The XX Factor

How Can This Happen?

On the heels of the gang rape case in Cleveland, Texas, that’s garnering headlines in part because of the youth of the victim comes another story, this time out of California, of an 11-year-old girl allegedly gang raped by a group of young men .  So far, I haven’t seen any attempts to minimize the crime by blaming the alleged victim for the way she dressed or acted, and it’s probably because this case fits right into what most people think of when they think of rape: The victim was lured into a location she wouldn’t otherwise go, the assailants appear to have been strangers to her, and there isn’t any reported drug or alcohol use. Plus, the young woman who lured the victim is available for those who need to find someone female to blame first in a rape situation.

Without the specter of victim-blaming clouding the discourse, the only question left on most people’s lips when something like this happens is, “Why?” Christine Pelisek of the Daily Beast quotes a police officer who worked the crime asking just this:

“They obviously care about nothing or no one,” said Moreno Valley Police Department Lt. Chad Bianco about the attacks. “It makes you wonder what they are thinking. It is hard to even imagine. There is no way to describe it.”

It’s hard to imagine the moral depravity of such a situation, but at least there is some information out there about why some  men make the choice to gang rape, and knowing why something happens is the first step toward preventing it in the future.  Crime Library interviewed Roy Hazelwood, who used to be the Supervisory Special Agent specializing in sex crimes for the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit, and he characterized gang rapes as being a crime of peer pressure as much as anything else:

[Gang rape] involves three or more offenders and you always have a leader and a reluctant participant. Those are extremely violent, and what you find is that they’re playing for each other’s approval. It gets into a pack mentality and can be horrendous.

Most rapes of women are about the rapist and his attitudes and beliefs about women, but gang rapes are also about other men, gaining their approval and using the victim’s body and her terror to prove yourself to other men. From what I understand, the leader is often a sexual sadist who probably just wants to rape someone, and he uses old-fashioned “don’t be a fag, prove you’re a man” type pressure to get any reluctant friends to join in.  Desire for homosocial approval may play as much a role as power over the victim.

To be clear, I’m not minimizing the sadism of this situation.  Because someone is being egged on to treat a woman like a punching bag doesn’t mean he’s not enjoying it.  Still, I think understanding how much this can be about proving that you’re a member of the group and establishing your manhood in the eyes of others can point to avenues of prevention.  With this in mind, one of the big things that groups like Men Can Stop Rape try to do is tackle homosociality head-on and look for ways to teach young men how to relate to each other without always trying to prove their manhood to each other.  Granted, most of the time male one-upmanship doesn’t cause this level of harm, but the fact that the “don’t be a fag, bro” mentality that’s usually employed to shame men for wearing pink or push them into laughing at sexist jokes can also be employed for such serious violence should give us all pause.