We Are Complicit: Meditations on a 28-year-old Gang Rape and That Little Girl from TexasBy Gina Frangello
March 23, 2011
News moves fast.Bombs in Libya, radiation in Japanese food, but I’m stuck.Still stuck on that case that broke earlier this month, about the eleven year old girl gang-raped in Texas.
I know, I know: a whole bunch has already been written about that.It’s been reported on all the major news stations.It’s been covered by the New York Times.Then there was all the outrage against the Times’ coverage, including over at The Rumpus, and Zoe Zolbrod’s piece questioning our own complicity here at TNB.
Complicity.Yeah, I want to talk about that.I just don’t know how yet.
See, I can’t get this case out of my mind.For those of you who haven’t followed the fracas, the basics are that an eleven-year-old girl was raped by a large number of men back in October, but the case broke only recently.All the men brought up on charges (who range between age 14-late 20s) are African-American.The victim is Hispanic.Much of the media focus has been on how their town is being torn apart, racially, because of this. Some black activist groups have focused on the fact that black men are more readily and vigorously persecuted for sex crimes than other men, with one leader essentially saying that all men who have sex with children should be sent to prison, but that he doesn’t believe these (black) men were the only men to have sex with this child.Other media focus has centered on the fact that many in the community seem to either feel sorry for the accused boys whose lives could be ruined by the allegation, or to be so focused on blaming the parents of the young girl (for inadequate supervision, etc.) that they almost seem to be excusing the rapists, as in, “Well what did her parents think would happen?”Still others take this a step further and blame the way the eleven-year-old was dressed and claim that she lied about her age.
Needless to say, such coverage has caused a righteous shitstorm of rage among the many who find the victim’s attire, her mother’s parenting skills, or the color of the accused men’s skin entirely beside the point, and who demand to know why nobody seems to be thinking about the victim—the little girl—who was gang raped.Where is she in all this, they ask?
I want to be among these askers.I am among these askers.I agree with every single thing they say, and I have built my adult life largely around wanting to be counted among their feminist, progressive numbers.
And yet there is a small voice inside me that comes from another place and another time.A voice that keeps saying, “Where is she?Well, she’s in the goddamn New York Times, that’s where she is.That’s progress!”
Let me back up here.That may have come out wrong.I mean, I realize that we live in an era where sometimes people get famous because awful shit happens to them (i.e. a man becomes a porn star after his wife cuts off his dick; i.e. James Franco gets an Oscar nomination because some poor guy cut off his arm), but that’s not remotely what I’m talking about here.What I mean isn’t “she’s famous.”
What I mean is, “This crime isn’t invisible.”
I grew up in another world.
Logistically, the world I come from still exists.We were blue collar working poor, as many people are today.Our streets were seeped with gang violence and low-level organized crime, as many neighborhoods still are.Misogyny was open and casual, and many men beat their wives, girlfriends, daughters (and sons), because a man’s family was regarded as his property, and it was bad form to interfere in “family matters.”Many of the mothers in the neighborhood had gotten married and had children when they were as young as fourteen or fifteen, and although marriage at that age was uncommon by the time I was coming of age in the 1980s, sexual relationships between adult men and girls as young as 12 were still common and largely viewed as “affairs” or even “dating,” rather than “statutory rape.”Drug dealing was usually a pretty open matter, and many adults partied with their own kids (or other kids), with older brothers dealing to their kid sisters and moms sharing their stashes with their daughters’ friends.Not only do many neighborhoods like this still exist, but of course many neighborhoods are far worse.We didn’t have homeless people in our neighborhood—everyone had a place to live, even if their apartment was roach infested.Nobody was starving to death, even if most people ate cheap, unhealthy food.The elementary school, while somewhat substandard in that it didn’t actually offer . . . uh, science for example—or have a counselor on the premises to address all the kids who came to school with bruises, though it did have one teacher who infamously chain smoked in his classroom and tended to put kids upside down in the garbage can when they misbehaved—was not a “dangerous” place to be.It did not require a metal detector to enter, as many schools do today.While we had quite a few murders in the neighborhood—from my former classmate who was beaten to death by her downstairs neighbor because she tried to stand up for her disabled brother whom the neighbor was mocking, to gang shootings like the one in which my friend’s pregnant sister was accidentally killed when a bullet went through her gangbanger boyfriend straight into her body—I cannot say that I ever felt my life was “in danger” or that I was unlikely to survive to adulthood, the way many kids in truly hardcore violent neighborhoods do.What I mean to say is that, while we were not middle class or privileged, we were entirely ordinary.Our poverty and violence was in no way Epic.Millions of children in American cities and towns live lives exactly like our lives every single day, right now.
Yet the way in which the world I inhabited no longer exists is this: in 1983, we were invisible to the media.
On the most basic level, whereas some of the Bozo rapists who attacked that eleven-year-old girl in Texas apparently decided to film the gang-bang on their cell phones, such options were not available to the shit-for-brains rapists of my old neighborhood.There was no YouTube.
We were, to put it in contemporary terms, something like Las Vegas, as in, “What happens in the hood stays in the hood.”
1983.I was fifteen and a sophomore at a prestigious high school across the city, to which I rode the bus each day.I was one of very few kids in our neighborhood who had tested into this school, and of the few peers from my old neighborhood with whom I’d started freshman year, one had already OD’d and dropped out, and another—whose father was in prison and whose two brothers would soon be murdered and who would later rape my best friend—had just transferred out, unable to hack the academic load.My longtime best friend and I, though, were holding firm.We had Ambitions.We were busy riding the bus to and from school; we were busy trying to figure out what science was, since we’d never had it in grade school.We were busy trying to reinvent ourselves.
Amidst this, word on the street leaked out that a girl we used to go to elementary school with had just been gang-raped by a bunch of guys we all knew.The girl was fifteen.Some of the alleged rapists were her own age, but several were older—much older—and esteemed members of the community, which in my community meant they had ties to organized crime.The story on the street was that the girl had been lured to the apartment of her “boyfriend,” who was in the local gang.When she arrived, it turned out he had a bunch of friends over who all wanted a piece of the action.When she refused, she was gang raped and beaten with coat hangers.For good measure, when they were finished with her they threw her down a flight of stairs.
