The Trenches

Three girls, ages 14-16, in Norman, Oklahoma, are out of school following their having allegedly been raped by another student. He too is out of school, having been suspended for the remainder of the year. (No criminal charges have yet been filed, though there is audio of the student bragging to peers about one of the rapes.) The girls, on the other hand, are absent for reasons that are regrettably too familiar. One was apparently herself suspended when she swung her backpack at a student who was taunting her about having been raped. Another was apparently suspended for appearing at school under the influence the day following her alleged rape. The last has simply been unable to bear attending owing to the taunting and has “chosen” to stay home.

What is most striking in all this is the result: three students allegedly raped are out of school but, to my knowledge, the students who have bullied them and all who have passed along video of one of the rapes on social media are still attending. Whatever the efforts of the school, this is exactly the wrong result. Every girl in this school is now effectively on notice that it does not pay to report a rape, that silence is the prudent course.

There are so many agonizing things about this, one hardly knows where to begin. But two questions I have are these:

1. What are the conditions under which high school students learn to bully rape victims? I realize I may sound naïve in asking this, but in an environment in which younger people often evince attitudes often far more progressive than their elders, how does it come about that taunting rape victims is acceptable?

2. Related to the above, what are the effective ways a school can push back against this? It seems to me that generic anti-bullying strategies are likely to be insufficient but does anyone know of resources for “best practices” in education for addressing such problems? That is, what would one tell a school in this situation to do?

15 thoughts on “The Trenches

  1. Just speculating, but rapists are strategic; they seek out vulnerable targets in order to reduce the risk of any consequences for their actions. So perhaps it’s that the victims were already unpopular, and targeted by the rapist for that reason, and are now being bullied by the same people who bullied them before, and mostly for the same reasons (just new taunts), rather than there being any substantial number of kids who think rape victims deserve to be bullied just because they’re rape victims.

  2. Protagoras, I find that still puzzling. This seems to suggest that bullies will bully and any weapon to hand will suffice, but I suppose that I can’t credit that psychology and would think that even a hardened bully will have “standards” about what it is in bounds and what not. Peer disapproval matters, even to bullies, and thus there must be a perception of this being in bounds for it to happen. If that’s right, then the problem extends beyond the individual bully and I think surely it does here.

  3. Our social framework is always on “due process” (that is, not punishing or having negative consequences) for the perpetrator, and no concern for justice, restitution, or support for the victim (and in fact many supposedly “progressive” people implicitly support the idea that the victim should be de facto punished for reporting, such as being forced to leave schools, because “due process”).

    There’s a deeply ingrained response to blame victims, partially because of the “just world” psychological response, but also because being a victim in a culture centered around the value of “agency” is automatically denigrated. I hear all the time that feminists “make women into victims” (even and perhaps especially from other feminists).

  4. Our social framework is always on “due process” (that is, not punishing or having negative consequences) for the perpetrator, and no concern for justice, restitution, or support for the victim (and in fact many supposedly “progressive” people implicitly support the idea that the victim should be de facto punished for reporting, such as being forced to leave schools, because “due process”).

    There’s a deeply ingrained response to blame victims, partially because of the “just world” psychological response, but also because being a victim in a culture centered around the value of “agency” is automatically denigrated. I hear all the time that feminists “make women into victims” (even and perhaps especially from other feminists).

  5. I agree with Protagoras. School bullies are incredibly cruel and will always seek out the most vulnerable target and who could be more vulnerable than a recent rape victim?

    The best way to stop a bully is to hit them back, very hard and where it hurts.

  6. I think that Protagoras and Egbert are mostly right in that the only standard a bully needs is “does this hurt?” I don’t think the concepts of “hurt too much” or “go too far” are applicable. The point is to rule others by fear.

    I do think Prof. Manners is right about social approval mattering to bullies, but I would phrase the question as “why is rape something you can shame the victim with?” My impression is that that is a well answered question, Coates’ recent article at The Atlantic gets into a little. In addition, I think the framework of “boys ought to pursue sex, girls ought to deny it” leads to the view that girls who are raped failed to be good girls.

  7. C.K.Egbert wrote:
    being a victim in a culture centered around the value of “agency” is automatically denigrated.

    Thank you for that succinct and powerful observation.

  8. Like Prof Manners, I don’t understand the response by Protagoras and others. The assumption seems to be that certain people are just essentially bullies, and all their behaviors can be understood in terms of the imperative to bully. That certainly doesn’t match my own childhood experience with (relatively mild forms of) bullying.

  9. I think it is very important in this case to remember that these are _children_. That makes the wrongs all the more horrifying, but it also makes me feel distaste for the idea that the solution is hitting back, and hitting back hard. Hitting children hard might in fact be the only viable solution. I hope not, but lots of these issues are nearly unbearably sad.

    To be clear, I’m not saying anyone in this thread above me is wrong — far from it. Just that these things seem complicated, terrible, and sad to me. I hope I never have to deal with these issues directly in the classroom, though I’m also sure that hope is naive. I would love a way to shepherd students or a class in these cases that didn’t immediately require me to jump to the proceduralism of the criminal law or the condemnation and the execration of the worst of religious litmus testing.

  10. Anon grad student,

    I agree with you that more violence (hit back where it hurts) is not the ideal solution, However, if you read the article linked to, you’ll see an incredible world of sexism, violence and bureaucratic passivity, which will take a Marshall Plan of re-education and therapy to change.

    Until that Marshall Plan takes place, hit back where it hurts seems like a first step in resisting evil. Political organization might be well the best second step.

  11. In response to 10, I take the argument to be that people who bully, and who tolerate bullying, do not organize their behavior by any standard other than opportunity and impunity. This is why bullying, although sometimes perpetrated by a few bad actors, often becomes so general, and usually finds itself tolerated by both peers and authorities. It is not bad behavior that comes from following a bad rule; it is cruelty that takes advantage of the ways that applying rules can be difficult to accomplish evenly.

    Anecdotally, in my experience many bullies and bully-tolerators, especially children and young people from working- to upper-middle-class backgrounds, are in a state of absolute and total denial about the existence of trauma. They just don’t want to believe that experiences and memories, as such, can have a detrimental effect on one’s future well-being. They often refuse to accept that sexual assaults, in particular, may be more psychologically harmful than, say, jostling someone to tease them.

    This denialism is partly a maturity issue in some cases, but in all cases reflects a moral failure that goes beyond bullies and bystanders themselves, to encompass social institutions that maintain and enforce naive, partial, or merely formal ideas of comity, charity, empathy, collective responsibility, etc. Where the message is “humanity is following the rules,” every kind of inhumanity can live between the rules.

  12. In studies of workplace bullying, it looks as though the amount of bullying varies inversely with general concern and respect in the Institution for the workers.

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