A pre-teen girl is gang raped in East Texas. In the aftermath, the victim-blaming, the anyone-but-the-rapists-blaming, begins. People talk about how she should have known better than to hang out with older boys. How her parents should have known better than to let her do so. How her friends should have protected her.
I’m not talking about Cleveland, TX, where the story of an 11-year-old girl’s brutal and repeated gang rape made it all the way into the New York Times only to have the child victim-blamed in shameless fashion in and by the Paper of Record. No, I’m talking about Tyler, TX, the other East Texas town where a young girl was raped repeatedly by a group of older guys last fall. The 12-year-old girl was raped by at least three gang members after a football game in September.
A 19-year-old man was sentenced to 40 years in prison yesterday for raping the Tyler 12-year-old. Two accomplices have previously been sentenced to 15 years. What I want to talk about is the KWTX comments section that accompanies the story. I want to do this because I think I normally would not. I think I normally would read victim-blaming comments and think, “Well, what else is new?”
But the recurring theme in these comments–that someone, either the girl’s friends or parents, or the girl herself, should have stopped her from hanging out with the high school boys who raped her–illustrated a powerful contradiction in the victim-blaming tendency. First, there’s comments like this one from “Rach”:
.i only pray that this little girl will have better judgement next time and not go to a house where there are grown boys (who have 1 thing on their minds) and her only being 12. she had no business being there in the 1st place…
“Rach” expects 12-year-old girls to understand and fear that all/most/any older boys can and will rape them if given the opportunity. Ideally, they should understand this before they do stupid things like hang out with older boys, but if they learn after their gang rape, that’s better than nothing. Then, there’s this comment, from “Mother of a Teen”:
Where WERE her three female FRIENDS when this was happening? If they knew who these guys were then they should have some accounting of their own to do. Either in court or to this little girl and her parents. I most certainly would not let my child ever again hang out with people who would standby and let this happen to her and do nothing. This is what today’s society of ‘their just being kids’ has led to.
“Mother” believes the 12-year-old girl’s friends should have known they were going to hang out with these specific boys who are specific rapists–“they knew who these guys were.” So here’s the catch: not only was this rape victim supposed to know that (all?) older boys are very likely to rape her, but she and her friends should have known that these boys in particular were likely to be rapists.
But there’s also the tendency for those who know rapists to emphasize there’s no way the person they know could have done such a thing, and the accuser must be mistaken, at best, and lying, at worst. This is what happened in Cleveland:
The case has rocked this East Texas community to its core and left many residents in the working-class neighborhood where the attack took place with unanswered questions. Among them is, if the allegations are proved, how could their young men have been drawn into such an act?
“It’s just destroyed our community,” said Sheila Harrison, 48, a hospital worker who says she knows several of the defendants. “These boys have to live with this the rest of their lives.”
Those who victim-blame are saying two contradictory things: everyone is a rapist and everyone should know that everyone is a rapist except your friends, acquaintances and relatives who are not rapists, because how could anyone know or like a rapist? It’s all probably just a misunderstanding!
At this point, it all falls apart for me, the victim blaming does. Because no one is a mind reader. No one can predict the future. Why, then, do we expect rape victims, almost exclusively, to be able to do this? We do not expect the same of people who were mugged or people who were murdered.
I want to talk about the murder comparison. Maybe it’s wrong, maybe I’m stretching. But I want to talk about it because I know a murderer. His name is Andrew Wamsley, and he killed his parents in 2003. I went to school with Andrew for many years. I remember seeing his flashy white Mustang in the parking lot as we pulled in together in the mornings–we took practically the same route to school, because he lived only a few streets away from me.
Andrew convinced his girlfriend, her best friend, and a guy they knew from I-HOP (yes, really) to help him shoot and stab his parents in hopes of securing their insurance money. They tried a couple times to kill Andrew’s parents before they finally succeeded–at one point, the group shot at his parents’ car from Andrew’s Mustang, and it’s suspected that Andrew’s mother knew that her son had done this weeks before she was murdered, finally, in the living room of her own home.
And yet, I have never heard anyone blame Mrs. Wamsley for not knowing better than to spend time with her son or trust him with a key to her house. I have never heard anyone blame any of the Wamsleys’ friends for letting them stay in touch with their troubled son. I have never talked to anyone in our class at school who said, “You know, Andrea, we should have realized that Andrew was going to grow up to be a murderer, and we should have warned someone.”
I know rape and murder are not the same thing. Obviously. I’m not a criminologist or anything of the sort, and I don’t know the nuances of the criminal psyche or the available research well enough to talk about the differences between motivations, backgrounds, what-have-you, when it comes to rapists and murderers and who their family and friends are likely to be. I’m also assuming that generally speaking, folks are much more likely to know a rapist than they are to know a murderer. So that comes into it, obviously–depending on our geography, privilege and other factors, people probably know more rapists and rape victims than they do murderers and murder victims, and I reckon that has a significant influence on the way people perceive responsibility. After all, one in six American women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetimes. One in six American women will not be murdered. It’s far from a perfect comparison or analogy. I am acknowledging that. I may be making a totally unfair argument here, but because I know Andrew Wamsley, murderer, I can’t seem to get away from needing to say something about what it’s like to know one, and how that makes me feel about people who are expected to know who is and isn’t a rapist.
But I also want to acknowledge that the persons blamed for the Wamsley murder are the people who planned and participated in it: Andrew Wamsley, his girlfriend, her best friend, and the guy from I-HOP. Not the Wamsleys themselves. Not their friends and classmates and colleagues and neighbors and extended families.
I do know some other things: I know that most rape victims know or are acquainted with their attackers. That most rapes happen close to home. That most rapists don’t use weapons, just physical force.
No one faults me or anyone else for not knowing Andrew Wamsley could be a murderer. If you’d asked me in high school, I might have said Andrew was a socially awkward loner and weirdo. I certainly wouldn’t have thought of him as the violent criminal he would become less than a year after graduating high school. And no one would have expected me to. And yet we fault victims, their friends and families for not preventing rape victims from spending time around people they know, close to home, who are unarmed.