I was out of the neighborhood loop at this time, busy thinking I was “too good” and going to my smarty pants high school.By the time I heard the story, it was no doubt already somewhat old.My mother, who is not Italian and wasn’t Catholic and hadn’t grown up in our neighborhood, had an ongoing joke about how we were always the last to know everything.
What I mean is: by the time the story reached me, let’s just say it was safe to assume that the New York Times wasn’t gonna be appearing on the scene anytime soon.
I’m not sure what I’m trying to say here.I feel like I need to back up.I feel like I’m treading in some kind of dangerous water, where it sounds like I could be trying to make a deranged argument that the little eleven-year-old rape victim in Texas is one lucky stiff to have the NYTimes swoop in to give shitty, biased coverage to her case.How she should feel privileged to have the entire nation arguing over whether or not her outfits, or where her mother was at the time, or the color of her assailants, should be factored in or reported on.I feel like there is a danger, in talking about this case at all, of becoming “part of the problem.”Part of that little girl’s problem, which is already an ocean big enough to drown in.Part of her pain, which is already incomprehensible to most of us, with our normal adult lives, who have never been pinned down by eighteen men larger than ourselves and stabbed and assaulted by their man-sized, vicious dicks, tearing our little girl, private orifices while being threatened that if we resist they will have us beaten up or have our family harmed, and while others merrily film the event on their goddamn cell phones.And what I want to say about that is that I’m not sure I can bear the guilt of being part of that problem.Not only because my own daughters are on the verge of eleven, but because I already have a mountain of guilt upon which I don’t think I can stand to heap one more thing.Because I’ve already been carrying my own guilt since 1983.
After the New York Times failed to come knocking on our neighborhood’s door—after any local news failed to cover the rape allegations and the Chicago Sun-Times and Tribune failed to even remember that our neighborhood existed (mobster Joe Lombardo being temporarily in prison at that time, hence the only thing that ever gave us presence on the media stage having been removed from our midst), there was still the small matter of the fact that the rape victim had apparently had the gall to file charges with the police.
The police.You know, those guys who were around before YouTube, before The Rumpus, before cell phones.
She and her family had gone to them, which could not have been any easy decision given that in our neighborhood we were taught not to trust police and to fundamentally think of them as the Enemy.Yet they had gone to the police with her bruises and her list of names, and they had dared to ask for justice.
And so, the police “investigated.”
I was fifteen and busy turning myself into a new, more palatable person.I was losing the blue eyeshadow and the “Italian jacket” with my surname on the back surrounded by stars.I was trading that in for thrift store “alternative” clothing and a new bobbed haircut, for my thick Science textbook and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.What did I know of police investigations?
Word on the street went like this: that every man accused of the rape had produced an alibi instantly.That most of the alibis were women—including some old ladies.The alibis were apparently things like, “Oh no, X couldn’t have been involved with anything like that.He’s such a good boy—at the time of that awful crime, he was helping me build some shelves in my basement.”
The case never went to trial. Soon after, the victim and her family moved out of the neighborhood.
I want to be one of the Righteous ones.I want to be pissed off at the New York Times, because you know what: they did do a shitty job reporting that Texas story.I want, even more, to be outraged at all the victim’s heartless, horrible neighbors, who have blamed her mother, who have blamed her clothing, who have said she lied about her age and that she was always hanging out with older boys.I want to feel outraged and indignant and make the case to the world of how unequivocally wrong that all is, because it is all unequivocally wrong.I want to say that any world other than one in which an eleven year old girl can make stupid mistakes and still not end up gang raped by nearly 20 men is not an acceptable world, and that no blaming the victim or her parents or hypothetical white/Latino men who may have touched this girl before the accused black men did will ever take us any further towards making this world a better place.That only a world in which men are expected to not rape can ever get us anywhere.
But this argument exhausts me.Because we don’t live in a world like that.We live in a world where rape is almost casual.Celebrities rape, as Zolbrod pointed out in her piece.One of my best guy friends from grade school—after the imprisonment of his father, the murder of his brothers—turned out to be a rapist himself.You get a group of women in a room, and it can feel almost impossible that one or more of them haven’t been raped or molested at some point.My mother was molested as a child.Turns out, my mother-in-law may have been too.Sexual violence is a human legacy that plagues almost every family on the planet at some point or another.For years, I was a counselor for battered women and foster girls, who down to every last one had been sexually abused.Some of them had histories that made Precious look like a fucking Disney cartoon, and I can promise that I am not being hyperbolic about that.The thing is, what we pass off as “atrocious” in the media is simply “life” for much of the population.Prostitution, sexual slavery, child porn, incest, date rape, gang rape, rape rooms, domestic violence, child abuse, rape glorified in the “entertainment” of my youth from General Hospital to Flowers in the Attic.The thing is, it almost makes more sense to go up to every man in this world—and there are many; it is almost a miracle how many—who have never raped or hit anyone and study them as the anomalies . . .
But that’s not what I mean to say either.That’s bullshit too, because there are more of them—more of the sane, nonviolent, non-raping men—than there are of the other kind.And that fact is almost enough to make me climb up on the pedestal of Idealism, of human goodness, and extol how we can never demand anything less than perfection.It is almost enough, but not quite.Because I understand a thing or two about complicity.
For a heady while before the rape victim fled our neighborhood, she provided an exciting topic of gossip for everybody.Her misfortune was a break in the usual monotony of places like that, where most everyone figures the life they have to look forward to is exactly like the life they already have, like the lives their mother or father had.Dreams didn’t run terribly large.If you were a teller at a bank or a manager at a grocery store chain, you were a success story.If nobody was beating you up or selling drugs out of your house, you were lucky.There was only so much to talk about.Everyone had known everyone else forever.We were much like a small town that way—much, I imagine, like the small Texas town in which that recent rape occurred.A large, semi-public crime was much fodder for conversation.
