In March this year US teenagers Trent Mays, 17, and Ma’lik Richmond, 16, were convicted of raping a 16 year old girl in August 2012, in Steubenville Ohio. The girl was sexually violated as she was dragged from party to party over the course of several hours one night, in an inebriated and unconscious state. Aside from the sexual assault itself, there are several haunting dynamics of the Steubenville rape case. There were many witnesses who did nothing. Over 900 photographs and videos were reportedly taken by those involved and by onlookers. (Mays himself was also convicted of distributing a photograph of the girl, naked.) The boys’ actions appear to have been covered up by some adults in the community and minimized by national media (eg, CNN). The sexual violence and humiliation of this girl was celebrated by friends of those involved – in real time, on social media. An infamous 12 minute online video shows one young man, almost delirious with excitement, going on and on about how “dead” (ie, passed out) the girl was; that is, the girl who had just been raped by his peers, and filmed by them and onlookers.
Steubenville is just one very high profile example of contemporary rape culture. Others, with similar dynamics, have been in the media this year. ‘Underage’ girls, who are intoxicated or drugged, are sexually violated and further humiliated through the posting of photographic or video evidence on social networking sites. For the girls who are the victims of this violence and humiliation, the impact can be devastating. Last year 15 year old California high school student Audrie Pott took her own life after having been sexually assaulted by three teenage boys while she was passed out at a party. She woke the next morning to find she had been drawn on by marker pen, photographed naked and violated. She later found that these photographs had been passed around her school. Earlier this year 17 year old Novia Scotia girl Rehtaeh Parsons took her own life, having been sexually assaulted 18 months previously when she was 15 by four boys, one of whom circulated a cell phone picture of what happened around their high school. Daisy Coleman who recently spoke out about the rape she reportedly experienced, at 14, while drugged – and who was also videotaped – twice tried to take her own life. All of these girls experienced harassment and bullying, not only by the boys who raped and humiliated them, but later by others in their peer groups and wider communities.
These cases are the horrific pinnacles of rape culture. How is it that young men can act in such hateful ways, with such grandiose senses of entitlement, in such voids of empathy and seemingly without moral bearings? I have become more and more convinced of the connection between sexual violence and a wider cultural tolerance of misogyny. Sexual violence and gang rape are not new. But something seems different about the narcissistic performative nature of these violations. That they are sometimes filmed and distributed, or gloated about, on social media. That the boasting is so open, online for anyone to see, is made possible by communication technologies that weren’t around even 10 years ago. Different kinds of behaviour become possible. That these boys and men use this technology without any apparent sense of caution for the repercussions – not only for their victims but also for their own reputations later in life and their chances of getting caught – suggests that cultural norms are changing with the technological possibilities.
At a few conferences this year I have spoken about Steubenville, and discussion turns to New Zealand. People wonder whether this kind of violence happens here too – or is it a malaise particular to the underbelly of the cheerleaders-and-football-heroes culture of American high schools?
This week we have a clear answer: it does happen here too.
Last month sketchy details were reported that two 18 year old young men were charged with the rape of a 17 year old young woman in New Plymouth. And that one of these young men along with a third man was charged with filming it.
This week we know that was not an isolated case. A group of Auckland boys who call themselves ‘roast busters’ have been busted themselves for their sexual exploits with young girls. TV3 News showed video footage (from the group’s Facebook) of Beraiah Hales and Joseph Parker promoting ‘roasting’ – a form of sexual conquest that is juvenile in design and likely devastating in impact for the girls involved. The boys describe intentionally targeting young girls for something that involves two of them penetrating the girl orally and vaginally at the same time: “two or more guys.. one dick in pussy one mouth and if there’s more then two guys then you use your hands too [sic]” (as Hales explains it on ask.fm).
