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How to confuse Nova Scotia youth about what counts as sexual violence

From Rehtaeh Parsons to Dalhousie Dentistry, rape culture subordinated to cyber-bullying

by Emily Lockhart

[Photo via flickr]
[Photo via flickr]

Over the past two-and-a-half years, cases involving sexual violence and technology seem to have stirred up confusion for Halifax police, legal professionals, university administration and some members of the public. This became abundantly clear in the sloppy police work in the Rehtaeh Parsons case and more recently in the Dalhousie Dentistry scandal which is unfolding in a way that resembles a game of hot-potato because of its 'unprecedented' nature.

According to Stats Canada, less than 10% of victims report sexual assault to police. The most common reason for not reporting is that the victim does not feel that what happened to them constitutes sexual assault or is important enough to involve police. When Rehtaeh and her mother Leah Parsons reported her rape to police, it took them ten months to interview the young men involved. The police failed completely to respond to an issue of sexual violence.

It was only after her death and the public outcry that followed that police re-opened the investigation. On August 8th, 2013, they announced that while the evidence “did not meet the threshold of sexual assault” (CP, 2013) they were charging one young man with making and distributing child pornography and another with two counts of distribution. This decision by the justice system reveals the flexibility of legal categories. By flexibility I mean that the decision to go forward with the child pornography charges came only two days after the Nova Scotia Cyber Safety Act was put in force, which made it an offence to distribute non-consensual intimate images. Politically, this was strategic timing given that Central Nova MP and Justice Minister Peter McKay was trying to sell Parliament on Bill C-13 (Protecting Canadians from Online Crime Act).

Shortly after, the NS government also created CyberSCAN, Canada’s first cyber-bullying investigation unit, which is costing the NS government (read: taxpayers) $800,000 annually. Then in October, 2014, the federal government responded in kind by enacting Bill C-13. That very same month, the Canadian Centre for Child Protection introduced optional cyber-bullying programs for teachers nationwide.

In its transformation from a story about sexual assault to a cautionary tale about the harms of cyber-bullying, the Parsons case has become the backdrop for provincial and national cyber-bullying platforms. Lost was the narrative that a young woman had been sexually assaulted, her case poorly handled and her life ended by suicide. The political and legal focus was on a strong nationwide cyber-bullying mandate, which would mean an increased surveillance of non-consensual sharing of sexual images through text or online.

This is not to say that we should not welcome legal, political, educational and cultural responses to the very serious issue of cyber-bullying, but in this over-emphasis, we must not loose sight of the ongoing struggle to make society and its institutions take sexual violence seriously.

Despite the social activism around the Parsons case, sexual violence is still a problem in Halifax and rape culture is still alive, as revealed by the current debates over the 'Dalhousie Dentistry scandal', in which thirteen members of the 'DDS Class of 2015 Gentlemen' Facebook group posted sexist, misogynistic and homophobic posts, some involving photos of patients and others listing which female classmates they would “hate fuck.”

In the days following the story breaking, mainstream media's focus was on the university’s plan of action, along with the strong pressure from protestors to take action on this plan. Now that the disciplinary process has begun, the media is more interested in whistleblower Ryan Millet’s story.

In an address to the public broadcasted by the Chronicle Herald on January 22nd, Millet’s lawyers, Bruce and Sarah MacIntosh, stated that all thirteen members of the DDS Class of 2015 Gentlemen Facebook group have been found guilty of “blatant unprofessionalism,” including their client.

The MacIntoshes explained that evidence drawn out by the Dal disciplinary committee included fifty pages from the Facebook group and private messages between students. According to the legal team, six of those specific posts were what formed the basis for the Dal committee's decision to suspend Millet, according to his lawyers.

Millet’s lawyers claimed that Millet had no Facebook activity on five of the posts but that he did ‘like’ one of the six. The photo below is the photo that Millet clicked ‘like’ on.

The entire case is glaring proof that rape culture has a very serious impact on attitudes towards gender, sexuality and sexual violence yet it doesn’t end with the ‘Gentlemen’. The ways in which Sarah and Bruce MacIntosh describe the photo is yet another example that rape culture is alive in Halifax.

As if completely out of touch with contemporary feminist movements that challenge rape myths about what women wear, Sarah MacIntosh states that the girl in the photo is “appropriately dressed in a tank top and shorts” (at 17:09 of the press release broadcasted by the Chronicle Herald).

Quoting the lawyers: “at most [the image] may be in poor taste but it is not misogynistic, it is not sexist and it is not homophobic” (Press report broadcasted by the Chronicle Herald). They explain that this photo is in the top five funny photos on Vitmin-Ha.com but what they fail to note is that, by placing that photo on a Facebook page that is full of other sexist, misogynistic and homophobic posts, there is a clear intent to downgrade women. We also don’t know if Millet “liked” the photo before or after the sexist comments were made about it by classmates.

The icing on the cake comes when Bruce MacIntosh says: “[the] photo by the way that happens to be among the five most popular photos on a humour (emphasis is his) website, not a porn website, a humour (emphasis is his) website.”

Isn’t that just the epitome of rape culture? It’s humorous, therefore it’s not degrading to women.

These descriptions of the photo that Millet ‘liked,’ as well as the public dialogue around this case reveals that when it comes to the intersection of sexual violence and technology there are questions about what types of violent behaviour are taken seriously.

Over the past two and a half years, the Parsons case has become the backdrop case for state cyber-bullying platforms, which, while telling perpetrators not to bully, also cautions youth to govern their own sexuality online.

Now, the Dalhousie Dentistry case is similarly being transformed into a cautionary tale about the dangers of social media for male students in professional degree programs. Millet’s lawyers have emphasized that one should be very careful about what they ‘like’ on Facebook. Even if it is a photo, which according to Sarah and Bruce MacIntosh was supposed to be funny, ‘liking’ it can ruin your career.

In the Parsons case the RCMP and HRP stated that “the evidence did not meet the threshold of sexual assault” and in the Dalhousie Dentistry case Millet’s lawyers presented arguments about the photo that Millet “liked” in a manner quite obviously influenced by rape culture.

What made those young men who raped Rehtaeh share a photograph are the same attitudes about masculinity that made the ‘Gentlemen’ of Dal Dentistry post misogynistic, sexist and homophobic things in their private member Facebook group. Rape culture encourages sexual aggression and supports sexual violence.

According to American sociologist and gender studies expert Michael Kimmel, “while individual men may appear sympathetic when they are alone with women, they suddenly turn out to be macho louts, capable of the vilest misogynistic statements, when they are in groups of other men.” There is something about groups (both offline and online) that provide a space and opportunity to engage in exercises of male entitlement.

In order to transform rape culture in Halifax we need to pay closer attention and question these claims to entitlement. We must also question why the dominant narratives in both cases outline the dangers of cyber-bullying, social media and technology while straying away from conversations about rape culture and its reinforcement of traditional notions of masculinity that foster sexual violence.

The impact of the various responses to and representations of crimes such as these must have an impact on the ways in which young people, including those studying in professional fields, come to understand what society ‘counts’ as sexual violence and this understanding must impact the way they make sense of their own sexual lives, including the online component of them. This should concern all of us.

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