[Trigger warning: this article contains a graphic description of sexual assault]
Once again, all eyes are focused on the (alleged) rape of a teenage girl by a high school athlete. This year, we’re talking about Maryville, MO. Last year —yes, it was only last year—it was Steubenville, OH. Once again, we’re left to wonder what’s wrong with some apparently upright boys in tight-knit communities.
There are many things that bother us about cases like these. One of them is that the rapists don’t fit our image of bad guys. They’re not bad guys jumping out from behind buildings randomly raping girls, nor are they the kids “we always knew” would get in serious trouble. These are (mostly) likable boys, guys who play for the high school team and are at least reasonably good at school. They also come from “good” families, families that are well known and respected. So we ask ourselves: how could these kids possibly be rapists?
Let me tell you a story. The year is 1989. We’re Glen Ridge, NJ. It’s the kind of suburb you might have chosen if you were upper middle class. It was quiet, safe, and had good schools. Most of the adults were educated professionals who worked in fields like law and finance and voted for Reagan and Bush. And then. And then a group of their boys lured a 16 year old mentally retarded* girl into one of the boys’ houses and sexually assaulted her. To be specific, she was coerced into performing oral sex and she was vaginally penetrated with a broom handle and a toy wooden baseball bat, about 18 inches long. The event was led by one of the captains of the football team. A dozen of his friends were there, most of whom were athletes; 6 left at some point during the events, but only one or two ever told the captain to stop. All the boys who stayed were football players. The story didn’t come until a few weeks later. Although the girls’ mother knew something was wrong, she would only tell her story in small pieces before clamming up. The subsequent investigation gathered a lot of evidence, including eyewitness testimony from several of the boys. Three of the boys were subsequently convicted of sexual assault and a fourth was convicted of conspiracy. The investigation was shifted from the police department to the prosecutor’s office when the police department discovered that one of the detectives’ sons had been in the basement.
Comparing the three events reveals some scarily similar lessons about how to raise—or not raise—a boy who thinks he can get away with rape. Most of the information about Maryville comes from an excellent piece of investigative journalism by Dugan Arnett of the Kansas City Star and the story of Glen Ridge was told in Bernard Lefkowitz’s book. Steubenville was well-documented online. To raise a seemingly nice, upstanding boy who could rape a girl that’s not capable of giving consent due to her IQ or state of inebriation, you need to start at home.
1. Teach him the rules don’t apply at home. In Glen Ridge and Steubenville, it became clear that the boys were rarely punished at home or punishments weren’t actually enforced. Whether that’s because the parents weren’t around, the boys always managed to talk their way out of it, or the parents wrote off misbehavior as “boys being boys” doesn’t really matter. Punishment at home was rare and when it did happen, it was easily subverted.
2. Teach him the rules don’t apply at school. The boys didn’t really get punished at school either. Sure, they may have gotten bad grades—Cs, for example—but they were routinely not written up for other infractions like smoking or harassing other students. In effect, they always got the benefit of the doubt and they never had to serve detention or suspension, even when a teacher or administrator had just given another kid a detention for that same offense 2 minutes earlier and it was all happening in front of witnesses. The boys didn’t have to flaunt their family connections or status, everyone knew who they were. On the rare occasion when a teacher would try to enforce the same rules for everyone, another teacher or administrator would undo the penalty and perhaps explain the lay of the land to that teacher.
3. Teach him the rules don’t apply with peers. Lefkowitz talks about a group of girls known as the “Little Mothers” who took care of the boys on the team. They literally cleaned up after the boys by cleaning houses after parties, made sure the boys got home when they were too drunk to walk, and actively protected the boys’ reputations at schools. Several also performed oral – and occasionally agreed to vaginal – sex with the boys. The boys were clear that they did not date the Little Mothers and referred to those blow jobs as “hoovering” (because they sucked like vacuum cleaners). Today, harassing the victims at school and online is relatively effortless and wholly sufficient.
4. Feed his narcissism. If everyone is on plan for numbers 1, 2, and 3, then our boy will learn that he’s above the rules and gets special treatment. He’ll also figure out that whatever he wants to do and however he’s feeling is more important than what anyone else wants or what anyone else is feeling. In other words, it’s all about him. Perhaps more to the point, he won’t learn to be empathic or respond to other people’s feelings because he won’t need to; other people will do the emotional work to smooth things over, although our boy might need to say he’s, y’know, sorry.
5. The parents should have good social standing. These kinds of “favors” don’t get given to anyone, just kids from the “right” families, kids whose parents the teachers, school administrators, or sheriff might socialize with. Or might want to socialize with or curry their own favors from in return. In Maryville, the boy’s grandfather was a longtime member of the Missouri House of Representatives.
6. The kids should have good social standing among their peers. That can be the result of having money for the “right” clothes, a cool car, or having the house to yourself with a stocked liquor cabinet. Or it can be from being the star of the football or basketball team, as was true in all 3 cases. However it happens, he’ll need to be one of the guys that “everyone” wants to know and hang out with. And because everyone wants this guy to like him, they’ll be happy to stick up for the guy and denigrate the girl. Heck, maybe they’ll even burn her house down.
7. Raise him to believe in “traditional” gender and sexual roles. It’ll be especially important to call him girly or a sissy so he learns not to be feminine and has no doubt that girls are inferior. It’s also important that he learn all the misinformation we spew about sex in general and male sexuality in particular, as well as the stud-slut double standard. Encouraging a “take no prisoners” mentality and that it’s perfectly acceptable to pick on people who are different will also help. And because teens (and adults) tend to befriend folks who share their beliefs, those beliefs will get reflected back and reinforced by his buddies.
8. The victim should have little or no status. Choose a teen target who has low status and few friends. Like the retarded* kid (in Glen Ridge). Or the new girl who just moved into Maryville. That’s all it takes. Well, mostly. Even if you do all these things, I can pretty much guarantee that you’ll end up with a self-absorbed son who has little respect for you, the rules, or anyone else. In addition to the opportunity, he’ll still need to decide he’s willing to violate someone at that level. In Steubenville and Glen Ridge, there were lots of guys who had the opportunity but chose not to rape the girl.
*In 1989 it was still mental retardation, not developmental delay