On Friday, a 15-year-old girl was brutally gang-raped after a homecoming dance in a suburb of San Francisco, while as many as 15 teenage boys stood around, doing nothing.
The victim was leaving the dance in Richmond, CA — a suburb of San Francisco, not too far from Antioch, where Phillip Garrido held Jaycee Dugard — when a classmate invited her to drink with him in a secluded area near the school. She agreed, becoming so inebriated that she fell over, at which point as many as seven young men raped her, beat her, took photographs, and stole her jewelry. They assaulted her for two-and-a-half hours, injuring her so badly that she had to be flown from the scene in critical condition.
The number of bystanders (and possible participants) was later revised to at least 20.
It’s natural to look at something like this as being an isolated incident. I did it – even as I was reading, I was coming up with excuses. Well, Richmond’s a pretty rough town. Anything can happen in a mob like that. These kids must have been sociopaths. Teenage brains aren’t even fully developed. The point of all these was the same: I needed to get some emotional distance from the rapists and, by extension, their barbarism. I needed to move beyond the superficial similarities between us – our gender and geographic location (my hometown is only about seventy miles up the road from Richmond) – and find things that I could point to and say, look at how different we are. I’m not like them.
This was my emotional reaction, and on some level I need to believe that it’s true. But from an intellectual point of view, I recognize that this line of thinking is wrong – cowardly, even. The truth of it is that this incident was unique only in the number of participants. Nothing else about it – not the brutality, nor the age of the rapists, nor the public manner in which it was conducted – was notable in any way.
Assaults like this are a natural product of our society. Our society, which treats rape as something less than a crime, something women should feel ashamed of, something that otherwise good men do in a moment of weakness. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, there were 183,000 rapes in the United States in 2008 alone (PDF), although that number assumes that 47% of rapes were reported to the police – a number which I think is far too high. And these rapes weren’t committed by the occasional lone sociopath, or a gang of psychopathic teenagers in a crime-torn city; they were committed by hundreds of thousands of seemingly-normal men (almost always men) who we interact with every day. Men who serve us food or manage our time at work or squeeze past us on the subway. Men who fly in for our family reunions.
So let’s talk about this rape in Richmond. Let’s think of the victim, whose life has almost certainly been broken in ways that can’t be mended. Let’s talk about the a school that let a young girl to be tortured for nearly three hours without ever once performing even the most cursory check of the grounds. But let’s not pretend like these boys are unique, the one-time confluence of setting, opportunity, and sociopathy. They learned this behavior from somewhere; they learned that it was okay from somewhere, and to treat it as an isolated incident is to trivialize it. We made these boys the way they are. This incident was notable only in the number of participants.