TV3 reports that on their Facebook page they apparently posted videos naming the girls they ‘roasted’. The page was operating for five months until a complaint from TV3. Many girls are also named and discussed in intimate detail on ask.fm. Parker’s site was disabled today. Hopefully Hales’ will be soon – not only does it contain copious potentially harmful revelations about girls he knows, but it is incriminating. Rape comes up a lot on Hales’ site – in places he jokes about raping, in places he says they don’t rape (“I don’t need to”). They describe having sex with girls who are too intoxicated to consent. Hales repeatedly admits to having sex with girls as young as 13. The boys also talk about ‘gang banging’ girls. Someone asked Hales: “how many dudes have you done a gang bang with at one time”. Answer: “like 7 hahahahahh” (4 months ago, ask.fm). Another question: “how many girls have you banged”. Answer: “4”.
Commentators in the sexual violence and sexuality fields like Kim McGregor from Rape Prevention Education and Francis Bird from Family Planning, have talked about the importance of the concept of consent. It’s not really a very radical or complicated idea, the idea that if two (or more) people have sex, everyone should be into it. Yet the boys don’t seem to get this, and have an archaic idea of consent. To the question “how would u get a girl? into bed [sic]”, Hales jokes (presumably) “Chloroform” (4 months ago, ask.fm). Asked “How do you manage to a [sic] girl into roasting, coming from a wannabe roaster. ;p”, Parker offers detailed guidelines:
99% of girls that we roast say “ew I would never roast I think its yuck”
what you need to know is girls dont mean what they say half the tiem.
you just have to get them in the rame of mind that roasting is nothing major and they will love it blah blah, or you can just take the Down low route and just have 1 get with her normally an once they are doing they thang the other just creeps on over and trys to roast (keeping in mind you both MUST flirt an hit on her prior to all this going down) [sic] (4 months ago, 5 people like it, ask.fm)
On the similar theme of the challenge of getting a girl to do something they might reasonably be expected to resist, someone asked Hales “how did the gang bang come about? please just explain haha like did she ask, did you suggest it..were you all in the room and all were horny like how did it start [sic]”, to which he responded “just got her drunk ;)” (4 months ago, ask.fm). Kim McGregor from Rape Prevention Education, like other commentators, have already said this sounds like rape.
Mainstream and social media have been full of condemnation of these boys. Also widely criticized has been the lack of effective police action in stopping them. Police have known about the group since 2011, but Detective Inspector Bruce Scott claims the police have been impotent to stop it: “without actual evidence my hands are tied”. The boys have been spoken to and warned, he says, “and been told their behaviour is verging on criminal, if not criminal”. Scott’s constant reference to the need for a “brave girl” to be willing to make a formal complaint before they can act is irritating, at best. Girls who have been abused by these boys are probably facing every day with courage. Reading what Hales and Parker write on ask.fm and the questions put to them builds a picture of a toxic culture for girls in those peer networks. The boys give an impression (probably a false facade) of Teflon coated masculinities – powerful, wilful and invulnerable. They set themselves up with a platform to pronounce some girls as mates, some as desirable (to “fuck” or to be in a relationship with), and others as roast-worthy. “We don’t roast girls that we think of as friends” (4 months ago, ask.fm) (Hales). Questions are asked of Hales about intimate details of particular girls’ bodies and what they’ve done sexually and how it was judged to have been. Sometimes he doesn’t tell, many times he does. This degree of public surveillance and judgement couldn’t help but create an intimidating social environment for girls.
Reading their arrogant misogynist bravado and knowing what it is claimed they have done to girls, it is difficult not to find them despicable. It would be comforting if we could believe that they were mad or bad individuals, because it is more manageable to think about how we can fix that. At the same time, it’s clear that they are part of a community in which they are not universally seen as ‘beyond the pale’. On ask.fm there are as many, maybe more, lovers than there are haters. And, from what you can tell, as many girls as boys warm to or admire them. In response to the question “What is a saying you say a lot?” Hales replies “Go ahead, Call the cops. They can’t un-rape you” (7 months ago). 19 people ‘liked’ that.
