That's what experts and a review of such cases suggest.
What do I mean by “nice”? I think some of you know what I mean. Middle, upper class, possibly suburban, and, often, yes, white.
Richmond, Contra Costa County’s oil-refinery town to the west, is front and center of the 24-hour news cycle for a horrific crime, the gang rape of a 15-year-old girl, committed, allegedly by 10 males, and witnessed by more than 20 others.
During the two-hour attack, outside Richmond High's homecoming dance, the girl was invited to drink with a group. She collapsed from drinking too much too suddenly. She was then beaten, robbed, stripped naked and repeatedly sexually assaulted. As she was attacked, others stopped, watched, and even took photos with their cell phones. No one intervened, until word reached a group of students and former students watching a movie at a house a few blocks away. Someone finally called 911, and police arrived and broke it up.
Six suspects so far have been arrested, and four were arraigned Thursday on a litany of charges, the San Francisco Chronicle says. Three are juveniles being charged as adults.
"This crime was extremely callous and brutal," said Deputy District Attorney Dara Cashman. "We've been getting expressions of outrage from all over the country."
Yes, the crime was callous and brutal, and Richmond High, likewise, has been inundated with e-mails, comparing its students to animals. The Contra Costa Times says that young people in Richmond “increasingly feel as though they are on trial themselves, as a national chorus of gawkers judges them based on the inaction of the few who hooted and laughed.”
Two disturbing narratives are going on with this case, and these narratives have repeated themselves over the years in American chronicles. They have also generated plenty of scholarly study.
The first is the mentality—individual and group--of gang rape. The second is the “bystander effect.” This social psychological phenomenon entered the national consciousness following the 1964 stabbing and murder of 28-year-old Kitty Genovese, near her home in the Kew Gardens section of Queens, New York in 1964. Initial newspaper accounts say more than three dozen people witnessed her killing but didn’t intervene or call for help. Those initial reports were later found to have been exaggerated, but the case remains a powerful symbol for social anomie.
Running alongside these two narratives is the idea that if something this reprehensible is going to happen among a crowd of teen-agers, it’s probably going to happen in a place like Richmond.
Yes, Richmond has its reputation. For impoverished neighborhoods, remorseless teen assassins, fatherless boys, unwed moms, and school kids psychologically scarred by a form of post-traumatic stress disorder that comes from growing up in violent neighborhoods.
But that’s only part of Richmond. I used to work there. I got to know its tough side, but I also got to know its wealth of cultural history and some of its decent, hard-working residents, of all races, who were trying to raise their kids, take care of their homes, and contribute to their community.
Also, if you start searching around for other cases involving gang rape or the bystander effect, you will find that these situations also arise in “nice” communities, amongst “nice” students at “nice” secondary or college campuses—even elite college campuses. The perpetrators are often members of the same athletic team or fraternity brothers. Sure, Richmond has some neighborhoods, where robberies, shootings and assaults are almost daily occurrences. But according to the experts, the factors involved in that kind of street violence are not necessarily that same conditions that fuel a pack mentality and violent sexual assaults.
Remember the 2007 case involving a group of DeAnza College baseball players? These students from the campus in affluent Cupertino were accused of sexually assaulted a 17-year-old girl. She was intoxicated to the point of being comatose, and was saved by three players for the school's women's soccer team. Protests erupted over the Santa Clara County District Attorney's office declining to prosecute (pictured above).
And going back to the Kitty Genovese murder: I don’t know much about Kew Gardens in 1964 or now but from what I've read about it, I don’t get the impression that it has ever been a tough inner-city kind of neighborhood.
Gang sexual assault and the bystander effect can also take place amongst military units. Abu Ghirab, anyone? And just yesterday, I came across such a story, broken by a young journalist from Lafayette who is now finishing school at New York University. This story, by Rachel Krantz, has been picked up by the Huffington Post and NPR. Her reporting uncovered a culture of sexual harassment, assault, hazing, bystander indifference, and enforced silence taking place amongst a special Navy unit posted in Bahrain.
Peggy Reeves Sanday is a University of Pennsylvania anthropology professor who has studied the factors that give rise to gang rape, and those factors can apply to groups of males from a variety of backgrounds and in a variety of social settings.
In her book, Fraternity Rape Gang Rape: Sex, Brotherhood, and Privilege on Campus, which was re-released in a second edition in 2007. She initially looked at a gang rape case that occurred on her own campus, but also cites incidents at Notre Dame, Brigham Young University, the University of Colorado, Boulder, Morehead State University, and the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga.
"These and other incidents in secondary schools and gangs demonstrate that the same underlying behavior occurs across the U.S. social spectrum, not just on college campuses," she wrote. "It is reported in elite and nonelite secondary schools and among street gangs. It is not restricted to whites, blacks, or other ethnic groups.
When she uses the term “fraternity gang rape,” she says she's using it in its broader sense to mean a group of persons associated by or as if by ties of brotherhood, or any group or class of persons having common purposes and interests.
The commonality, she says, "is male bonding in sex acts in which the males involved aid and abet the activity."
These situations often occur in party settings, like the case among the DeAnza College baseball players or among the Richmond High gang rape suspects.
"In party settings," Sandy writes, "boys examine the girls ... play the host by plying them with drinks … "
Sanday continues, and describes the group dynamics involved:
"If, as sometimes happens, the behavior mushrooms into group sex, there is always the question of whether the girl consented. The boys may not even consider the possibility that she may have been too drunk too consent. They assume that by drinking she signaled her desire for sex.
"The woman involved is a tool, an object, the centerfold around which boys both test and demonstrate their power and heterosexual desire by performing for one another.
They prove their manhood on a wounded girl who is unable to protest. Her body stands in for the object of desire in porno-staged acts of sexual intercourse that boys often watch together.
"Who she is doesn’t matter and she is quickly forgotten after it’s all over—sloughed off like a used condom. The event operates to glue the male group as a unified entity; it establishes fraternal bonding and helps boys to make the transition to their vision of powerful manhood—in unity against women, one against the