Is Christie Blatchford wrong about Rehtaeh Parsons?

Are there really two sides to Rehtaeh Parsons' story? Writer Flannery Dean looks at the most important -- and overlooked -- point of all.

The saga of 17-year-old Rehtaeh Parsons, the Nova Scotia teen who took her own life in early April, continues. New information, from, about the police investigation into the young woman’s claim that she was sexually assaulted by four young men in 2011 has recently come to light and once again has ignited debate about what happened.

The new information came from National Post columnist Christie Blatchford who managed to get a hold of the police file last week.

You can read Blatchford’s column in full here, but in essence she argues that police didn’t lay charges against the boys for two reasons: Parsons’ account of the night was compromised by her drunkenness, which impaired her memory; and two, there were conflicting reports from witnesses who said the sex that took place was consensual.

In her initial statement to police, Parsons reportedly said that she, “had had a lot to drink very quickly, and that she had sex with two of the four boys present at the house. When she leaned out the window to be sick, she told police, one of them assaulted her.”

It’s that moment that appears to have been documented with a cellphone camera.

The photo, however, presents a few complications for police, writes Blatchford, because it does not clearly show that it’s Parsons in the photo, and it’s difficult to ascertain whether what is being depicted represents an assault.

(What Blatchford and the police don’t see in the photo is telling, however. Though her face isn’t in the picture, the picture does seem to partly confirm the circumstances she described.)

For police, the article suggests, the case became a complicated situation of He said/She said.

Some commenters saw Blatchford’s column as yet another attempt to smear Parsons’ reputation, to “slut shame” her all over again as her mother put it after reading the column.

I don’t think Blatchford intended to do something that awful. Instead, I think she wanted to take the media to task for failing to adequately investigate the reasons why police didn’t pursue the case and instead jumped on reporting the more sensational and emotional aspects.

It’s a fair criticism and one journalists might want to take to heart. And yet, in her attempt to explain police behaviour and chastise the media, Blatchford loses sight of the human beings most directly concerned in the story — Parsons, her parents and the boys accused. She also appears to have never been a teenage girl who made the mistake of getting too drunk one night.

The information Blatchford uncovered in the police files doesn’t undermine Parsons’ story as much as it deepens the problems that her tale initially presented.

Parsons’ story asks us to consider several important questions at once. For one, how do we protect young women from harm when they’re too immature to make adult decisions about their personal safety? How do we teach young men that sex with a girl who is so intoxicated that she’s unconscious and/or vomiting is wrong? And how do we deal with a youth culture that considers a pornographic cellphone picture a harmless joke?

Parsons’ father Glen Canning may have summed up the whole sad tale best in his response to Blatchford’s column. On his blog, Canning said he agrees with Blatchford’s contention that there are “two sides” to the story.

“Rehtaeh’s side, that she was intoxicated, throwing up, and raped; and the boys’ side, that she was intoxicated, throwing up and she wanted to have sex,” he writes.

Read that last bit over again — “intoxicated, throwing up and she wanted to have sex”. That sound right to you? No, not to me either. Making that message clear to young men is the challenge going forward.

Do you think there’s any one party to blame for this tragedy? Or does no one win when it’s a game of He said/She said?

Get Chatelaine in your inbox!

Our very best stories, recipes, style and shopping tips, horoscopes and special offers. Delivered a couple of times a week.