Making a plea for a brave girl to make a formal complaint seems out of step with the reality of what it must be like to be a girl who has been abused by these boys living in that situation. Going to school with their friends, and friends of friends, and already having too much of the hurtful personal details of your intimate life unwillingly opened up for other people’s eyes and opinions. Surely the justice system response needs to be more proactive and creative. Might it make a difference if some police and community joint initiative worked to provide a deeply supportive and connected structure in which girls (plural) could be given the opportunity to stand together to collectively claim back more power in the situation? (Whether that means making a formal complaint or not.) Isolated as individuals they are incredibly vulnerable. Already there is victim-blaming chatter on teenage social networking sites which naively casts responsibility on the girls for ‘knowing what they were getting into’. But if joined together in a sort of ‘class action’, standing alongside respected community and school leaders, there surely must be ways of turning around the sluggishness of the justice system’s response to this case. While always respecting the decision of any girl already hurt by these boys to protect herself in whatever way possible from further harassment and scrutiny.
Russell Brown points out on Twitter that there has been plenty of evidence of criminal wrong-doing by the group – much of it posted online by the boys themselves. Enough surely to have warranted some kind of further investigation into the boys’ activities – with or without a complainant’s formal report. Phones and computers could have been searched, he suggests. The boys themselves could have been questioned according to Kim McGregor. Some of them may have been bystanders who are witnesses to crimes. Police have been aware of the group since 2011. They knew about their Facebook page, but didn’t take action to shut it down, despite acknowledging the suffering it has likely caused girls that are abused and named. The boys themselves have projected a cocky imperviousness to calls for justice. Someone challenged Hales about statutory rape and having sex with an underage girl. His response: “I’ve already been to the police about that haha and im not going to jail sooo idk what you’re on about” (4 months ago, ask.fm). It will be a challenge, and it may be painful for the girls who have survived this abuse, but it does seem unlikely that he will not end up facing charges.
The even bigger challenge is how to dismantle whatever it is that is supporting the widespread revival of misogyny and ongoing sexual violence that allows these boys to act like this for so long. These acts of abuse reflect a “trend of degradation” according to Peter Boshier from the White Ribbon campaign. The whole idea of masculinity and what it means to be a man in our society has to be looked at. Francis Bird and Kim McGregor have both raised the role of pornography in contributing to this misogynist sexual culture. Pornography is a mixed bag, but the everyday kind of mainstream pornography that many young men now regularly consume glorifies hostility towards women. Young women are props for male sexual pleasure – participating as second class human beings whose sole purpose is the consumer’s enjoyment. It is essential as part of our efforts to prevent sexual violence that we start talking about pornography, its portrayals of women and men and sex. And asking questions about the ethics of celebrating male sexual domination and female submission and aggression towards women in the name of sexual pleasure. Research looking at the way men talk about pornography shows a detachment from the ethical dilemmas that this should pose in a society that on the surface values gender equality. We are doing young men (and women) a disservice by not offering critical ways of thinking about it. Up until recently, the main social message about pornography has been one of liberal tolerance, as though it was only about sex, sexual freedom, and sexual pleasure. An issue for individuals and their private lives. Not an issue for communities and public discussion, as it should be on the grounds that it isn’t only about sex, but is also promoting hateful depictions of women. The concern about pornography is not a simple case of ‘monkey see, monkey do’, although there is anecdotal evidence that that is happening with young people who have grown up getting their “sexist education” (as Michael Flood puts it) from porn. Maree Crabbe and Dave Corlett’s recent Australian documentary, Love and Sex in an Age of Pornography, based on numerous interviews with young people and people in the pornography industry illustrates this connection.
The issue is really more about the sexual norms and cultural values it reinforces and promotes, even if they don’t originate with pornography. It is about the social vocabulary that pornography, and other things like some popular music lyrics, offers us for talking about – and thinking about and acting towards – women. So whether Hales and Parker watched a lot of porn, for instance, is irrelevant, because its contribution is in shaping the wider cultural context in which they go about their business. Shaping the reception to their actions and how it is responded to by their peer communities and wider society. In fact Parker claims not to watch porn, but in the manner of doing so echoes the dominant message of mainstream pornography: “I dont watch porn i got bitches to fuck [sic]” (4 months ago, ask.fm).