By Ardath Whynacht
Let me begin by saying that I am a youth worker and have been for more than a decade.
Let me also begin by saying that I spent 5 years volunteering for the Victim Services Unit of the Halifax Regional Police to provide support for women affected by intimate partner violence.
I now work with women in prison and believe strongly in decarceration. I believe in the power of restorative justice. Let me say that I am a feminist.
Let me also say that today’s announcement of two arrests in the Rehtaeh Parsons case makes me sad. Although I still grieve the loss of Rehtaeh, and other youth I have known who have died under similar circumstances, I cannot celebrate these arrests.
Although I value truth-telling and do believe that the boys should be held to account, incarceration is too often the end result of what could be a broader, community process that engages everyone who is affected.
These arrests allow adults and our institutions to ‘save face’ for the total lack of support given to the education system, youth programs, mental health services and support for rape survivors. They are too little, too late, and they let the state off the hook for underfunding every program and service that could/should have helped the Parsons family.
Arresting these boys diverts attention from rape culture and educating youth about consent. It allows us to frame these two boys as ‘deviant monsters’ rather than the social products of a system that is structured by rape culture and gender inequality.
It allows the community of people who martyred the boys and harassed Rehtaeh and her family to continue harming their community and raising more youth who harm each other.
Arresting a mere few makes us think we can lock monsters in cages – instead of finding the monster in the mirror. It makes individuals responsible for what is ultimately a collective responsibility. When it comes to youth, I believe we always, ultimately, share responsibility. A focus on individual guilt and punishment and the use of incarceration as retributive justice will not allow these boys to take responsibility for stopping rape culture.
I believe these boys are the BEST people to tackle the dismantling of rape culture. They understand its logic.
I believe it is in them to be a part of the solution.
As adults, we must believe in them to be a part of transformative change. I believe that their engagement in this process would be more painful for them than any stay in Waterville could be. I believe we can only stop rape culture when we stop thinking we can ‘cage’ the problem.
These arrests encourage us to find positive validation in exerting power over another human being. Forced bondage and caging of living beings is an act of violence. If we, ourselves, feel positive things about exerting power over another human being; why are we so surprised when a group of young boys find pleasure in exerting power over a young woman?
If we are teaching boys that they can find their manhood through sexual conquest, through competitive aggression, through toughness and denial of emotion – if we socialize them through sports and the media to ‘dominate’ at all costs – why does rape surprise us?
What does our ‘happiness’ at the arrest of these boys say about our moral codes of justice? I believe we must lead by example, and provide support, safety and transformative change for the hundreds of Rehtaehs in our province today who are still living.
Violence is not deviance in our society – it is the norm. Any number of video games, media products or sports can confirm this.
After decades of feminist labour to call out sexual violence and name rape culture, is this how far we’ve come? Can Rehtaeh's only validation and public recognition of the trauma she faced come from our criminal justice system? Or can we do better?
One in six boys is raped before age 17. One in four women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime. The data also tells us that sexual abuse and sexual violence often occurs between and amongst youth- sometimes from older siblings or older youth in their peer group. One third of all sexual abuse against children is committed by someone under the age of 18. The National Clearinghouse on Family Violence has shown that 70% of adolescent sexual offenders have experienced neglect and/or abuse in the home. We have to start talking about sex and consent with our youth.
Sexual violence is not the product of our biology. It is not human nature. It is a reflection of how our society exerts power and privilege at the cost of another.
Violence in the home and between peers is fundamentally connected to state violence. There is a relationship between the logic of caging and imprisoning someone and the logic of forcing your will upon another. Women are raped, in part, because they are so often objectified and dehumanized in mainstream society.
If we dehumanize these boys and consider them monsters, we are no better then them.
Let us go beyond symbolic arrests and flowers on the grave. Let us talk to our boys and give all youth a place that is safe.
Let us not to turn to the easy solution of making a few troubled young men the scapegoat for a rape culture that is deep, thick and pervasive. Let us all become leaders for our children and ask questions with answers that may be difficult to hear.
Let us believe in these men to be part of the change we want to see and expect no less. As adults, that is our only job.
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