Annamarya Scaccia spoke to a gang rape survivor about her experience and how the current conversation to stop the violence needs more male voices.
(Warning: Post contains a graphic, detailed account of a sexual assault.)
The assaults happened throughout the year. In the hallways, the gym, the classrooms.
Sometimes the boys were in pairs. Sometimes they were alone. They pushed 13-year-old Amy R.* against the walls or restrained her arms. They molested her body. As the year progressed, the attacks got worse. She told her teacher and her mom, but they both said she had to learn “to deal with that kind of attention—that all women had to deal with it.” Her mother didn’t want to know if Amy “got ruined,” and her male teacher said the boys “were out of control,” and she should just stay away from them.
That teacher witnessed two assaults. While he stopped the boys, he never punished them. Instead, he told Amy that if she was flirting with them, to stop, and to not wear perfume or makeup. She should wear high-necked shirts, he said, and if the boys tried anything, to “knock the hell out of them.” Another teacher also witnessed and stopped an attack—this time, the boys were punished but the teacher never uttered a word of it to Amy, nor did she question if it was the first or last time Amy was assaulted.
Amy had no one to protect her on that final school day in 1985.
It was her eighth grade class’s graduation. Seven boys, ages 12 to 15, cornered her in the gym. Two boys restrained her while the others sexually assaulted her. She screamed and fought back. A cafeteria worker investigating the noise yelled at Amy’s attackers to let her go. Free, she ran to the bathroom and hid.
Later, while on stage preparing for the ceremony, the boys found her alone in an enclosed space. They grabbed and dragged her back, shoving her down onto a table. A hand covered her mouth, her arms held down. They pushed her shirt and bra up, and pulled her pants and underwear down. Her legs were forced apart.
“I remember feeling smothered and struggling, and I remember pain. After that, things go grey,” says Amy, now 41. “I have an image of floating near the ceiling and looking down at myself, surrounded by these boys—I had known most of them since kindergarten—and then going away to some quiet, dim space like a waiting room, where I felt safe. The rest of the memories are scattered; there are bits of conversation, gloating, and laughter.”
Amy remembers being alone in the bathroom afterwards, the water running. She felt cold; blood streaked her legs and hands. She stared at herself in the mirror, repeating that she was OK, that nothing happened. Eventually, she returned to class, sat in the back, and spoke to no one. During graduation, in front of 100 people, she gave her valedictorian speech. Her picture was even taken with some of her attackers.
“I have some of the photos. I was smiling even though I could barely breathe. My ribs were badly bruised during the assault and it hurt to move for about a month afterward,” she says. “I remember being very careful not to show my fear or my pain. I couldn’t let anyone know that I’d been raped.”
The boys threatened to harm her if she said anything.
“I felt that anyone I told would see me as ruined, as less than good, and at fault for what happened…I had already tried to get help several times and no one cared enough to make the boys who were molesting and assaulting me stop,” she says.
“To many survivors of multiple perpetrator assaults, the perpetrators are not just those who actively participate in the assault, but also those who are watching and do nothing to stop it,” says Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network’s (RAINN) VP of Victim Services, Jennifer Marsh. “Many perpetrators who participate in multiple perpetrator assaults would most likely never commit a rape by themselves. The idea that partaking in the assault reinforces membership in a particular group is why we often see these types of assaults among sports teams, fraternities, gangs, etc.”
This desire for “group reinforcement” is unique to multiple assailant rape, suggests the 1979 book, Men Who Rape: The Psychology of the Offender. Gang rape offenders are not only compensating for feelings of anger, frustration, and inadequacy; they’re also driven by the “rapport, fellowship, and cooperation with the co-offenders.” Put bluntly: The victim is merely a means of validation and interaction, of asserting dominance.
Participation, for those involved after the rape is initiated, can be an issue of social obligation or a way to fortify their masculinity and achieve respect. Their immersion also offers the initiator a false sense of absolution, and “satisfies the need…to feel in charge and in control.” Even accomplices—bystanders and restrainers alike—present a means of power. It’s intimidation by numbers.
