By Shelby Knox and Rachel Simmons
On Saturday night, a fifteen year old girl was brutally gang raped outside a homecoming dance she attended. According to media reports, more than two dozen students watched, photographed and filmed while as many as ten different people raped her. They were then overheard “reminiscing” about it. The girl was found lying unconscious under a bench.
Yesterday, three young men were arraigned in the case wearing bulletproof vests after police reportedly received threats on their lives. It’s important to note the outrage at the attackers is a delayed reaction. In reality, it took several days before the national media deemed this hideous event worthy of coverage at all. Four days after the attack, officials at the school where the rape occurred were still trying to put a positive spin on it, claiming the dance was otherwise a “successful event.”
Four weeks ago, Kate Harding lit up the Internet condemning the celebrity defense of Roman Polanski’s rape of a thirteen year old girl. It’s no coincidence that we are once again late to recognize the violent sexual assault of yet another teenage girl.
On Thursday, five days after the rape, the women of The View marveled that California law only mandates reporting of a sexual assault when the victim is under the age of fourteen. The Washington Post’s first mention of the assault was on Wednesday, when it speculated that the increase in violence against women on TV left the rape witnesses so desensitized that it didn’t occur to them to take any action. And almost all the media coverage of the gang rape has focused on the twenty or so bystanders who watched and even live-tweeted the brutalization of a fellow student.
When the rape was eventually reported by the mainstream media, victim-blaming was first on the agenda. The New York Times was one of the first outlets outside of California to mention the assault, noting in all subsequent reports, “the girl had consumed a large amount of alcohol by the time the assault began.” One almost expects for the next line to be a description of the “asking for it” outfit she must have been wearing.
Even the feminist media that led the outrage over Roman Polanski has neglected to report and investigate this story: Double XX (Slate’s women’s blog) has yet to mention it, Feministing recorded one line of outrage at the school official’s stupid commentary on Wednesday, and Salon’s Broadsheet logged 276 hand-wringing words on Tuesday, wondering, “When did high school students become so unafraid, so violent?”
What’s even more disconcerting to us as girls’ advocates is the muted response in the organized feminist community. None of the organizations that sent out press releases and appeared in the national media after Polanski’s arrest have noted the connection that we’re once talking about the rape of a young girl. As the public rallies to throw the book at the defendants in this one particular case, no one has mentioned that a rape occurs every two minutes in the United States and 44% of victims are under the age of eighteen. This assault seems like an opportunity lost to talk about an epidemic of violence against young women, and the crisis of school safety in our country, but perhaps it’s simply too inconveniently timed to coincide with the final push for health care reform – although it’s worth noting that some insurance companies consider sexual assault a pre-existing condition.
In a welcome exception to the widespread silence, Rosalind Wiseman argued the assault is an opportunity to talk with all teens about what it means to be an empowered bystander, and the high cost of staying silent in the face of degradation and cruelty.
It’s hard not to wonder how the conversation would be different if a 15 year old middle class girl was gang raped by black and Latino men outside a suburban homecoming dance. There is a growing media narrative about Richmond, and the high school where the attack occurred, as poor and notoriously violent. Is this because we want to believe that rape doesn’t happen to wealthy girls? Did it take so long for the media to report this assault because the survivor is from a working class community and comes from a school where perhaps we simply expect kids to “act like that?” Is it because we still live in a society that deems the life of a less privileged woman less important?
When Kanye West hijacked the microphone from Taylor Swift at the Video Music Awards, Twitter crashed with the force of bystanders outraged on her behalf. Facebook was awash in calls for Kanye’s head. We live in a culture in which oceans of humanity speak up for a celebrity who hardly needs attention or help, while a girl is brutalized behind a school by two dozen boys and barely a ripple is felt.
It’s not surprising, then, that the people who are speaking out on behalf of the girl are other girls. Friends of the victim stood up at a community meeting to protest the lack of security, both at the dance and at the school in general, claiming the young woman who was raped had felt unsafe before. Margarita Vargas, who was not at the dance but reported the assault after getting a text about it, placed the blame squarely on the perpetrators.”They think it’s cool,” she said. “They weren’t raised to respect girls.”
Judging from the muted public reaction to this horrifying assault, we’re starting to wonder if any of us were.
UPDATE: The comments section is now closed. Some comments violated the posting policy at rsim.wpengine.com, and have been deleted. Responses to these comments have also been deleted. On behalf of Shelby and I, thank you for responding to this post.