Most of the discussion revolved around what a fool and a slut the victim was.What had she been thinking, going over there?Did you know she used to sleep with A and B and C?What a ho!I do not recall any conversation about what Assholes the alleged rapists were, or how other girls should be afraid of them or hate them.I do remember that one of the accused, a guy I’d gone to school with too, had always seemed like such a nice guy, and that there was occasional speculation that he’d been pressured into doing something like that by his older friends, or that he must have really “changed.”That was as close as I recall anyone coming to admitting that the rape was actually something “bad.”
Complicity is a loaded thing.Germans during World War II claimed not to realize that millions of Jews were being executed in the concentration camp down the road.Neighbors in Texas tell reporters with disdain how that little rape victim dressed like a twenty-year-old.They roll their eyes and ask, “Where was her mother?”
And in Chicago, in 1983, my best girlfriend and I took to singing a song about our neighborhood rape victim.It was basically “Keep away from runaround Sue,” only substituting in the victim’s name.We sang this to one another while studying for exams at our prestigious new high school and we got the giggles. I want to stipulate here that if you had asked me, I already would have called myself a “feminist.” I used to argue equal rights with my teachers, my dad–I was a real pain in the ass about it. And yet, I was utterly unaware of any hypocrisy or paradox here. Because you see, my best friend and I were not like the victim.We didn’t sleep with those gangbangers!We didn’t do drugs! We planned to go to college! We were smart girls! We had nothing to fear.
At one point, we’d been in the same classroom as the victim.I remember her telling us, in my basement clubhouse, about the first guy she slept with.I remember her getting her tongue caught on the ice inside her freezer on a dare once at a sleepover.I remember the way the other kids in school made fun of her for being fat, and because I was fat at the time, too, I was always relieved, because she was fatter than I was and it took the heat off me.
She was our peer.We had known her all our lives.And yet the propaganda of Slutdom had infiltrated us like anti-Semitism infiltrated old German women down the goddamn road from Dachau.We stared into our Science textbooks and we forgot we had vaginas too.We forgot that women were human beings.We forgot that our good grades would protect us from nothing.We forgot that we had any responsibility.When the rape victim moved out of the neighborhood, we forgot about her.We went off to college, to our shiny new futures.We felt nothing like shame.
Four years later, my best friend would be raped by our old friend from grade school.She would never even try to bring charges.She blamed herself for going to his house, for being drunk.She gained weight, stopped dating, didn’t answer her phone.
In the late 80s, in a squat in London, I would fend off an Australian man who believed my body my cost of admission if I wanted to sleep on his mattress on the floor instead of in the park all night.I would leave the squat a 5 a.m. and wander around London.I had no money for food, although I do recall managing to buy cigarettes.The next night, I would not go back to that squat, but I would go to another, to another man, and one after that.
A decade after the rape in my old neighborhood, I would watch a circle of girls—my clients at a foster care agency in rural Vermont—hold one another sobbing for the things their fathers had done to them: for the gangbangs at which they’d been offered up when they were six or seven, for the ways their mothers abandoned them and sent them off to live with strangers rather than leaving the men who had harmed them.
Nearly 3 decades after that 1983 rape, my daughters will be thirteen years old, entering a world I cannot control—that I could never control.A world in which I have been complicit in driving a fifteen year old girl from her home because the world—the only world she knew; the only world that gave a shit since the New York Times wasn’t calling—believed she was worthless and deserved what she got.
What if, instead of singing that song, my best friend and I had called her on the phone and said we were sorry for what had happened to her?Sure, that might have changed nothing at all.Probably she didn’t even like us.But we’ll never know now, because it never even crossed our minds to do something like that.
It is interesting to note, too, that none of the dissenters of the New York Times’ coverage seem to be asking how many of those opinionated neighbors, in that dead end Texas town, have been raped themselves, as they stand there idiotically jabbering about the young victim’s outfits.It is interesting to wonder how many of the young rapists in that case watched their own fathers beat their mothers, or how many may have been molested and never told anyone, or if they tried to tell were told that nobody gave a shit.
Sometimes, I don’t believe that we’re all in this together.Some days, I believe that the New York Times reporter and that little girl in Texas have nothing in common, that things are fucked up and always will be because that’s just how they are.But other days, I can feel it in my fingers, the way we are all the same.The New York Times journalist, the writers of The Rumpus, those Texas neighbors, that young rape victim, my old grade school friend who is now raising kids of her own, my daughters.Maybe some rapists are born—a chemical deficit, who knows?But most are made.Most days, I remember that “Rape Culture” refers to the ways in which rape is made possible by a continuum, from those who hold the victim down to those who provide alibis to those who fail to report the story to those who report it irresponsibly to those who feel immune and make up songs to assure ourselves of our safety.
And so, though it is not the popular opinion in my circle, I want to take my hat off to the foremost newspaper in the country for reporting this story, even if they didn’t do it perfectly.I want to bow down and kiss the ground in gratitude that, for all the idiocies of contemporary media, we no longer live in a world defined by silence.I want to thank all the brave feminist writers who have spoken out on how this issue should have been handled better in the news, and for their idealism in fighting to uphold standards of decency that sometimes feel impossibly out of reach.I want to tell that little girl in Texas that no matter what she hears amid this media glut, what happened will never be her fault.I want to slap those neighbors who blame her for her fate–and I want to tell them that I understand, that I too have been complicit.I want to say that they believe there is only one way to see the world but that they’re wrong, and if they care, they can change. That every single thing that matters in this world is riding on them.
I want to say to my grade school friend, twenty-eight years too late: I’m sorry.
Hooboy. This is a helluva post. And it makes me feel like a dipshit for not having heard this story — I’m a news junkie, for godsake. How could I have missed this?
Your post seems to point to this argument I’ve been having with myself lately….or maybe it’s not an argument but rather something that’s been on my mind a lot: the dichotomy between the “oneness of things” and the “every man for himself” of things that seem to be so at odds with each other. Maybe particularly in America. I won’t get too deep into it other than to say that it feels so central, to just about everything. How strangely disconnected everyone is from one another, while at the same time so obviously (if unknowingly) connected.
Collective interest vs. self-reliance.
Collective well-being vs. personal liberty.
