September 7, 2011

Group rape getting long-overdue spotlight

Groups of men and boys have been raping lone, vulnerable girls and women since time immemorial. (Read Judges 19 in the Old Testament for one chilling account.) In fact, group rape is woven so tightly into the fabric of Western civilization that hardly anyone ever stops to think about it. Until now, that is.

When I did my first literature review of the topic back in 2003, for an article conceptualizing it as a theatrical production of hegemonic masculinity, I was astonished by the paucity of research. That is starting to change, thanks in large part to the tireless efforts of two prolific young scholars in the UK, Miranda Horvath of Middlesex University and Jessica Woodhams of the University of Birmingham.
Horvath and Woodhams secured funding from the British Psychological Society to put together an international consortium of researchers, academics and practitioners to further study the topic. We’re collaborating on an edited volume, which I’m pretty sure will be the first book in the history of the world on the topic of multiple-perpetrator rape. (It’s due out from Routledge in February 2013.)

I’m here in London giving a talk on the role of masculinity and culture in multiple-perpetrator rape, at the second of three research seminars. As I found in an analysis of international media coverage (which I will present in the upcoming book), Western societies display a cultural schizophrenia toward this phenomenon: Even as the public at large condemns group rape, contradictory messages permit and even reinforce it, fueling a cycle of masculine misconduct. 

London after the riots

Piccadilly Circus, 2011 (by K. Franklin)
London is a fitting backdrop for a seminar on group violence. Even as the city frenetically prepares to host the 2012 Olympics, it struggles to regain equilibrium in the wake of last month’s severe and economically costly rioting

Yesterday, I watched live BBC coverage of a government hearing into the police response to the rioting. Although the hearing covered a broad range of issues, Britain’s popular media latched onto a quote by Justice Secretary Ken Clarke, blaming the rioting on a "feral underclass." With coded racial language like that, it's no surprise that the rioting has led to increased racial prejudice and xenophobia among the British public, according to a just-released study. A greater number of respondents who felt that British society and culture were under threat are now expressing hostility toward Muslims, blacks and eastern Europeans.

London 2011 (K. Franklin)
Bolstering the racialized image in the public's mind is the much-ballyhooed statistic that three-quarters of those convicted of riot-related crimes had prior criminal records.  Of course, as the police were the first to admit during yesterday’s hearing, those with prior criminal histories were easiest to find, and so were rounded up after the riots. In other words, if you weren’t a known criminal you were less likely to get arrested, thereby producing a misleading statistic.

More broadly, why would anyone be surprised that members of an unemployed and disenfranchised underclass would be the first to rise up in protest over a police killing? Or that the have-nots would seize any opportunity to steal from the haves? Britain's confronting the problem today, but the rioting should serve as a wake-up call to every nation with severe economic and social disparities.

Ironically, by seizing upon the isolated quote and statistic, the popular media distorted what the justice secretary and other government leaders were saying. They were actually promoting the concept of rehabilitation. Calling the penal system "broken," the Secretary commented:
It's no good just punishing them. We're failing to make sure that those that are capable of being reformed are reformed and are actually sorting out their drugs, their drink, given a slightly more sensible approach to the values of society so that at least fewer of them will start causing trouble again the next time they have a chance.
Next up: Sexual violence conference

Stay tuned: Tomorrow I will be giving the opening keynote at a conference on sexual violence prevention, also here at Middlesex University in North London. Time allowing, I'll have more to report from my visit.


Bill Bell said...

"contradictory messages permit and even reinforce [group rape]"

Would you please explain?

Karen Franklin, Ph.D. said...

Hi Bill,

Thanks for your interest. In a nutshell, mainstream media maximize and sensationalize some cases (especially ones involving non-white offenders), while downplaying the severity of others, for example minimizing them as mistakes borne of poor judgment, victim precipitation, and/or miscommunication between the sexes. There's more complexity, but it's a 45-minute lecture and book chapter that I don't have time to give justice to here.

Cavall de Quer said...

Very interesting - look forward to the next lot of updates!