On Saturday, a group of teenage boys gang raped a 15 year old girl for two-and-a-half hours outside a high school homecoming dance in Northern California. Police say as many as four teenage boys raped her and probably as many as 15 boys stood around watching, doing nothing to stop it or help her.
CNN is reporting that “The victim was found unconscious and ‘brutally assaulted’ under a bench shortly before midnight Saturday, after police received a call from someone in the area who had overheard people at the assault scene ‘reminiscing about the incident.'”
These boys brutalized her so badly that she was in critical condition and had to be flown to hospital. As of Monday, she is in stable condition. Everything about this incident and its outcome are upsetting and outrageous!! (Including CNN using the passive voice to describe the incident and engaging in subtle victim blaming by printing a quote from someone who said she ended up with the guys of her own free will.)
While one of the police officers investigating the case says he can’t believe not one of the bystanders did anything, I am not. Maddeningly, her damaged body, and likely damaged life, is the outcome of living in a patriarchal society where boys and men are encouraged and encourage each other to be aggressive and prove their masculinity through sexual “conquests.”
In my street harassment book research, I’ve learned a lot about this, including male homosociality, which is the idea that many men are socialized to be more eager to please other men than women and may use women as pawns to prove their masculinity and impress each other. Telling sexist jokes and harassing and assaulting women (particularly gang rape) are examples of this behavior. In the Macho Paradox, Jackson Katz discussed in great length how men may feel pressured to participate in or stand quietly by while their friends participate in sexist and even violent behaviors in order to be accepted and “manly.”
The definition of masculinity in our society is so narrowly defined that actions like showing compassion, standing up to “manly” men, and not engaging in sexist or violent behavior – and telling other men to stop – threatens it and what it means “to be a man.” Some men even harass and beat up other men who threaten the definition (most notably, male members of the LGBQT community). So it’s easier for most men to stay quiet and/or participate.
This all directly relates to street harassment, too. For example, the more than 800 women who took my informal, anonymous online survey last fall said they are more fearful when they are harassed by a man who is part of a group or by multiple men in a group than when a lone man harasses them.
If you ask girls and women how they would feel about encountering a group of guys while they’re alone in a deserted area, I bet the fear of gang rape and assault would be quite tangible, even if the men did not harass them. Why? Because even if we don’t know terms like “homosociality” or “hegemonic masculinity” and haven’t read the theories behind such terms, we know that most men are less like to stop or to listen to women when they are in groups. We know they want to impress their friends and many of them will do that at all costs. We know it’s best to book it out of there as fast as we can before they decide to do anything. And guess what, even if this isn’t true of all men, we don’t know which ones it will be true for. Our safety is not worth the risk of trusting a group of male strangers. (and if you say that’s unfair to boys and men who don’t hurt women, I agree, let’s do something about it!)
Katz and groups like Men Can Stop Rape work on bystander intervention with men, including brainstorming and role playing ways they can intervene when they hear sexist talk and witness gender-based violence. They discuss issues of masculinity and the importance of speaking out even if its scary and emphasize that chances, are there are other guys who feel the same way but are too scared to speak out. It’s very important work and I hope more and more groups will use incorporate bystander work in their efforts to make the world a safer place.
Also, working to ease gender socialization and the values given to each gender and their stereotyped traits is important work and it is something we can all do in our daily lives. We can help make sure men – and women – are not penalized for speaking out when they see something wrong. For example we can eliminate language like “pussy” “wuss” and “girl” when talking about male behavior that is not “macho” and not make fun of boys or men who show their sensitive side. We can encourage people we know to always stand up for what is right even if they think it will make them unpopular. And we can do the same (This is something I struggle with. When I look back at my life, the times I feel most ashamed of myself are when I was too scared to speak up to someone bullying someone else).