Why the fuck are these two things so hard to reconcile?
The weird, sad gulf.
This story (and the story of your friend) offer a window into it.
Maybe people are fixating on the minutiae of the rape (parental supervision, the girl’s outfit, etc.) as a way of self-protecting against empathy. Empathy might be too painful for people. It takes too much time or something. It requires too much confrontation of unpleasantness.
Anyway…I could go on and on.
You bring up a really good point about coverage…the mere fact that this is a story is a good thing. And it’s particularly encouraging, in a macabre sorta way, to see coverage of a sex crime that doesn’t involve a white blond teen.
I know: survivalism or community, right? They’re not at odds across the board. A community is more likely to survive than an individual. Community helps survival. And yet . . . well, I noticed in Kenya the way even animals often abandon a wounded or weaker member, for fear of that weakness being sensed by a predator and the entire herd being in danger. In its most basic sense, we–from animals to humans–fear identifying with the weak, the hurt, the oppressed. It is dangerous. I think the most basic human analogy for this is the way little boys who grow up watching their fathers beat their mothers are invariably tortured by that–they love their mothers; they want to protect them; they often hate the father for harming the mother and may live for the day that they themselves grow big enough to stand up to the father and hit him back for touching their moms–so frequently turn in to batterers as adults. The stats are overwhelming–they abuse women more often than any other demographic, so to speak. More often than little boys who were themselves beaten, even. To watch your father beat your mother over and over again predisposes you to become a man who beats your wife, even though you, of all people, would/should be the one who would most understand the horror of that life.
Survival. To identify too much with the mother means weakness, means vulnerability. Eventually the boy often starts to identify with the very father he hates–eventually he becomes that father.
The other giraffes drive the wounded member away, even though they might be able, collectively, to protect it from predators: even though without the herd it is doomed to certain death.
Survivalist types hoard food, water, guns in some shelter on their land, and talk about the day they’ll have to defend their land and supplies when Armageddon hits. As though a world in which you fire a bullet at some parents and their starving children in order to “defend your land” is any world in which survival has merit.
Oh, Brad, I know. We grumble about these damn wars and bombs, and then we go to the shopping mall. To do anything else feels overwhelming and impossible. What the hell are we supposed to do, we think? We’re powerless. We’re small.
We’re glad it isn’t happening to us.
God knows I have no answers to that. I feel guilty over something I did 28 years ago, but there are so many things I’m still complicit in now. We all are.
And yet there IS progress. Humanity’s weird, slow, back-and-forth march away from burning witches and scarlet letters and orphanages with infants tied to potty seats all day. We collectively stagger towards a light at the end of the tunnel, and sometimes I guess it just burns the fuck out of our eyes and we go scurrying right back.
This is powerful, Gina. There are so many insights about the continuum of rape culture, how we’re all part of that culture. How it’s very difficult to take the right action or course of thought, even in situations that should look black and white.
But I’m not sure I see the NYTimes coverage, per se, a sign of progress. For one thing, are we sure that the NYTimes wasn’t covering stories like this in the 80s? In our respective urban and rural podunks, we probably wouldn’t have seen the stories even if they existed. Even this recent article about the TX gang rape was pretty buried, and though I read the Times everyday online, I probably wouldn’t have noticed it if the feminist blogosphere hadn’t called my attention to it. That sort of technological activism is what seems like the new angle to me. The loud criticism about the story, and the way that criticism spread like wildfire, bringing even more media attention, suggests more change than the inclusion of the story itself, which was easily read as the kind of cautionary rape tale that’s been around forever: “Look what can happen to you, young lady, if you don’t dress or act or walk the right way.” It’s sensationalistic, really. I don’t know when the taboo against writing about rape in the newspaper was lifted–was it ever there?–but media loves that shit. Many smaller town papers feature barely anything but that. (I’m thinking of the Albuquerque Journal, which I read when I’m at my moms and which is just chock full of super grisly domestic abuse stories.) Without the attending backlash and conversation–which more or less repeats feminist tenets initiated 30 years ago–it seems same old, same old, to me. But I could be working with my own set of assumptions. It’d be interesting to do a study of how rape has been covered over the years, actually.
The reason this rape was reported seems a lot about changing technological times, too. If it weren’t for the cell phone footage that was seen by the victim’s classmate, it would have been one more of the multitude of unreported sex crimes that happen everyday. The victim didn’t tell anyone. None of the other many people who presumably saw the footage went to the police. No one involved with the alleged earlier sexual assaults on the girl told anyone. And the girl who did tell her teacher–in two more years, would she have? Or by then, adolescent and possibly feeling more vulnerable as a female and more desirous of fitting in, possibly being more inured to rape–that’s just what happens, sometimes–would she have been less likely to go to an authority? And of course, without solid evidence in the form of footage, would police have brushed this off? Certainly alibis would have been forthcoming, and plenty of them by women.
I guess I’m cynical enough to believe that vicious, atrocious sex crimes are here to stay. But the way we talk about them, the way we deal with them legally, can be changed for the better. The Times story was not an example of the “for the better.”
Also, I wonder if things will ultimately be better for the victim or the girl who informed the teacher than if the NYTimes hadn’t have gotten this case national attention. I don’t mean to imply anything with this one way or another. I’m just not sure. I hope there are some sensitive counselors working with her, that’s for sure.
That’s completely true about the cell phone footage, Zoe. These days, so many things that would have just been word of mouth in our generations are turned into “evidence,” often by the criminals themselves. That’s a weird, mixed part of technology for sure. Nobody wants their rape recorded for posterity, on the one hand. But in a crime that has infamously been nearly impossible to “prove,” it can put things in a different place, legally, and make something that would have no doubt gone unprosecuted suddenly into something taken seriously in terms of having legs to send the rapists to prison.
I don’t know about the Times. I totally agree with what a crappy job they did. And I hear you about the townie papers using local domestic violence reports in a fashion similar to the Jerry Springer show.
