What Kind of Sick Culture Blames an 11-Year-Old for Being Gang-Raped?
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
The memories have faded, but still they float to the surface at times: being 12, 13, 14 years old in an insular West Texas town where you could walk from one end of town to the other in half an hour. Most walks home from the store or school were uneventful, but a handful of times, young men in their late teens or early 20s would slow their cars down and lean out the window while you walked. “Hey, why are you walking? Don’t you want a ride?” Faces full of concern they never seemed to have when dealing with young girls in any other setting.
I always said no. I was too young to have any inkling of what could happen if I accepted, but I figured it was not likely to be good.
But one 11-year-old girl in Cleveland, Texas, a rural town in the eastern part of the state, did say yes to the ride. And what allegedly was done to her is the sort of thing that begs for an explanation. She was taken to one house and then to an abandoned trailer. She was threatened with violence if she didn’t comply. She was sexually assaulted by multiple men in their teens and 20s, some of whom recorded the event and posted it online. How could these young men allegedly do this?
The answer to that question lies in large part in attitudes unearthed in recent coverage that quotes accusations that the victim is to blame, and were reported, without comment, context and certainly no criticism, in the New York Times and in the Houston Chronicle.
When the photos and videos of the alleged rape were discovered, the girl---not the accused, some of whom are the golden boys of the community---became such an object of hate and gossip that the authorities removed her from her home to a safe house, and are encouraging her family to relocate permanently. It seems that for many, the person who bears the blame for this alleged gang-rape is a girl still at the age when many are playing with Barbies.
What could an 11-year-old girl do that would be so terrible she somehow deserved to be raped by at least 17 but as many as 28 men? Did she ax-murder a family? Burn down a city? Orchestrate a genocide?
According to some members of the Cleveland, Texas community quoted in the New York Times and Houston Chronicle, she courted gang-rape by being on the verge of adolescence and striving to seem older than she was, a common enough behavior for girls that age. In both papers, much is made of the reputation of the alleged victim wearing makeup, dressing older than her age and currying favor from teenage boys. The Houston Chronicle dwelled extensively on the girl’s bragging about drinking, smoking and sex on her Facebook page, and also takes note of the alleged victim’s defensiveness in the face of so much community disapproval.
Of course, when I was a 12-year-old girl and a man followed me as I was walking home from school, muttering dirty things under his breath and boring holes in me with his eyes, I was wearing my usual uniform of jeans and a sweatshirt, with sneakers and certainly no makeup. I didn’t even shave my legs. I escaped him by ducking into True Value and pretending to buy some tapes. The only “crime” a child who falls into the hands of a rapist has committed is to be unlucky, with no True Value nearby to escape to.
Girls suffer from harassment, violence and rape all the time, but they rarely tell. And the reason is that while girls may not know much about sex or men or the world, they pick up on what this alleged victim is suffering now. They instinctively know that to tell is to invite judgment, to have people ask not, “What kind of man would assault a child?” but “What did she do to invite this abuse?”
Finding angry criticism of the victim for dressing or acting in ways the community deems inappropriate to a girl her age was easy for reporters. Same with finding people willing to blame the mother for allowing her child to roam unsupervised in a small Texas town. But, as someone who grew up in a small Texas town, I can assure you that letting even small children roam free is hardly an unusual choice, in fact, it's quite normal. The reasoning, ironically, is that small towns are safe for children.
Some residents were happy to lay the blame squarely on any man who thinks it’s appropriate to join in a gang-rape, and a couple tried to split the difference, blaming both victim and victimizers. But the New York Times also quoted, without comment, supportive comments for the alleged rapists, with one woman saying, “These boys have to live with this the rest of their lives.” No one was quoted discussing the lifelong impact of being the victim of a gang rape.
One question is on the lips of reasonable people everywhere when they hear that the only reason these arrests are occurring is that the alleged rapists taped and photographed the event, and then shared it widely online. But young men who would do such a thing live in the same world we all do. They notice that it’s the victim and not the rapists who are assailed by the community and the media when a rape is reported. They notice that people blame the victim for what she was wearing or who she had sex with before. They notice that it’s the victim who has to move away, not the alleged perpetrators.
Anyone who took all this in should be forgiven for assuming that when a rape occurs, the crime was being raped, not being a rapist. And we shouldn’t be surprised when some would-be rapists take all these social signals shifting blame from rapists to victims, and decide that if they raped they probably will get away with it. All too often, they do.