Meditation on the Revelation of a Gang Rape of an Eleven-Year-Old Girl and the New York Times’ Coverage of ItBy Zoe Zolbrod
March 13, 2011
I’m a Pittsburgh Steelers fan. A fair weather one—I don’t start paying much attention until the playoffs—but lifelong, and when I give my attention to a game, I’m there all the way. My body reacts as if it’s the one straining and slamming. My tape measure’s out—just ram your shoulders forward one . . . more . . . yard. My mind spits questions about players’ mental states. It’s cathartic to get that far out of myself. So goddamn it I was angry at Ben Roethlisberger when the grumblings about his sexual assault charges started up again around playoff time. Why you killing my buzz, Ben?
I sought only the most basic information before turning away—a bar in Georgia, a bathroom, a college student, a lot of alcohol and a raft of bodyguards who might or might not have blocked a door, but charges were dropped, just as they’d been the year before when an incident had been reported in Nevada. And what was that one about again? Oh, never mind.
On the one hand, my hesitation was characteristic: I don’t follow celebrity scandals; I’ve clicked not a link about Charlie Sheen. On the other hand, I do tend to get obsessive about sexual assault stories that don’t involve the NFL. There was the dust-up when Keith Oberman and Michael Moore appeared to shrug off the rape allegations against Julian Assange. There was the gang rape of a fifteen-year-old girl outside her school homecoming dance. For these events and others, my initial reluctance—because who wants to spend their days thinking about rape?—gave way to frenzied clicking. I read everything I could get my hands on, hunted down small news items, scrolled through hundreds of comments in an effort to understand or to bear witness, I wasn’t sure which, and I got angry and brittle and nauseated in the process. I’m a woman who’s broken a lot of rules in the course of pursuing independence and played closely by a lot of others because I’ve been aware of how vulnerable that made me. I’m a woman who’s been afraid. The discussion around assault—especially of the she’s-lying or she-was-asking-for-it variety, and they’re almost all of that variety—can make my heart shake as if even now I were walking down a dark street or laying awake in a bed where I had chosen to sleep alone behind flimsily locked doors after talking too long to, or maybe just strolling past, a man. I’ve never been raped, but I’ve asked myself again and again whether that’s because I’ve been smart, or lucky.
To compensate for my own ill-informed unease about Roethlisberger, I gave loud voice to complaints about him at the dinner table. I wanted a pound of flesh from my husband—there’s nothing fair weather about his fandom—and I wanted, mostly I wanted, him to let me off the hook. And that’s what he did.
Football players are assholes, he said. The Nevada thing always looked really shaky, and the Georgia charges . . . it’s hard to say, but they were dropped a year ago. He was suspended for them. But he’s an asshole. The Rooneys are on him. The fans are off him. You don’t see many Roethlisberger jerseys anymore. It’s all Palamalou.
Troy Palamalu. A soft-spoken, philanthropic family man. Have you seen his beautiful hair flying like a badge of all that’s noble as he sails across a whole line to hold them at the two? It’s all well and good for feminists who don’t like football to call for a ban, but for those of us who do, can’t we watch it with our eyes open? And the Nevada charges—those ones at least—they were pretty thin. Women do go bat shit over celebrities.
Friends of ours came over for dinner this playoff season—Packers fans and fellow flag-football coaches. The Roethlisberger thing came up (guess who couldn’t quit picking that scab?) and we got into the discussion of what it must be like to be these guys. We talked about the aura that surrounds even the fourth grade football star at our kids’ school. The way a lifetime of such intense grooming and fawning and pressure—not the mention the blows to the head—must mutate players’ sense of self long before they make it to the pros, the way their career affects everyone around them. Of course they’re assholes. They’d have to be almost superhuman—like Troy Palamalu—not to be.
I like to swim in the grey area of almost any dirty pool, and when my friend posed the question of why the hell would a girl go into a bathroom with big, drunk Ben Roethlisberger, I was up for some discussion about how stupid women can be, especially when it comes to the mix of fame and men and money. (For the record, I’ve done some more clicking as I’ve been writing this, and it’s not at all clear that the Georgia accuser agreed to go into a bathroom with Roethlisberger.) We talked about our culture, how sexed up it is, how even clothes for little girls are provocative. How at four years old girls are already wearing short shorts with writing across the butt when they should be wearing smock dresses until they’re ten. But when I caught myself nodding as if there were some causal link between the selection in the Target girls’ department and rape culture, I took a few steps back.
Being stupid doesn’t mean that a woman deserves to get raped, I said.
No. It doesn’t, my friend agreed. And we were quiet for a moment. The men in the room had been quiet for a while.
Then my friend, who’s from Green Bay, ventured that Packers players couldn’t get away with such boorish behavior. Their coach is very religious; they live in such a small town; they all go to same churches as everyone else.