But I still have to say that I think, in my youth, a rape case that didn’t happen in New York, and where the victim didn’t end up murdered–and where the victim was not white, to boot–would almost certainly never have been reported in The Times. Buried or otherwise. Reported crappily or otherwise. I don’t know. I didn’t read the New York Times as a kid, that’s for sure. But part of what I mean is that people like us, in our small towns and poor urban neighborhoods–Christ, back then we didn’t even have a trashy local gossip rag reporting our crimes. Our crimes were invisible, completely, across the board. I do remember creepily reported rape cases from my youth, but they usually involved murdered white girls from good families. They were STILL reported terribly, but they were reported.
It’s a sad excuse for progress, but I feel like even if the feminist blogosphere had existed in 1983, they’d have had nothing to have a frenzy over, as there would have been no reportage to begin with. Unless the blogger was a cop who interviewed some old lady who claimed the rapist was building her shelves, you know?
Agh. AND, the NYTimes editor had to issue an apology for the reporter. That was interesting, too. That was something I cannot imagine having happened in our era.
I am so conflicted how to comment here, Gina. I suppose this is why I avoided commenting on Zoe’s piece as well. I couldn’t find a way in — couldn’t find a way for any of it to make sense, and most of all I couldn’t reconcile the horror when I brought it home and considered my own daughters. That this girl is someone’s daughter, that the men raping her were once someone’s little boy, that this girl, her life, has been reduced to that horrific night in a trailer, never mind the media coverage, when she closes her eyes it is there, when she is alone, when she is in a room full of people, when she is looking for safety, security, for love, this night will define her and follow her and dictate her every emotion, her every feeling, her every move. How could it not?
For years, long before they could fully grasp the entire concept, I spoke to my daughters about the sexual objectification of women. But perhaps I have it all wrong. What I really should have been talking to them about was the sexual objectification of young women, little girls, teenagers, searching for a way to understand their own healthy sexuality amidst the distorted world views of what society sees as sexy. A short skirt, a push up bra, a low cut top, a pair of “daisy dukes” — all of these articles of clothing are horrifically available in sizes they shouldn’t be, sizes that would fit a young girl so that she can emulate her older sexy role models. Even the girls whose parents are home to say “no” when they walk out the door, who make them turn around and put on suitable clothing, are at war with a greater evil, the tacit approval of society that this kind of sexuality is okay, even healthy. Which brings me to young women I have talked with at length about having sex with multiple partners of their choosing. These young women think they are owning their sexuality by being sexual aggressor, by having what amounts to practically anonymous partners. These women, while horrified at the idea of rape, will somehow feel that the woman is to blame, that she didn’t completely own her sexuality, that she in some small part didn’t take charge when she could have. These young women do not see themselves as vulnerable to this kind of sexual aggression, and I can only recoil in horror at what could happen. In a way it is just as bad as people pointing out the clothing the eleven year old wore, that she asked for it when she couldn’t have imagined in her wildest nightmares what “it” was… is beyond my comprehension.
Which brings me to empathy. Can we teach it? Can we reconcile the absence of it in our lives? In the lives of the next generation and the one after that? Can we even explain it to someone who would record a gang rape on their cell phone? Who would play it back for their friends as entertainment?
And still, we go with grace and faith and bring new children into the world because I have to believe there is an underlying goodness in humankind. I have to believe this otherwise I couldn’t get out of bed in the morning. There is unspeakable horror in this world, alongside heartbreaking moments of purity. Still, there is no accounting for who among us becomes the victim and that perhaps is the most terrifying thing to contemplate.
Hey Robin. Yeah, you know, that veers into a whole other, extremely important discussion, especially as a mother of girls.
For me, it feels extremely important to stipulate up front and unequivocally that no matter how little girls (or adult women) dress, or how they model their sexual mores, rape is never anything resembling a logical or inevitable “result.” Believe me, I know you weren’t implying anything otherwise! I know you agree with that, of course! It’s just that sometimes I feel almost as freaked out by the . . . well, the alarm over little girls in Daisy Dukes as I do about the Daisy Dukes on little girls, if that makes sense. On the one hand, I agree it’s inappropriate, disturbing and weird to dress little girls in a provocative fashion. But on the other, I also feel like . . . I mean, WTF, you know? Can’t a ten-year-old show her thighs without being sexualized?! What kind of man would sexualize a little girl? I just feel like it’s so important to be 100% clear at all times that that the hoochie mama clothes for tween girls (and younger) are a SYMPTOM of the problem, and not the problem itself.
The problem itself is violence, I believe, and inequity. The problem is about who it is “safe” to abuse, because they don’t count, don’t matter, don’t have a voice, vs. who holds the power. The truth is that young women do not have much power or voice. And the less economic privilege they have, the steeper the slope downwards seems to be. Powerful men (i.e. famous athletes) often abuse/rape because their power is so clearly greater than the victim’s that the victim is a safe target for their aggression. But even men with very little actual power–like those young, poor Texas rapists–tend to view young women/girls as a safe target for their own frustrations and aggressions. It’s kind of the case that no matter how low a man goes, he can always find a woman with less power than himself. I mean, statistically, disabled women get raped more than anyone. It’s not about sex. It’s about power. That may be a tired Second Wave Feminist refrain, but it’s still true.
Zora Neale Hurston wrote that the Black woman is the “mule of the world,” and I think deconstructing that takes us much closer to why rape exists (of women of all colors) than deconstructing fashion trends does, however fucked up those fashion trends are. Actually, it is that truth that is also behind hypersexualized teen girls who participate in things like blow job clubs. Young girls subconsciously believe the surest way of attaining power is to somehow be “like men” while simultaneously courting the libido/approval of men. However you turn, is all still somehow “about” men.
That Madonna-style “exploiting myself before anyone else can do it for me” aspect of female sexuality . . . it’s nothing new, but it seems to be taking some dangerous and sad turns, yes. The blow job clubs, the completely hairless vaginas, the girls having to make out with each other at parties for male approval/attention. This is a tricky issue. On the one hand, if the people in question are of the age of consent (or even if they are underage but EQUALLY underage, male and female teens experimenting with one another) I truly do not want to argue with a young woman that her sexual liberation is “fake” and that she’s actually just a victim . . . that’s so subjective, and there are young women out there who truly do enjoy a more freewheeling sexuality, just as young men have long held the privilege of doing. I am also willing to believe that there are always things about younger generations that the previous generations just may not “get,” and that we hold fast to our own ways believing they are the right ways.
