Upon hearing about the tragic suicide of Nova Scotia teen Rehtaeh Parsons this week, my cogs got to whirling. I was shocked to discover that her peers, especially the females, had shunned her after images of her being gang-raped were passed about amongst them. Regardless of her attackers claim that it was consensual, why did her schoolmates not consider the matter of Rehtaeh’s dignity? At 15 you know the difference between right and wrong, and your reasons for choosing to do either. You also know that if someone had consented to group sex then a) It’s none of your damn business b) The likelihood of them actually wanting photo images of the event, let alone those images being passed about the school, is pretty slim, and c) In any instance where sex is consensual, and not a product of grooming or bullying, then it isn’t something to be ashamed of.
I’ll guarantee most teenagers are aware of the above, irrespective of whether their parents cultivate the same opinion at home. That the teens in question saw fit to brand Rehtaeh a ‘slut’ after viewing images of the incident tells me that there’s something fundamentally wrong in how they’re being influenced regarding tolerance. I could go on to draw comparisons with how this may be viewed if the sexes were reversed; if it were four girls and one boy, would the boy be branded a slut? (I doubt it). However, it would be beside the point. Rehtaeh did not consent to having sex with her four attackers, and that makes the actions of her peers even more disgraceful.
It all leaves me wondering what messages youngsters pick up from the literary world. With the rise in popularity of YA books being made into film, the question of whether we’re culturing tolerance or ignorance comes to mind. I believe authors of YA have a responsibility to convey certain attitudes towards tolerance, understanding and equality. A good writer can do this without preaching or lecturing. It’s all good and well writing something for the sake of it, but when you’re reaching out to impressionable minds it’s imperative to consider where they’ll take inspiration.
Sadly, not all YA authors share my vision. Time and time again I encounter books aimed at teens which don’t encompass multiculturalism, sexuality, and forbearance. These aspects of life become prevalent throughout our teens, for this is when we begin to comprehend them. That makes them young adult issues, and it seems pointless and foolish to avoid confronting them. That’s not to say teens need exposed to graphic scenarios in order for them to comprehend the atrocity of rape. Subjects like sex or rape can be tackled without the need for explicit scenes. I’m also not advocating underage sex. I do remember being 15, though. Pretending all 15 year old girls are virgins is not just absurd; it’s insulting to teens, for they know it’s not the case in reality. Yes, a story can be written off as a fantasy, to be considered as having no bearing on reality, but that seems like a cop-out to me. Conversely, it seems redundant in this day and age to only have characters whose ethnicity and/or sexuality are relevant to the storyline. After all, they’re irrelevant in day-to-day life, or at least they ought to be. I’m not suggesting all YA books should take on themes as controversial as rape, or even sex. Nevertheless, we don’t need any more white-washed tales about perfectly beautiful (invariably straight) collectives.
It seems the media is not so concerned with breeding tolerance. This is when the artist must step up. Once upon a time, children's stories were filled with warnings of predators and monsters. Nowadays they're more about falling in love with them. When it comes to topics such as sex, or being a victim of rape, YA authors need to overhaul this current ‘hush-hush’ approach. Let’s not shy away from things that are quite obviously affecting young adults. The Pen vs. The Sword, and so on. I’m not saying this for definite, but perhaps if Rehtaeh Parsons’ schoolmates had a better understanding of such situations, they may have reacted differently towards her. Instead they must live with how they’ve acted, with the weight of her death on their shoulders.