Maybe you’re right, I said doubtfully. Maybe she’s right, I thought, and I tried to kindle a flicker of hope. And then I thought about all the preachers and priests accused of sexual abuse and the statistics about how the states with the highest number of churchgoers are also those with the highest pornography usage, and I wondered about what keeps anyone clean when rules don’t seem to apply to them, and I wondered why we need so many rules, and why rule-followers themselves buck so hard against the laws they lay down. What is our nature?
Just a few days after the dinner, my eye alighted on news item recounting allegations of sexual misconduct against members of the Packers. They’d been participating in a charity golf tournament in the Wisconsin Dells, land of family water parks and theme restaurants, when two women claimed to have been raped by them. Charges were dropped after the women changed their initial story, although the consensus seems to be that sex of some kind was had.
I didn’t forward the link to my friend. I was fighting my told-you-so obnoxiousness, but I also understood all too well her impulse to give her players the benefit of the doubt—most of us want to think we’re exempt. The world’s going to hell, but not my country, not my congressmen, not my neighborhood, not my man, my men, my boy, my boys.
To function fully, we almost have to believe that. When the story of the fifteen-year-old girl’s gang rape broke, about one out of every four or five commenters in the local paper lambasted the victim for having gone into the school’s darkened courtyard with her classmate in the first place, which is where the attack took place. What kind of girl goes off to imbibe alcohol alone with a boy? But what kind of world do we live in when a high school student is supposed to look around her classroom and see every male in it as a potential rapist? In my fits of compulsively searching for information about sexual assault, I’ve read about various universities whose rape prevention programs consist mostly of cautioning women to watch each others’ drinks when they’re at parties and to never walk alone at night or deviate from the campus’s blue-lighted paths. What kind of culture expects women to socialize in environments where they’re so likely to be drugged they have to keep their hand over their cup as they talk to a guy with whom they might be hoping to get lucky? We have to believe that the attitude that gives rise to the gang rape of a school girl, that accepts running rough shod over a woman’s hesitation as if any kind of resistance is a linebacker blocking a first down, is one that doesn’t permeate our own immediate world, where we work and play and fuck and fall in love and raise our daughters and sons.
Green Bay beat The Steelers in last months’ Super Bowl, of course, so news feeds are no longer flashing as many updates about players’ sexual misconduct. But the Roethlisberger issue’s been on my mind because I’ve been fixated on the recent story of the eleven-year-old girl gang raped in Texas by eighteen men and boys and by the outrage over The New York Times’ reporting of it. The backlash against the Times concerns its framing of the story, and in the debate about whether the writer is blaming the victim or just reporting on locals who are, here’s an oft-mentioned quote:
“Residents in the neighborhood where the abandoned trailer stands — known as the Quarters — said the victim had been visiting various friends there for months. They 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.”
I’ve read so much about the incident in the past week that even if I could formulate some insightful thoughts, it’d be hard for me to write about my reactions without inadvertently plagiarizing. Still, I have to say this: So, according to some of the town’s residents, the girl dressed like a woman in her twenties. That makes it understandable that boys and men would gang rape her? Because it’s OK to gang rape twenty year olds? Because it’s . . . what?
She was eleven.
Yeah, I’m not ready to write about it.
But I’ve been staring at the train wreck since the article appeared. The people quoted are distancing themselves from the girl—she’s not like my daughter; I’m not like her mother—and sympathizing with their favorite team—their sons, friends, students. I don’t want to narrowly equate dropped charges against some NFL players with the documented gang rape of a child, but the two things are on the same continuum. I see them as part of the same lesson to be studied about people’s—my—reaction to things we don’t want to believe.
I had a dream when I was in college that’s recurred in various forms since. I was in a bedroom of a house, and I knew that in the next room a woman was being raped. Instead of bursting through the door and trying to disrupt the crime, I went downstairs, where a party was raging, and shrilly tried to rally a group of men to go up and into the room with me. Hysterical, I physically tried to push the men up the stairs when they weren’t moving fast enough, but I remember staying firmly behind the broad back I had my hands on. I remember being glad a guy was in front of me. When I recounted the dream to a friend, she said: I think many men give tacit approval to rape, and that’s what you were responding to. I was relieved at her analysis, which took a page from the women’s studies classes we were both enrolled in, but I felt it was off. My biggest sense upon awakening was that I had failed to some extent, that under the guise of rallying help, I’d been mostly self-protective.
We have to all work together on this one, though: How about we teach boys not to rape? How about we acknowledge that, yeah, you know what, life does have a lot of grey areas. We should talk about those. And if you have your penis out and something looks like a grey area? Guess what. It’s probably not one.
Last night, when my son’s eye caught on an article about the Roethlisberger accusations that I had open on my computer, I slapped my laptop’s cover down: That’s not for you to read, I said.
My son is nine, which I feel is too young for this discussion.
And that girl is fucking eleven.
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If you want more discussion on the Texas rape and the media response, Jezebel’s covered the whole thing well, starting here.
Roxane Gay has an impassioned response at The Rumpus.