Rape victims often feel like they’re the ones being put on trial, but Joanna Walters of the Washington Post published a story late last week about a young victim of repeated gang rapes who actually was. When Danielle Hicks-Best was only 11 years old, she says a group of two or three young men took her to a house to sexually assault her. Her parents reported this to the police, and Hicks-Best was taken to the hospital, where the doctor discovered vaginal tears and scrapes. A few days later, when Hicks-Best was walking to the store, she says, the same group of young men grabbed her and did it again. Again, the rape kit showed evidence of assault.
Despite all this, no young men were arrested for the crime. Instead, Hicks-Best was arrested six weeks later and charged with filing a false police report. She had just turned 12 years old. Hicks-Best denied any guilt but apparently exhausted with fighting according to the Post, allowed an Alford plea, where the defendant accepts “that there was enough evidence for a conviction — in effect, consenting to the court’s finding of guilt,” Walters writes. Hicks-Best spent the next few years spiraling out of control, running away and acting out. Now, at age 18, she’s trying to get her life back on track and is speaking out about what happened to her.
In 2009, the police and courts thought Hicks-Best was a false rape accuser who was lying to cover up for her naughty behavior. “All sex was consensual,”” one police officer wrote in an email discussing this case with his colleagues. “Parents are unable to accept the fact of this child’s promiscuous behavior caused this situation.”
If you’re flinching at the phrase “child’s promiscuous behavior,” you should be. A child, after all, cannot be promiscuous. To be promiscuous requires consent, and 11-year-olds cannot give meaningful consent. The young men accused in this case range from their late teens to 21 years of age, but apparently the idea that women—and girls—are the gatekeepers of sex is so ingrained that the police in this situation thought little of pinning the responsibility for this situation on a girl who is still young enough to play with Barbies.
As Walters reports, Hicks-Best was abused as a small child before she was adopted by her parents, Veronica and Mayo Best. She certainly had emotional problems and spent much of her childhood in therapy. While she denies that she went willingly with the young men, it’s also not hard to believe that an emotionally unstable 11-year-old might have been easy to lure. But that a victim was easy to manipulate doesn’t mean she’s any less a victim or that her assailants are any less predatory. That’s why we have statutory rape laws. But for some reason, the police in this case just couldn’t see an 11-year-old for the child that she was, instead painting her with the hoary old stereotype of the slut who cries “rape” to cover up her sexual transgressions. And, because of it, treating her like she is the criminal here.
That the police and prosecutors could see a child as “promiscuous” may be about race. Hicks-Best is black, and research published last spring shows that people, including police officers, tend to perceive black children as older than they are, and therefore more responsible for their behavior. The study looked at boys and criminal behavior, but it’s not a great leap to suggest that something similar could be at play when it comes to perceptions of girls and their responsibility for sexual behavior. Certainly, the way that Hicks-Best was treated by police, including questioning her for hours and trying to trap her in a lie, suggests that they simply couldn’t process that she was a child, and therefore was going to act like a child.
“Last fall, after inquiries from The Washington Post, the department launched new investigations into the cases and the way they were handled, according to the Bests and a law enforcement officer familiar with the matter,” Walters writes. The Bests are still hoping that the police will charge the young men who their daughter says raped her.