But let’s face it: are most of these girls just lying to themselves, and is it usually–way too often–just another way that females are encouraged to “please men?” I fear that’s probably true. And that terrifies me and breaks my heart.
Thanks for commenting, Robin. I had a feeling when I posted this that it wasn’t going to be a . . . well, a “Six Question Sex Interview” kind of post, where everybody would read it gleefully, looking forward to a good time and all the funny comments, you know? It’s a heavy one. A long one. An issue that makes a lot of people, myself included, uncomfortable.
I really appreciate your investment, and as a mother of girls too, I just hear you on a really core level.
Thanks for opening this discussion, Gina. For sure, it’s difficult and uncomfortable and with no clear solution it becomes even more so because the issues surrounding the core problem, the absolute struggle for power and dominance, with violence at its ugly heart, has been with us forever.
It is even more shocking when you think that we have given tacit approval that certain members of society are disposable because of socio economic factors and race. In an ideal world an eleven year old girl would never be sexualized under any circumstances. In an ideal world we would be more horrified that an eleven year old girl is brutalized no matter where she comes from, no matter what she wore, no matter how well or poorly she was parented, instead of looking for a reason to explain it away.
The community where I live is largely middle class with pockets of poverty, the school district pulls from a very diverse area. I work with young women, some as young as twelve, who are sexually active. This sexual activity is NOT about freedom, although these girls believe it is, the sex being voluntary. When I ask them they tell me they wanted to have sex and will continue to do so because as one girl so sadly claimed, she liked the part where they “cuddle.” Another said that “everyone” did it — no one she knew wanted to go to high school a virgin. School dances look like orgies, girls present their asses to guys and grind against them. The guys, in order to not soil their jeans are already sheathed in condoms. They get off on the dance floor, ejaculate into the condom, and then go to the bathroom to dispose of it. I have had bathroom duty. It is shocking. Administrators seem unclear on their role here, and so they suspend kids for drinking at dances, but do nothing about the overtly sexual behavior. Remember the old school dances where the teachers walked through the crowd and separated boys and girls if they danced too close to each other? Not so much anymore. And across the board, these kids represent the socio-economic spectrum. Ironically enough, they have a very clear idea who among them is a “slut” and who is having sex because she “loves” her boyfriend. This all before they graduate middle school. I would say this kind of “sexual freedom” is less about discovery and more about control. The girls think they have it because they can make the guy feel good. The guys think they have it because they have girls who want to make them feel good. The line becomes so blurred that I’m not sure they even know what the word consensual means. That is where I come in. I can’t make them stop, but I can get them to think. At least I try.
I agree with you that experimentation is vital to youth — every generation deserves the chance to make mistakes and to explore. I just think we need to open the dialogue earlier than we think, so boys and girls, and I do mean boys and girls, can understand the impact of their actions. How can we really experience freedom of experimentation, if we don’t understand what we are doing?
Robin, so many deep truths here. Sadly, I don’t remember middle school dances where the kids were separated by sane, responsible teachers. I saw those dances on TV, but my elementary school dances (we didn’t have many) and parties were characterized much more by the type of behavior you describe here . . . although boys wearing condoms under the clothing is a new one; I’d not heard of that before, wow . . . yuck, nothing “hotter” than a 12 year old boy with a condom on under his pants, huh? What a nightmare. Yeah, a lot of the kids I knew growing up–12 was a magic number of sorts, where suddenly drugs and sex were up front and central. At 11 we were children and at 12 girls were having pregnancy scares and trading sex for drugs with adult men. Not all the girls, of course. I’m sure not all the girls at your school fully buy into this trap either. There are always those who instinctively know, just with their gut and their skin and everything they are, that this is not “the way.” But how to help all the others? How?
I have deep admiration for you, working with these kids and struggling so mightily to inject some logic and critical thought into their mindless thrashing for approval.
Christ: boys have a condom on under their jeans, and girls have not a stitch of pubic hair. It sounds like the Junior High Dance of the Cyborgs or something. And they think that is what defines Sexy. How incredibly sad.
It’s such a tricky one, this.
Blaming is a way of distancing ourselves from an event. “Well, if she hadn’t done this..” or “If she had done this..” It’s a way of convincing ourselves that WE would never find ourselves in a similar position.
Which is, of course, bullshit. We cannot guarantee that we wouldn’t act the same way. Nobody asks for these things to happen. Nobody wants to be hurt or violated or raped. Anyone can be the victim of an unwanted sexual attack by a stranger or someone known. There is no ‘asking for it’
Having said that – I have been guilty of being judgemental in the past about stories I have heard or read where young women willingly go back to a sportsman’s room and end up being raped. I often think “well, why the hell would she do that?” Conveniently forgetting that it is the easiest thing in the world to make a mistake. And that’s just it – mistakes are made. Young people make them all the time. We trust people we shouldn’t. We do things we shouldn’t for approval. We wear things that aren’t comfortable to fit in. We all want to be liked, or attractive, or loved and we do unwise things for this. It’s human.
I think you are totally right Gina when you say it is not about sex as much as power. From everything I have read, it seems the act of rape whether it be perpetrated against a child, a woman, a boy, a pensioner, a prostitute, or a wife is not about arousal or sexual attraction, it is simply about violence and control.
I don’t know how we stop it or fix it or how we become more empathetic. I know that I need to watch my judgmental opinions in the future because I have realised they actually come from a place of fear so that I can rationalise an awful situation by thinking “Well, THAT would never happen to me.”
Great piece… xxx
Tell me about it, Zara, yes–if the consequences of every mistake were as dire as . . . well, rape . . . few people would live beyond their teens. I just read your comment to the new TNB contributor who had to attend the drunk driving class, and I agree with you there and here: people make mistakes all the time. Even coming from where I came from, and what I had seen, I frequently “trusted” relative strangers all the time in my teens/20s, when traveling, when at nightclubs . . . experimentation involves error, and to take the experimentation out of youth is to kill youth itself.
