable role here. There are parallels to the Steubenville rape case—check out Ariel Levy’s interesting recent piece about it, if you haven’t already. But in Steubenville, the police arrested two boys less than two weeks after the assault (they were later convicted). By producing an indictment nearly two years after Rehtaeh’s first report, and by testing charges of child pornography against boys for non-consensual sexting, this case will be its own kind of watershed.

This post has been updated with new information since it was originally published.