Gang rape in Richmond, California brings up profound questions
Last weekend, a horrific incident happened outside of a school gymnasium. Around midnight on October 25, 2009, the Richmond police department got a call from a girl whose brother-in-law heard about the rape. The police followed-up and found a half-naked fifteen year old girl, beaten and unconscious, cowered underneath a bench outside her school. She was airlifted to the hospital in critical condition.
On that particular night, the students at Richmond High School were at a Homecoming dance. The 15-year-old female student left the gym at around 9:30 pm to get a ride home from her dad. On the way out, she ran into someone she knew and walked over to him and his friends on a secluded side of campus. They offered her something to drink, which she accepted (quantity unknown), and two and a half hours later, she’s found underneath the aforementioned bench. Reports indicate that she was first beaten, then robbed, then raped by as many as ten men – with another ten standing by filming from their cell phones and laughing at the mayhem. Not one person, participant or onlooker, reported the incident to the police. Not to mention that they just left her there.
I’ve worked with rape survivors and I’ve heard really gruesome stories – stories of a teenage step-brother penetrating his five-year-old sister, an ex-husband who submerged his victim’s head under water “for fun,” even fathers impregnating their daughters (as seen in the national Wesson family story). But this incident, more than many in recent times, further infuriated and horrified me, so I wanted to understand the psychology behind it. What allowed these men to do that to her? Why didn’t anyone report it? How could they just leave her? What is going to be involved in her emotional healing?
The current culture in the inner city vehemently rejects cooperation with the cops. This culture is supported by mainstream hip-hop lyrics, and uses a fear of retaliation to protect criminals. In urban settings, the police have been cast as the bad guys, and street criminals as sort-of glorified bandits. Of course, the clash between cops and inner city populations is not unfounded – there is a long history of mistrust and abuse. One of the negative repercussions of the current climate, however, has been this distrust of the police, and the reluctance to inform them when needed.
One might think that with more opportunities for women in the workplace, violence against women would have decreased. Unfortunately this is not the case. According to a 1998 National Institute of Justice and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey, one out of every six American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in their lifetime. The numbers are even more daunting when you factor in sexual assault (anything short of rape). As a friend of mine said when she heard the Richmond High incident, “Hasn’t every woman experienced something sketchy at some point in her life?”
Women are still depicted in the media, in advertising especially, as men’s play things, and the standard of beauty in the mainstream is still fairly rigid. To rape the Richmond High girl, the perpetrators had to dehumanize her in such a profound way to not even see her as a person. Jean Kilbourne writes a lot about this. This tactic of dehumanizing people is used in the military so that soldiers can harm and shoot their enemies.
Income levels are also a factor when it comes to violence against women, so when we look at a lower income community like Richmond, the level of sexual violence is much higher than those in more affluent communities. According to the Bureau of Justice statistics, the poorer the household, the higher the rate of domestic violence — with women in the lowest income category experiencing more than six times the rate of nonfatal intimate partner violence as compared to women in the highest income category.
Brain functioning plays a large role in this case, as with many acts of violent crime. There are three parts of the brain – the reptilian brain, the limbic brain, and the cortical brain. The reptilian brain is our current brain stem, and it functions on impulse (in psychology we equate it with the id impulses). The cortical brain is connected to rational thought, logic, empathy, etc, and the limbic brain is connected to our emotions. When people don’t have a highly developed neo-cortex, they are much more likely to act without thinking. Then if you add alcohol to the equation, which impairs all brain functioning, you lose good judgment. There have been brain maps done on subjects labeled with anti-social personality disorder and they have 10% less volume in their cortical brain. This means that the biology for having empathy is really impaired or offline altogether.
We know that kids model behavior from the adults around them. I was recently in a classroom where a second grader said “That’s ridiculous!” in a manner that I imagine channeled her mother’s tone of voice and mannerism. So it’s no stretch to know that boys who witness or experience violence are way more likely to perpetrate it. From a 1993 statistic, boys who witness their fathers’ violence are 10 times more likely to engage in spouse abuse in later adulthood than boys from non-violent homes.
Ultimately, this gang rape depicts what happens when a mob mentality spirals out of control without any checks or balances. If each person looks around and sees everyone else participating, then they’re more likely to go along with it. These incidents also usually have a ring leader, and we know from the Milgram experiment that regular people can commit horrendous acts, if encouraged by an authority figure (or leader).
What about the girl? She was kept in the hospital, and did not have any life threatening injuries. She is now in stable condition and was released from the hospital, but she has an enormous recovery ahead. Rape survivors often experience anxiety, guilt, nervousness, phobias, substance abuse, sleep disturbances, depression, alienation, sexual dysfunction, and aggression. It’ll be interesting to see how much recall she has of the incident and how the memories come back to her. She is at risk of having PTSD, just as soldiers do who have experienced the horrors of war. PTSD is a state in which the memory of the rape is replayed as if it is happening in current time. The part of the brain that handles memory, the amygdala, goes haywire. It’s as if you’re plugging a huge machine into a tiny electrical socket- it’s overwhelm and shut down.
She is going to have to grapple with guilt because it’s much easier to blame oneself (“I shouldn’t have worn that,” or “I shouldn’t have stopped to talk to them”) than to acknowledge that bad things just happen out of the blue and we have no control.
Rape survivors are also at increased risk of future victimization, and suicidal ideation. The chance of being victimized a second or third or fourth time increases greatly after the first incident. When women’s boundaries are violently violated, there is a dis-regulation that happens that makes it harder to know which situations are safe versus dangerous. Women usually lose sense of their personal boundaries and get victimized over and over again, or they put up extremely rigid boundaries that prevent any sort of nurturing to enter.
There is a long road of recovery ahead of her, and she’ll need some safe, trusting people around to do the work. Healing is possible, but it takes a long time and a large commitment.
If you’ve been a victim of sexual assault, you can contact me to set up a counseling appointment or get help from the following hotlines:
Bay Area Women Against Rape
Oakland, CA 94612
Hotline Phone: 510-845-7273
Highland Hospital Sexual Assault Center
Oakland, CA 94602
Hotline Phone: 510-534-9290