Friday, April 07, 2006

Getting to the bottom of the toxic muck

...or at least trying to. Via Pandagon, a Guardian article on gang rape in the UK.

This bit was instructive, I thought:

Emma's words do her no favours in the moral universe of the courtroom. She is feisty. She answers back. Easy for barristers to categorise as disrespectful. Lucy is sweeter, prettier and more distressed, but no match for the apparently polite, well-brought-up boys. They pepper their testimony with "yes, sir" and "no, sir". They have good character records, bolstered by teachers and youth workers. They say it never happened. But their strongest defence lies in most people's perception of rape: that it's either made up, or it involves a stranger with a knife. Nice boys don't gang rape. Except they do, mostly with impunity. "Group rape is a black hole," said one senior London policeman I spoke to. "It's a parallel universe where that kind of thing has become a way of living, and that's why it continues."


"Gang rape is really common," says a youth worker in Hackney. "Girls won't talk about it because they think it's normal and there's nothing they can do about it." Met commander Andy Baker, who used to be in charge of street crime, says, "It's been going on for years. Before I was a policeman, I'd see boys coming out of a shed and a girl following later. Now, I'd know what that was, and so would you."

"It's a taboo," says Bernadette Brittain, counsellor at the Haven, London's first dedicated sexual assault referral centre. "It's grim and it's not talked about."

There is virtually no research on gang rapes in the UK. In the US, some work has been done on gang rapes by sportsmen and fraternity members. In 1985, a report entitled Campus Gang Rape: Party Games? - released by the Project on the Status of Education of Women - calculated that at least one gang rape per week took place on campuses. "Fraternities are sporting clubs," a professor was quoted as saying, "and their sport is women." Over here, the best data comes from the Haven, which was set up in mid-2000.

(statistics follow)


"The added element in this is ethnicity," says Trail. The Haven's statistics indicate that, in 2002, in the under-16 age group, 43% of the assailants were black, as were 33% of the victims. Even in an ethnically diverse population such as Lambeth-Southwark-Lewisham (LSL), this goes beyond demographics. It is controversial. When a documentary on juvenile gang rape was broadcast by Channel 4 in 1998, the channel was accused of racism. Trinidad-born writer Darcus Howe was a lone voice of support. Later, writing in the New Statesman, he recounted how his girlfriend Betty was gang raped for hours in Trinidad, and how - after he spoke out in support of the documentary - he got anonymous phone calls saying his daughter would get gang raped, too.

"For heaven's sake," Trail says, "this isn't about race, it's about rape." He points to high numbers of sexually transmitted diseases in LSL, which also has the highest teenage pregnancy rate in Europe - problems that were also hampered by a refusal to look at the racial demographics, in the beginning. "My line is lean, mean and clear," Howe concluded, in the New Statesman. "I take a side in this war, the side of black women ... There is nothing to discuss."

What's interesting to me, here, is that in this case, at least, I think "this isn't about race" is referring primarily to the MEN (as in, if the accused is a POC, historical precendent for scapegoating POC men by false accusations of rape notwithstanding: gang rape is still gang rape, and needs to be addressed as such).

But in the Duke case, certainly, there's no question in my mind that race damn well is at least part of what this is about, although certainly not all of it. And yet people keep uncomfortably twisting about, as though it's an either/or issue instead of both/and, each deeply ingrained bigotry enforcing and compounding the other.

The Guardian article talks a little more about this:

The Commission for Racial Equality was hardly more forthcoming. "We need more data and we need to know it is being collected in a robust and methodologically sound way," a spokesman told me. "If there is a problem, we need to know who is involved and who the victims are. We are also concerned that low levels of confidence in the police might mean that young ethnic minority women are less likely than other victims to report attacks."

The majority of rapes are committed by adults at home, according to Women Against Rape. But young girls are being gang raped by young men or boys, who are - in reported cases - often black. Why? "It's very difficult to explain things away with cultural factors," says Peter Misch, a forensic psychiatrist specialising in adolescents at London's Maudsley hospital. He recalls visiting a young offenders' institute in Siberia in 1993, where each of the 20 offenders aged 14-16 was in for group rape. Camila Batmanghelidjh, who runs the children's charity Kids Company in Peckham, south-east London, thinks gang rapes go in clusters. "It's not about race. You have to ask - is it because the black community is the most marginalised and pressurised, and does that lead to emotional consequences?"