“There but for the grace of God go I….”
There but for the grace of God go all of us…
What can I say to this amazing amazing amazing, that’s amazing cubed, article, Gina, except Thank you! Feminism lives. Humaneness lives. Possibility lives. Empathy, Complexity, Truth, & above all HOPE, live. I was there in the 50’s and 60’s and though there were sweet parts it wasn’t Fonzie. Even though some people today feel compelled to tell you every private thing that has ever happened to them, this is a better time than those awful secret years when people didn’t even know they had a right to own or tell their secrets.
Zoe and Robin bring up interesting points and questions, but that’s the complexity which you feel and express so well. These things would never have been brought up then because the crime was invisible and the woman’s fault.
I am your fan.
Gabrielle, thank you so much. I’ll cube the “so” and the “thank you” too. This was without a doubt the hardest piece I have ever written at TNB. I really appreciate your words.
I want to say so much because I feel so much.
I didn’t see or hear about that little girl in Texas and my heart aches for her. Stories like that (and the others) hit me hard enough to take my breath. So many thoughts, memories, feelings come rushing in with such force that I can’t even begin to paint you picture.
There is no excuse for a man to ever believe that he is superior to a woman or girl but unfortunately, it is taught to them. Not in every family but even one is too much.
I’m just going to stop. I want to say so much more but I just can’t. You did a wonderful job getting your thoughts down about this. I’m fighting back tears and fumbling over my words and this is just a silly comment.
Oh! And I would also like to add that even if the girl was in a string bikini with a driver’s license around her neck saying she was 21, it doesn’t give anyone the right to rape her.
The media has a way of making women/girls feel less beautiful and less loveable and less likely to succeed unless they look, dress, and act a certain way. But as soon as they do, they get taken advantage of and the media is the first to point it out. I’m so sick of the “she was asking for it” argument that I could scream. C’mon people! We can do better!
Ashley, what can I say–there’s nothing silly at all about the fact that none of us have words to express how big all this stuff is. The very first creative writing story I ever turned in to a class in college was about this 1983 gang rape. I was 19 and the story was amateurish and I never even tried to publish it. But I am now 42, and it never let go of me. I’ve tried to tell it in fiction so many times that I could publish a novel comprised of my failed drafts. Thanks for commenting, it means a lot.
Such a brutal story, and one that pushes so many hot buttons. One of the interesting aspects of the story is that the incident involves two “minorities” and at times I wonder if a white-dominated media is competent to provide the appropriate insight and details. That’s not rhetorical- I really don’t know.
I do agree that as you say, color, attire, etc., are beside the point. A horrible crime was committed by a pack of craven cowards. Sadly as you also describe, these events are not isolated.
You speak of complicity, but who the hell knows how to respond to these things when they’re going down? Without any pattern or frequency, you can’t anticipated it and human conduct shows that we assume these things will not happen when we leave the house. At least not to us. If we did, everyone would be packing heat and walking together in packs. But this isn’t Escape from New York. Not yet, anyway.
No, we assume that when we get to a crosswalk and that “WALK” icon lights, we’re going to make it to the other side. We assume that when we head over to the store, we’ll see our home again. We assume that when we’re standing in line at the bank, the rest of the day will pass uneventfully. Even though we know there’s a chance that we might be very wrong.
So I think that in some cases, complicity stems from uncertainty. What just happened? DId it really happen? Was it as bad as it sounds? Really? What does this mean for me?
You process it, empathize, talk to people, and before you know it, six months have passed and there’s another shocking crime du jour. I don’t mean to sound jaded, but at the same time, I don’t think we do ourselves any favors by beating us up for how we respond in extraordinary circumstances. I think that everyone does the best they can, whatever that means.
Your question about the media is incredibly valid. I don’t know the answer either, and I think it also has so much to do with economics and opportunities that race/class are inextricably mixed, but I know the media is failing this nation’s blue collar and poor on so many levels that these sexual violence cases are just the tip of the iceberg. On a very basic level, the news has turned into a “shock and awe” entertainment forum that flagrantly lies and distorts evidence to its audience, and the less education and privilege that audience has, the more vulnerable they seem to be to this cycle, and the more fabricated and outrageously manipulative the media becomes, explicitly targeting that demographic. Most days, Joe, I feel pretty young at heart, but I will tell you I feel damn old enough to remember when the news was the freaking news and not a bunch of Svengali hotheads trying to twist the opinions of the nation’s underprivileged so as to coerce them to hate, to coerce them to vote against their own best interests. I feel like the NYTimes debacle in terms of their handling of this case was something like the visible part of the iceberg the Titanic hit, and the even bigger, more systemic and downright conspiracy-creepy stuff is hidden under the dark water and is the shit that really sinks the boat. And as always, the poor, non-white people are down in steerage and they’re going down first. It positively sucks.
I caught wind of this story when it broke and mentioned it to my roommate (a woman). she was silent on the drive home because it hit home.
i don’t know what i can add here. what i can add is that you are such a thoughtful writer and that it takes some guts to tackle such topics. good for you. this is one of those posts that everyone benefits from. wow. this was great, gina. this is one of those that i’m going to email out to some folk that i know will appreciate it.
Hey Reno. Yeah, I think a lot of women out there have been mulling on that Texas gang rape story. I think things like that drift around haunting a certain demographic–among which I was one, this time–long after they become passe in the national news. It’s both horrifying and comforting to think of how many women out there have their own story in response to this story. Thanks for your words (and thanks for honoring your roommate’s silence, too.)
This is an horrific act on an eleven-year old child; made worse by the adults around her afterwords.
She’ll never be okay again.
I think that, at 15, you were acting your age and in the throes of schadenfreude.
You are a good person.
The world is a wonderful place and a brutal place.
All we can do is our part to speak out against injustice.
You did it eloquently.
“The world is a wonderful place and a brutal place.”
These are words I try to live by.
So much beauty, so much love, so much anger, so much suffering.
