Thursday, November 5, 2009

The gang rape at Richmond High: media disassociation and the bystander effect

A little over a week ago, a young woman was raped and beaten by a group of young men for over two hours, just outside her high school homecoming dance, while dozens of passerby did nothing to intervene or contact authorities.The media coverage of the gang rape at Richmond High has been troubling to say the least. Gang rape in the media is nothing more than disassociated words; “gang rape” is in headlines but never defined or explicitly addressed, only simply hyperlinked to another news feed. Media narratives have sensationalized the horrific event by emphasizing the girl’s desire to “fit in,” then qualifying aggressive, gang-laden neighborhoods as key components for an “inevitable” gang rape.

When news sources start using the words “gang rape” and “inevitable” in the same headline, some serious disassociation needs to be addressed.

The manhood act of gang rape

The act of gang rape is by definition a manhood act directly related to the verification and reinforcement of masculinity. Street slang for the alarmingly common act is “running a train” or “pulling a train.” Gang rape participants often do not define gang rape as sexual assault. Sociologist Jody Miller said that, "The issue of consent doesn't even enter into the equation. . . Gang rapes are really performances for other male peers. The girls are basically just objects."

Gang rape requires a collective of men who become complicit in their violently sexual objectification of one woman. Each man’s abusive and sexually violent act increasingly verifies the abusive act of the next man. John Darly, a professor of psychology and public affairs at Princeton University, describes the “licensing” dynamic of the Richmond gang rape:

“If one of the boys or men grabbed her and pulled her toward him. . . and somebody else did something else so it became more and more sexual in nature. . . we now have a [group of boys] who are pretty wild. . . Each act licensed what had gone before, and it also made more likely what came next.”

And there are bystanders—not only the men who are participating and waiting to violate the woman, but men who are there to “cheer on” the sexually violent displays of masculinity. Notice that the gang rape scene from the film The Accused is not unlike fight scenes in the film Fight Club – where men are cheering on the sidelines, validating and exacerbating the violence as sport.

Unfortunately, the concept of a single woman having sex with multiple men in succession is one of the most common themes in pornography and sexualized popular culture. In the Richmond rape case, it was reported that the young woman tried to kick and push away the first guy who started to become sexual with her. He beat her in response to her fight, began to rape her, then other men in the group took turns raping her. She did not consent to "pulling a train," but she was forced to suffer for it.

Just weeks ago, Catharine Mackinnon gave a lecture at Washington and Lee University, where she discussed the “sexualization of power,” as particularly visible in prostitution and pornography, which “[sets] the terms of popular culture around us.” Mackinnon said that,

“exposure to pornography desensitizes its consumers to violence and abuse of women in particular, requiring escalating intrusiveness on women for continued excitement and stimulation.”

In the case of gang rape, Mackinnon’s statement rings true. It was not enough to have sex with the victim against her will—it was necessary to beat her, to repeatedly rape her, to use foreign objects, to laugh at her, photograph her, videotape her, and walk away or walk past her—all in the name of power, masculine validation, stimulation and excitement. The gang rape of the young woman in Richmond was nothing more than a manhood act – one step closer to credible masculinity for the rapists and bystanders.

The bystander effect and snitches

Following the gang rape in Richmond, the media has been intensely analyzing the bystander effect, a phenomenon where the likelihood of a witness reaching for help decreases as the number of witnesses to a crime increases. The presence of bystanders often diffuses the responsibility to report a crime, as seen in the following clip:

Much of the commentary on the gang rape in Richmond has focused on the fact that California has no law that would have required the bystanders in this case to report the crime. The bystander’s duty to report crimes in California would only be applicable if the student in this case was 14, instead of 16. In the following news clip, commentator Tamara Holder discusses this issue in greater detail:

What is significant about the gang rape in Richmond is the fact that the crime was reported hours later, by a young woman who heard about the gang rape and did not even witness it but called the police anyway. The caller said that no one else would call the cops, for fear of being a “snitch,” though word was spreading fast that there was a naked girl by the dumpsters who was being raped.

What about “bystanders” who rape?

While coverage of the gang rape in Richmond emphasizes that many bystanders were observing and then walking past, there is little discussion about the actual group dynamic of the men who were in the gang rape. Much different from the bystanders in the sidelines, to what extent does the “bystander effect” apply to those men who begin as voyeurs to the rape, then become participants? As depicted in the film The Accused, it is feasible that some men are threatened or teased until they participate in order to preserve their manhood or masculinity.