Mostly, the sheer bleak frustration of the whole goddam system keeps coming through again and again. Per the article:

One of the defence barristers, subsequently: "My client apparently used a condom. You may think this is very sensible in one view and very polite in another. Two young people in a park and the boy is forcing himself on a girl who is not willing and he puts on a condom. That's not an easy task in a comfortable consensual setting, but in the cold in the park, and his victim doesn't run off - does that sound like rape to you?"

It sounds like rape to me. It sounds like rape to all the young women I talk to. "Of course she'd get on a bus with her rapist afterwards," says Tamika. "She's scared, isn't she?" She tuts scornfully. "These people need to get out and see what's happening in deep society."

...Most of this is inconceivable to most people, and that is why juries usually acquit. In the courtroom, as the prosecution barrister attempts to explain what "wok it" has come to mean to kids (have sex, from the Jamaican slang "work it"), and as the judge attempts to speak street, with every "yeah" coming out as a "yah", I am struck by the futility of it all. It is two worlds colliding. Outside the courtroom one morning, a solicitor on the defence bench says, "I don't think it was a gang rape. They knew the boys. They always do."

Most girls in gang rape situations know at least one of their attackers. Sometimes it's their boyfriend who hands them over, with sexual blackmail. "If you don't go with my mates, I won't go out with you any more." Sometimes it's the straitjacket of reputation...

and so on.

And then, of course, where's the justice? No frigging wonder so few women report. In one case that had looked strong, the article reports:

The first trial collapsed on a technicality. The second was thrown out when one witness discussed a minor detail - about a soft toy - with another (witnesses cannot discuss the case with each other). It might seem innocuous, but the judge had no choice but to dismiss the case. It can't be tried again. The girls were devastated, and in a letter to the investigation team, their parents thanked the police, and said they'd never again have any faith in the criminal justice system.

I don't have much, either. A dismal number of gang rape cases get to court; an even more dismal number result in convictions. One of the few that did - three young men were given six-year sentences this year for befriending and raping 13-year-old girls in Ilford shopping centres - inspired Judge Henry Blacksell to comment, "This might be normal behaviour in Ilford, but the girls still need protection."

That last bit is interesting: so, the judge needs to "other" Ilford (I don't know the UK, but from the overall context of the article, I'm presuming this is a working-class 'burb or town) in order to make sense of this. Nice boys don't do such things, after all. No. Which is why it's inconceivable to some (I'm thinking quite a few, sadly) people that the Duke shitbags could be guilty...even if the evidence gets put right in front of their noses. Even if such (also nice, well-educated) witnesses (to the case, I mean, not the act!) aren't necessarily misogynist racist fuckbags themselves. Because if "our guys" can act like this, then the whole world falls apart.


Rey said...

There's actually a lot of fascinating observations regarding thwarted black male sexuality in Toni Morrison's book The Bluest Eye, which I read for the first time last week. In particular, there's a scene where a boy is having his first romantic encounter with a girl and while they are both losing their virginity, they are discovered by two white men. The men tell the boy to, "Make it good," and upon hearing this, the boy turns his rage toward the girl, unable to safely turn it toward those who truly deserve it. Their romantic encounter transfroms until it has a rape-like aftermath.

The book is fascinating on many other levels, but your post made me think of this moment.

Rey said...


Americans have such fractious identities, that combining discussions as you suggest (both rather than either/or) is difficult for them. They (I should say we) don't see it as mutually beneficial to both groups/all parties. We see it as having to choose one identity over the other (and giving one identity more power over the other).

In the Duke case, it's also easier to use race as a deflection (for men of color it's all about race, for Caucasian men it's all about denying it's about race). Otherwise, everyone would have to sit down and discuss the real source of the problem: masculinity's all too easy perversion into misogyny.

It's that same contradiction that leads to such dangerous homophobia in African-American culture. You can't have gay black men, because it brings the black man down - but since there are gay black men isn't queer-baiting/bashing bringing a black man down, too?

belledame222 said...


And I'm thinking: even the overprivileged little white boys are clearly deeply enraged about *something.* God knows what. And it certainly doesn't move me to pity them, much less excuse them...but it is worth maybe exploring this with an idea toward, not just what's obviously there (the misogyny, the racism, the callousness, the violence), but what might be missing, there.