When “When Neutrality Fails” Fails

This is something of a partial retraction.

When I first read the story about the alleged gang-rape by eighteen males in Cleveland, Texas, my first thought was: there’s something missing here, because the story makes no sense. This is because I simply could not imagine any circumstances under which the alleged events could possibly occur. I assumed that as the story developed, new facts would come to light that would portray the events in fundamentally different terms than they initially were.

After reading Alone’s comments at Partial Objects calling attention to the fact that the accused were all black males, and that there was a paucity of evidence that the story was true, this suggested a narrative that made some kind of sense, a kind of Jena Six story set against the backdrop of a century of false accusations of rape leveled against African-American men as an instrument of social control. That, at least, made more sense. Against the backdrop of that hypothesis, I suggested that the New York Times had failed to do its job by trying to suppress information about the ethnicity of the accused in a well-intentioned attempt to avoid stoking racial animosity, and then got bitten by its readers as a result of their inevitable misconstruction. Imagine, I thought, if the Times had tried to report the Jena Six story while trying to studiously avoid disclosing the race of any of the characters in the story. Now while I did make a point of stressing how little we actually know about what occurred, the underlying thought was that whatever it was, it couldn’t be something as stark as “eighteen males gang-rape an eleven year old in a trailer.”

Now I’m not so sure. There are two fundamental facts that elude understanding which may begin to make sense, if we add an additional component to the story.

The first is, how could the attack have happened in the first place. No matter how monstrous one is willing to believe men and boys can be, it still strains the imagination that a group of this size could plan and execute a crime this awful. That this remains difficult to articulate is, I believe, an unfortunate by-product of feminism’s politicizing of rape since the 1970s: as I write these words, I feel a community looking over my shoulder whispering that it is politically incorrect to think that it is psychologically implausible that almost twenty young men might get together and say “I know what let’s do! Let’s lure an eleven year old into a trailer and rape her repeatedly!” If one says this, one is complicit in a culture that condones rape, refuses to believe women, etc. etc. Still.

The second is, how could the community from which the boys and men hail have been so morally obtuse as to blame the girl or her family? Why was the claim about how she dressed provocatively being trotted out as if the girl were twenty-five and we were all still living in the 1950s?

My proposed narrative made a certain amount of sense (and to Alone as well, apparently): the attacks didn’t occur as described, and the African-American community was responding to the injustice of the false accusations. Now one of the peculiarities of blogging is that one is poised somewhere between the role of a news journalist and an opinion columnist; I tend to see my role as more like the latter. But there is some journalist-like desire to “break a story” and be the first to make sense of a rapidly developing sequence of events. A journalist friend suggested rather delicately to me that I had crossed a line in my speculations that, had I been a professional journalist, would’ve violated professional ethics. I see now the cogency of this, and want to express some regret for writing impetuously. To paraphrase an old religious expression, the Internet is not finished with me yet.

So it is with some trepidation that I wade into the facts and begin speculating again. What I hope is that the reader will take what is offered here for what it is: speculation that may promote understanding and more importantly, investigation. For some context, we note that the original Houston Chronicle story notes the following alleged facts unstated by the Times. First, the episode that is the heart of the story was one of three episodes that took place over a three month period. Second, an attorney close to the story claimed that as many as twenty-eight men and boys may ultimately be prosecuted. What this suggests is not a random barbaric episode, but some sort of established pattern. Third, the girl was removed from her home by child protective services, and is not only being sequestered from the media and the community, but from her family as well. Though it may seem even more incredible than the gang-rape story, I think the most plausible interpretation of these facts points to prostitution.

If the girl had been coerced into prostitution by someone in the community, and the family was either responsible, complicit or negligent, suddenly all the events make sense. Women and girls in prostitution are often vulnerable to violence from customers, and the context of the prostitution transaction can contribute to a sense of entitlement by the customer as well as a perception of the prostitute as existing outside the boundaries of the moral community and its constraints. Secondly, it explains the size of the group and the multiple episodes. And thirdly, it explains the otherwise inexplicable blaming the victim phenomenon in the community from which accused hail.

Let us be clear: an eleven year old cannot consent to sex, so even without violence, this would be a moral outrage as well as a crime. Furthermore, the prostitution context, if this is correct, in no way condones the violence if it did occur. It is perfectly coherent to envision a prostitute being raped, and the context makes it probable. The purpose of this speculation is to make the facts as we have them makes sense, not to excuse them. But one may well wonder: isn’t this even more implausible than the original story? An eleven year old prostitute? In America?

According to an Attorney General’s report, some 14,000 human beings are trafficked into the United States annually. According to University of California at Berkeley research, as many as 46% of people in slavery in the United States are forced into prostitution. A State Department report indicates that most of the people trafficked into the U.S. come from Mexico or East Asia. And according to a Health and Human Services report, 14% of minors arrested for prostitution in one year were under the age of 14. [all references here].

To repeat my earlier post, what do we know about the events in Cleveland, Texas with confidence? At this point, next to nothing. On the basis of my first glimpse of the story, I had thought that what we were dealing with was yet another legacy of American slavery. But the truth may be far worse: we may be dealing with actual slavery.

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2 comments on “When “When Neutrality Fails” Fails

  1. Victoria says:

    I appreciate the thoughtful reflections. Made me think further on this, too. Thanks.

  2. Pliny the Elder says:

    “an eleven year old cannot consent to sex”

    By now one would expect at least educated people to understand the idea of an age of consent. Unfortuantely, I have noticed that many otherwise intelligent people, particularly when dealing with immigration issues, cannot grasp the notion. Most recently, in the Washington Law Review note on Estrada-Espinosa, the student author repeatedly refers to the victim’s (and her parents’) consent, as if that were possible and relevant.
    If it is not legally possible for the person to consent then the person did not consent.

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