The Houston Chronicle tells the story of a terrified little girl who has been placed in a safe house for her protection and a family who misses her desperately. It also tells the story of a community who, rather than rallying behind the victim, has placed that 11-year-old victim and her family in fear of retribution for seeking justice against her attackers.
The New York Times tells the story of a community who is devastated by horrible allegations made by an unsupervised girl who dressed above her age and the young men whose lives will never be the same.
Do we see the difference?
This is a 11-year-old girl who has been traumatized. We have determined in this country that children are not capable of consenting to any sexual act and therefore all sexual acts involving those children are, by their very nature, rape. Never mind the fact that it is unfathomable that an 11-year-old child would consent to sex with 19 boys and men ranging from middle school-aged to late-twenties. Yet the Times overloaded their story with quotes from community members concerned with how the alleged rapists will have to live with this tragedy for the rest of their lives. In that story, the victim has all but disappeared.
It is tragic that so many members of the community have centered their concern on the alleged rapists, showing little or no empathy for the victim. The Chronicle told that story, just as the Times did, but they were able to highlight the tragedy of such a response, without causing the piece to come off as a long diatribe of victim-blame. Language is import. How a story is framed is important. Rarely do we have this kind of opportunity to see how important these things can be.
The New York Times failed with this story. They concentrated on blaming the victim, blaming the victim's mother, and lamenting how good, upstanding boys could be "drawn into" something like this. It almost seems like a story meant to make us empathize with gang rapists, rather than with rape victims. And yet, isn't that how we are invited to view violence against women anyway? We ask why she stays. We ask why she never called the police, or filed a restraining order. We wonder what she did to provoke him. And, just like the Times, we barely take a minute to acknowledge the fact that a woman was beaten and traumatized and that a man (or men) made the choice to conflict that violent trauma.
In writing about the tragedy, Uptown Notes challenges us to rethink the way we talk to boys about what it means to be a man.
That's exactly what we've said all along. Men will never stop battering, or using any form of violence against women, until others that they respect tell them that such violence is unacceptable. If parents start young, teachers reinforce, and peers hold their friends accountable, then there is hope. But if we keep teaching boys the same lessons we have always taught about becoming a man, that real manhood involves having power over women, nothing is ever going to change.
Anytime one thinks about adolescents or children, the role of peer group looms large. As an adolescent I knew which friends had access to “adult materials” and also which friends or family were having (or so I thought) sex so they could tell me what I wanted to know. It was in this private context that I was taught about “running trains.” For those not familiar, that’s a colloquial reference to multiple men having sex with a single woman in succession. I was taught that if you found a real freak, everybody could participate. When I heard Snoop’s album and they sang, “It ain’t no fun, if the homies can’t have none” that was my reference and the image that came to mind. I was casually socialized into thinking that there was no gang rape, instead there were only gang bangs. Whether it’s Kid Cudi saying “me first” on I Poke Her Face or Wale ending his verse referencing “a train” on No Hands, our boys continue to learn gang rape is just a casual part of partying and growing up.
Some scholars estimate that between 10 to 33 percent of sexual assaults are multiple assailant (gang rape). Psychologically most common to these occurrences is an emphasis on power, displaying heterosexuality to other men, and drifting – where people commit crime that they may not agree with following others in a group. In short, gang rape is a group problem that makes clear we have to collectively change how we think about what it means to be a man and the role of power in our lives. At the core of the heinous act is often an attempt to validate one’s masculinity to others. Non-participation could mean being pushed out of the group or being “outed” (read: labeled as gay and this ‘not a real man’). If we don’t teach our boys to think differently about what it means to be a man, we will continue to be plagued by this issue.
This however is not simply an issue of peers. I can recall uncles saying, “you ain’t no real man till you’ve had some” or have seen parents questioning if children “have sugar in the tank” in attempts to legislate what it means to be “a real man.” When you couple these types of messages with misinformed sexual commentary, it creates a dangerous brew. As we are teaching boys about their journey into manhood, we often start with the ideas of power and control. I can’t recall how many times I’ve been in households where a 10 year old is referred to as “the man of the house” and told to “protect his mother and sisters” (I’m not even going into family structure here, just bear with me). This gives boys the idea, from an early age, that manhood is about power over women and about protect of girls and women from dangers. What if we pushed our boys to think about power sharing with girls and women? What if we restructured journeys into manhood to emphasize that best qualities of adults are neither masculine or feminine, they transcend both? What if we actually began to listen to our kids and talk to our kids about what we want our communities to look like? What if we envisioned spaces that were safe for girls and boys and women and men?