Blaming an 11-year-old victim

March 24, 2011

Nicole Colson looks at the ugly attitudes and media coverage in a Texas rape case.

HOW DO you make an unspeakable act of sexual violence against an 11-year-old girl even worse?

Imply that she was "asking for it."

In the wake of the gang rape of an 11-year-old girl in Cleveland, Texas, by a group of as many as 20 boys and men ranging in age from 14 to 27, many people have been shocked not only by the brutality of the crime, but the callous response of some residents of the town--and some of the national media covering the case.

According to reports, in late November, the 11-year-old girl was picked up by a 19-year-old, driven to a house and then ordered to strip. She was then sexually assaulted by several people and threatened with physical violence if she refused. Later, the assault continued in an abandoned trailer. At some point, cell phone video and pictures were taken as she was repeatedly assaulted.

The case broke when an elementary school student told a teacher about seeing the video. So far, at least 18 men and boys have been arrested--including five students at Cleveland High School, and the adult son of a member of the local school board.

The abandoned trailer in which a brutal assault was committed
The abandoned trailer in which a brutal assault was committed

But as horrible and heartbreaking as the case itself is, the reaction from some in the town, as well as media outlets, suggest that the girl--an 11-year-old child--was at least partially to blame for her assault.

IN PARTICULAR, a New York Times article by James C. McKinley Jr. sparked outrage for coverage that seemed framed in a way that not only blamed the victim, but sympathized with her attackers.

"Residents in the neighborhood where the abandoned trailer stands--known as the Quarters--said the victim had been visiting various friends there for months," wrote McKinley. "They said she dressed older than her age, wearing makeup and fashions more appropriate to a woman in her 20s. She would hang out with teenage boys at a playground, some said."

McKinley reports that a neighbor stated, "Where was her mother? What was her mother thinking?...How can you have an 11-year-old child missing down in the Quarters?"

The not-so-thinly-veiled subtext is that this 11-year-old child was "asking for it"--whether by her mannerisms, her clothes and makeup or even just daring to be in "the wrong place." Likewise, the implication is that the child's mother was negligent by allowing her daughter out of her sight.

On the other hand, McKinley's article allows, without comment, town residents to suggest that those who participated in the assault and have been arrested are themselves victims. One woman, Sheila Harrison, told McKinley: "It's just destroyed our community. These boys have to live with this the rest of their lives."

The article doesn't point out the obvious--that an 11-year-old girl will have to live with having been gang-raped for the rest of her life.

Nor do any of the town's residents nor McKinley wonder about the responsibility of the families of the boys who participated in the assault for their whereabouts, as opposed to the mother of the 11-year-old victim--not to mention the culpability of her adult attackers.

In response to complaints, the Times initially issued a statement saying, "Nothing in our story was in any way intended to imply that the victim was to blame. Neighbors' comments about the girl, which we reported in the story, seemed to reflect concern about what they saw as a lack of supervision that may have left her at risk."

Only later did the "newspaper of record" acknowledge that its coverage had flaws. As the Times' public editor, Arthur S. Brisbane, admitted:

The story dealt with a hideous crime but addressed concerns about the ruined lives of the perpetrators without acknowledging the obvious: concern for the victim.

While the story appeared to focus on the community's reaction to the crime, it was not enough to simply report that the community is principally concerned about the boys and men involved--as this story seems to do. If indeed that is the only sentiment to be found in this community--and I find that very hard to believe--it becomes important to report on that as well by seeking out voices of professional authorities or dissenting community members who will at least address, and not ignore, the plight of the young girl involved.

The horrifying consequences of the attack on the victim and her family are ongoing. In interviews, the victim's mother reported that the girl had to be moved to foster care for her own protection after their family began receiving repeated angry phone calls in the wake of the arrests.

Police have also asked the family to relocate from the town due to fears they might be targeted. "The police think we may be in danger, because if they can't get my 11-year-old, they might take out their revenge on us," the girl's mother, identified only as Maria, told reporters.

As for the outrageous idea that the 11-year-old "dressed older than her age," Maria said in an interview, "These guys knew she was in middle school. You could tell whenever you talked to her. She still loves stuffed teddy bears."

THERE IS something horrifying about the idea that, in 2011, women (and girls) are routinely blamed for their own sexual assault, rape and sexual harassment.

The idea that women invite rape or harassment when they wear the "wrong" clothing, flirt or engage in behavior labeled as otherwise sexually "aggressive" or "irresponsible" (drinking, for example) is a feature of entrenched sexism in a society which says that women's bodies and sexuality are not theirs to control--but are for others to consume.

At heart, it's also a deeply insulting view of men--because it assumes that they are so incapable of controlling themselves sexually that the burden must be on women to dress and act a certain way at all times. In a recent article discussing sexual harassment on the feminist Web site Jezebel, Professor Hugo Schwyzer wrote:

It's a huge mistake to blame women's revealing clothing--or women's bodies--for public sexual harassment. The problem is a tenacious and ugly myth about male sexuality, one that tells us that average men simply can't be expected to restrain their eyes, their words or even their actions when faced with the reality of a woman's bare skin. Because of that...we outsource their missing self-control to women. And so this myth pushes women to police each other, slut-shaming or mocking those girls who are showing "too much."

The attitude that women are somehow partly responsible for their own assaults ignores the fundamental reality of rape and sexual assault--that sexual violence against women is not a result of clothing or behavior, but is about power and control. As long as our culture believes the idea that how women dress or look is a factor in their rape, the responsibility for rape will rest with women, instead of where it should rest--on the shoulders of the men who rape.

That there was such a public outcry from readers that the Times was shamed into admitting at least some of the flaws in its coverage is a positive sign--it means that a large number of people are rejecting these kinds of sexist attitudes.

The troubling inclination from some of the Cleveland residents to blame the victim should be reported on and discussed. But it can and should be said, straightforwardly, that nothing can justify the rape and brutalization of an 11-year-old--or a woman of any age, for that matter--no matter how she was dressed.

Such attitudes have real ramifications for the victims of rape and sexual assault. One out of six U.S. women will be raped, or be the victim of an attempted rape, in her lifetime. Despite the image of rapists as "strangers," approximately two-thirds of those assaults are committed by someone known to the victim.

According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, 60 percent of sexual assaults in the U.S. are not reported to police, and 15 out of 16 rapists will never spend a day in jail.

Many victims are reluctant to report their assaults--because they fear exactly this kind of public condemnation and questioning about whether they somehow "provoked" an attack by wearing, saying or doing the wrong thing.

In a description of the aftermath for the 11-year-old victim's family in the Cleveland case, the Houston Chronicle reported, "The stress has grown so intense, the [family's] 16-year-old daughter said, that her parents considered separating, while the 11-year-old is having regrets about following through with the case."

In other words, the harassment faced by this little girl and her family has made her question whether it would have been better to keep quiet about a gang rape.

If we ever want to stop rape, the routine blaming of the victim for being assaulted has to be stopped first.

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