The XX Factor

Reporting on a Gang Rape in East Texas

Twitter comments and a smart piece on Jezebel have been astutely criticizing this New York Times piece on the alleged gang rape of an 11-year-old girl in the East Texas town of Cleveland. It’s a horrifying story. We’re told that a schoolgirl was raped by “18 young men and teenage boys” – 18 – in an abandoned trailer filled with “a filthy sofa … a broken stereo and some forlorn Christmas decorations.” Can you feel your pulse quickening as you imagine an elementary school kid held down and raped repeatedly in this sordid place? What do you do with that feeling?

Here’s what Cleveland residents quoted in the Times story did: They speculated about what the girl had done to bring it on herself.

The paper quotes them at face value: Residents “said she dressed older than her age, wearing makeup and fashions more appropriate to a woman in her 20s. She would hang out with teenage boys at a playground, some said.” A neighbor tells the paper, “Where was her mother? What was her mother thinking? … How can you have an 11-year-old child missing down in the Quarters?”

As long as we’re asking questions, I have one: How can the New York Times fail to frame these quotes properly, to point out the stunning cultural misogyny that allows a brutal gang rape to be reinterpreted as vigilante moral policing? To report these details bare, without context, puts the misogyny squarely in the voice of the Times .

The kindest reading of what makes people blame the victims of rape is fear. We don’t want to imagine that what happened to this 11-year-old could happen to us or to our daughters, so we rationalize that it couldn’t, that we are not like her. But there’s much more going on. There’s deep-seated fear of and disgust for women and female sexuality. We don’t have the same reaction to a boy getting beat up as we do to a girl getting raped; we don’t tend to wonder what the boy did to provoke the bully.

Here’s the thing: Any attempt to gain emotional distance on rape by transferring just a tiny portion, just one percent, of the blame onto the victim is an absolute moral wrong. It subtracts from the agency of the individual doing the raping. He is completely culpable. It is his crime – or, in the case of 18 young men and boys, it is theirs.