During NPR’s program Talk of the Nation, a caller named Gina Marie made an important point about the inter-group dynamics of gang rape:

“Hi. I have a lot of compassion for this girl, because I had an experience like this actually happen to me when I was 16…In Washington state. I lived in the country. I was a tomboy. I played football. I was always that girl who hung out with the boys. I always knew a lot of boys. And I went to such a small school that I actually knew these boys from kindergarten to senior year. And I was asked to cliff diving - which was something we used to always do - by six of them, who jumped me. And it ensued in quite a fight, and I was held down and I was raped…There - I remember the cheering, but what I remember most is that two of the boys didn't want to join in and were threatened.” (emphasis added).

How are we to understand those men who are threatened into participation, or who feel forced to participate in a gang rape in order to preserve their manhood or masculinity?

Positive bystander intervention

Often bystanders may not intervene because they simply do not know how to, particularly when they are bystanders to a violent act where they, too, may be hurt. Often they do not know how to intervene confidently and wisely. “Bystander education” is a growing movement in schools and community groups that encourages positive bystander response and educates both children and adults on how to engage as bystanders in the prevention of sexual violence. The California Coalition Against Sexual Assault provides resources to advise individuals and organizations on how to educate men and women about bystander intervention for sexual violence and violence against women.

What would happen if popular media made a concerted effort to include sexual violence prevention guidelines within each news report? Can we learn to be positive bystanders, and is that enough to prevent sexual violence – even brutally violent gang rapes, such as the Richmond case?

A case where positive bystanders could not prevail

Intervening can stop violence, but it does not always result in justice. In 2007, a group of three female college soccer players witnessed and intervened in the gang rape of a 17-year-old girl. The case was hotly debated because the district attorney declined to file criminal charges in the case, citing lack of evidence because the alleged victim could not remember most of the evening– despite the fact that the three women had witnessed the attack and that there was allegedly DNA evidence. California NOW protested in front of the D.A.’s office after the D.A.’s decision to drop charges, and the decision went under review-- but after review, charges were still not filed and the criminal case was closed.

According to the witnesses, they were at a college party when another young woman told them that there was a girl alone in a room with eight guys. When they had first attempted to enter the room, they were confronted by a man who said, “she wants to be in here and she wants this … it’s none of [your] f***king business.”

When one of the girls found an unconcealed area of the covered glass door, she saw “a girl lying on top of the mattress and a guy on top of her … he was having sex with her and there were about 10 pairs of legs…surrounding the bed…I just immediately knew that this guy is raping her.” To stop the rape, the girls had to forcibly enter a door being held shut from the inside, leading to a room full of baseball players gang raping the intoxicated and allegedly comatose young girl.

After the case was closed, the three witnesses released a statement saying “We are disappointed beyond words at (the) decision and in the entire criminal justice system…[t]he message seems to be, if you get an underage girl drunk enough, you can get away with rape.” It was reported by one of the intervening women that, “One of the guys who was in the room said ‘This is her fault. She got drunk and she did this to herself.'"

Beyond disassociation: “it isn’t sexy unless it is unequal”

The gang rape in Richmond has ignited discourse on sexual violence and our desensitization to violence, but has the publicity of the case done more harm than good? We have been socialized to accept gang rape – not only through popular culture (media, pornography, video games), but through our disassociation from the brutality of sexual violence. Whether we like it or not, women participate in their own gendered inequality, but not by choice. As Catherine Mackinnon recently said,

“when one’s fundamental sexual experiences are imposed in a context of inequality of power, sex itself becomes impositioned on those with less power. This sexuality then is necessarily unequal. It isn’t sexy unless it is unequal…this is the context in which sexuality has been created in people’s sensory and human experience … this hierarchical dynamic defines girls as for sexual use and boys as sexual users.”

Those words, had they made it into the press coverage of the Richmong gang rape, may have had more of an impact than “inevitable,” indeed.


AL said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
AL said...

I was really troubled by the media response to this event as well. I listened to the Talk of the Nation report and couldn't believe how little the "expert" was actually talking about the rape itself. The focus was entirely on the bystander effect, which, though kind of interesting, is not the most important aspect of this horrific occurrence by a long shot. You mentioned the bystander effect of the men who then became involved, which is the more troubling phenomena that received almost no analysis. As you mentioned, some of the blame may be the perpetuation of violence against women and the sexualization of control and power in pornography. My question is, why has pornography veered off in this ugly direction, and what can be done to bring it back?