In the case of Steubenville, Ohio, this demand for supremacy was aggrandized by the use of social media. The victim was defenseless against the attack’s physicality and the condemnatory jury of online gossipers. Photographs, Twitter posts, text messages, and an unnerving 12-minute video chronicled that night, shared both online and passed among friends.
“The Steubenville case resonated with me because of the parallels between it and my own. Both her assault and mine were perpetrated by boys we knew and went to school with,” says Amy. “My assault took place long before digital cameras or cell phones were available so I didn’t have to deal with photo records of what happened to me. But I did have to go back to school the next fall to rumors that I’d had sex with seven boys in the gym, and that I had wanted it. In some circles, she will forever be objectified either as ‘that girl who was raped’ or ‘that girl who got drunk and then had sex with all those guys.’…The aftermath of rape is life-long.”
While organizations like Men Stopping Violence works tirelessly to engage men in sexual violence prevention, there’s still a noticeable lack of male voices, particularly high profile ones, present. It’s easy to theorize why—centuries of patriarchy, colonialism, inequality, and sanctioned violent masculinity have arrested women’s bodies, mere monuments to sexual objectification and control. Antiquity frames us as a battleground, trampled by contemptuous others endorsing messages that steal our autonomy. We’re struggling endlessly for some semblance of equivalence. It’s our fight. So what investment is there for men?
A lot. They are the brothers, fathers, uncles, friends, partners, and grandfathers to these victims—the nearly 1 in 5 women who have been raped in their lifetime. They have an indispensable role in ensuring they are safe and empowered, and receive the same veneration their inherent privilege grants. They have an investment in them, which means they have an investment in all women.
Sexual violence is not just a “women’s issue,” it’s an issue of shared humanity. But framing it as a “women’s issue” is injurious, and makes it problematic for men—and even women—to recognize their role in propagating it, suggests experts in the FrameWorks Institute’s 2010 Research Report, “American Perceptions of Sexual Violence.”
“Men must understand that when they objectify women, they are perpetuating a culture of discrimination and rape,” Amy says. “Men should be insulted when it is insinuated that a woman is to blame for her rape because she wore sexy clothes or makeup—that also insinuates that all men are potential rapists and that they have no control over their own bodies or actions.”
It’s not only a matter of categorization. It’s also one of public perception. Take for example this quote from a lay American cited in the FrameWorks report:
“It could be anybody. It could be a man, woman, or a child. It could be an older person, an elderly. [But], for the most part, it’s women. I’m sure I’ve heard of men getting raped, but physically, the way we’re designed, men are always stronger. It’s not like you hear men getting gang raped by a gang of women, but you’ve heard of women getting gang raped by men. So, for the most part, it is women.”
The belief “men are always stronger” is damaging. Painting men as physically superior while silently referring to women as weaker only perpetuates gendered stereotypes. It also alienates male rape survivors, who struggle with societal ideas of masculinity and emotionally infallibility. “Strength is no guarantor of safety,” Amy says. “I was physically very strong when I was raped, but anyone can be overpowered. It doesn’t take seven people to overpower one person either—sometimes fear itself is overpowering.”
Even though men make up three percent of sexual violence victims, their stories and courage also play a vital part in dispelling harmful perceptions and helping men understand their role in proliferating rape culture—and how they can better serve as allies. The louder the voice, the less power destructive perceptions have.
“I realize that my language is often female-specific, but all survivors regardless of gender or orientation or any other codifying factor should feel free to speak up and be heard, be accepted, be supported, and have justice,” Amy says. “I think it is one of the most important things we can do as a society to impact our cultural viewpoint on rape and sexual violence.”
*Full name withheld
Annamarya Scaccia is an award-winning freelance journalist and graphic designer who’s written extensively on sexual violence, reproductive health & rights, marriage equality, constitutional issues, body image, and gender roles, among other rousing topics. Her work has appeared in/on Philadelphia Weekly, Philadelphia City Paper, Prince George’s Suite Magazine, RHRealityCheck.org, TheDailyFemme.com, BLURT, and Origivation. Follow her on Twitter @sitswithpasta.