If you’re one of the lucky ones, the beauty outweighs the horror. If you’re lucky, you get to love life enough that one of the greatest horrors is the fact that it inevitably has to end. I’m SO lucky, and I think I will probably always struggle with a bit of “survivor guilt” over the way my life turned out compared to some of my early peers’. But that’s a whole other tangent. I think you’re a swell person too. And yeah, cultural shadenfreude is one terribly complex thing.
I read your piece last night and was stunned and saddened and more. I’d already read Zoe’s earlier, and all the accompanying links, and I didn’t comment, again because I didn’t know how to quite respond adequately–with the same reactions of a deep level sadness and more. I was going to try to comment last night, but figured I’d wait until I could sort out my thoughts. I don’t think I’ll ever get them sorted, so I figure I’ll just comment anyway and thank both you and Zoe for your writing. I’ve tried to write about this topic in my fiction as well–and I might try again–important to counter those “bodice-ripper” interpretations from General Hospital, etc, that you mentioned.
Hey Victoria. You know what, Zoe was just raving about your novel. I’m going to buy it this week. Very nice to see you here.
Ah, yes, General Hospital. There we all were, when we were the Texas rape victim’s age, glued to our TV sets all summer watching beautiful, 19 year old Laura (who was already married; no college for a pretty girl like her!) fall in love with Luke, her rapist. The romance and drama of it all! It’s a wonder we’re not all more fucked up than we are.
To say I’m a little obsessed, in my fiction, with gender politics and the continuum of consent vs. violence in sexuality (and the overlap therein) would be a bit of an understatement. I’m still waiting to write a story or novel that isn’t about this issue in some way. It is, I guess, the driving force of my work. Hopefully not in a didactic, preachy, dry, academic way, but rather in the messy, contradictory, sometimes dark, sometimes sexy, deeply individual way of life. That’s always my goal. I’m not sure I’ll ever fully exorcise what I want to say about all that, although I will say this post helped somewhat.
I am unsure of what I can add to such a
except to say
thank you for having the courage
to write it.
Thank you, Mr. Blaine
I always feel a bit of a dolt
because I don’t know how to write
a proper fucking poem
in response to
your fabulously metered words
but I am always absurdly tickled
to see you on my comments board
So thanks for stopping by
and rock on.
I’m so appreciative that we’re reflecting on this so much, here at TNB and elsewhere. It feels like some kind of small justice in itself. I live in south Texas, and this story has gotten minimal coverage here. Thankfully, though, when they *did* report it on the local evening news it was with horror for this little girl and with attention to the facts of the case. So there’s that. This is powerful, though, Gina. Thanks for writing it.
Thanks, Cynthia–very interesting to hear from an actual Texas resident in the mix of this. Yeah, funny how that’s contrary to what the stereotype would be, huh? You’d think the bloody Times would be all over the little girl’s plight, and that Texas would be feeling sorry for the poor, maligned high school athletes accused of the crime. So much for my damn Yankee stereotypes. Sometimes it’s good to be wrong.
This is a hell of an essay, Gina. Sexual violence and how we react to it both individually and communally is so complex and difficult. We are who we are an we know what we know and we cannot help but respond how we respond, however imperfect those responses might be. One of the most interesting things you write here is when you speculate about what those people in that Texas town might have, themselves experienced and internalized sexual violence. This is all so intertwined and vicious. So many times, people who suggest things like, “She was asking for it,” are really talking about themselves and their own histories with sexual violence. It saddens me that I cannot think of a single close female friend who hasn’t experienced rape or sexual abuse. It’s overwhelming how this sort of thing touches every one in some way. I have no point here. This was a powerful essay and you gave me a lot to think about.
Thanks, Roxane. Your Rumpus piece was inspirational and haunting. (I really enjoyed your recent one on self-publishing over at HTML Giant, too.)
Gina, I admire you for your eloquence, and your sweet song in the face of odious acts of human(un)kind. I read Roxane’s Rumpus piece, and am grateful that you have continued the focus on this event, making it so personal. Man, oh man.
Thanks, Robert–always so good to see you in these TNB parts! Congrats on rocking so many publications lately with your short stories!
The song Reclamation by Fugazi:
“These are our demands:
We want control of our bodies.
Decisions will now be ours.
You can carry out your noble actions,
We will carry our noble scars.
No one here is asking,
No one here is asking,
But there is a question of trust.
You will do what looks good to you on paper,
We will do what we must.
Return, return, return.
Carry my body.”
Just curious about what you think of a sentence of death for rapists? I recall a book written by a Union Civil War soldier stationed near Washington D.C.; one of the soldiers of the army had been caught raping a farm girl outside the city. Before morning most of the writer’s regiment had left their camp, gone to where this man was being held, took him to a tree and hung him. It seems this rapists never raped another girl or woman from that time forward. Now consider our Army of today – where rape is endemic. Perhaps in the 19th century rapes were little reported, but this I do know rapists were considered the lowest form of scum fit for a rope. I noticed that you seemed to leave the internet out of today’s equation. This medium is pushing and glorifying rape as no media before it ever dared. And of course children are accessing this crap in spite of their parents deluded attempts to prevent. Putting a rapists in a little room with cell mates and then allowing them to go free is really worthless and will never solve anything.
“I want to slap those neighbors who blame her for her fate” , is what you stated but then you backed off. So in the end what I read is a lot of hand wringing and woe is us sort of things. How about slapping the god damn men – the rapists? Of course women rape now too: http://beta.fireflyfans.net/mthread.aspx?tid=48813 – look up lesbian rape gangs to find more. I wanted to raise my girls where they would be Zena the warrior princesses. They shot their first large caliber pistol by age 2. They were taught and encouraged to defend themselves and assert themselves. When very young they were warned in detail about molestation and molesters. They received some physical self defense training. But the women’s rights movement fell out from under them during Clinton who never did a damn thing (really) for women’s rights. Then came BUSH Jr. and his winking at rape in the military. The 21st century has seen the complete death of the women’s rights movement, and added to the internet porn all respect for modern women is out the door. In fact the young women coming of age now seem to care not at all about this. Personally I have given up on women’s rights, something I adopted in 1971. I suppose I have given up on mankind some years ago.