Racism? Misogyny? Take your pick

Was a college girl gang-raped? Or were five innocent men nearly railroaded into standing trial?

Published September 17, 2009 8:18PM (EDT)

The story started out as an outrageous incident of campus violence: Earlier this week, an unnamed student at Hofstra University in Long Island, New York claimed a young black man stole her cell-phone at a campus party on Sunday morning, lured her into a dormitory bathroom, tied her up with rope, then he and four of his friends took turns gang-raping her. By Tuesday, four black and Latino men had been rounded up, with their names and mug shots plastered all over TV and newspapers. Then, on Wednesday night, Nassau County District attorney Kathleen Rice announced that the girl had made it all up. The sex, she said, was “consensual.”

It’s still not clear what happened in that dormitory bathroom on Sunday morning, but one thing is clear: This case is one hot mess of sexual and racial politics. Is this a story about one girl capitalizing on the fear of black and Latino men? Is it a story of a rape victim intimidated into recanting her testimony?

As far as I can tell from the few details of the case that have been released, these are the some of the possible scenarios, all of them ugly: a) The girl actually did have sex with some or all of the men in the bathroom, then freaked out and claimed rape. B) She had sex with someone else entirely, and, as in a scene out of some novel from an earlier era, was so ashamed that she claimed rape and rounded up the most likely suspects, i.e. some black and Latino men she spotted on her campus. C) She flat-out lied about the incident, for reasons of her own, and recanted her testimony when she realized there was no DNA evidence. D) She actually was gang-raped in the bathroom but was either intimidated by the men themselves, or took one look at the inevitable media circus to come and may have quite reasonably concluded that recovering from a rape would be easier than spending a few years at the focal point of a politically charged trial. Or as long as we’re spinning fiction here, maybe she got knocked up by her black boyfriend and wanted to concoct a story for her racist parents. Who the hell knows? Anything is possible.

Which is it: racism, misogyny, a shameful dig at the idea that “all men can be rapists”? All of these scenarios come loaded with deep historical baggage. Those who believe that she actually did participate in a gang-bang, and liked it, have called her a slut. Over at Gothamist, the commenters went wild: “Who enjoys this kind of sex in a dorm bathroom?” asked one. “That’s what these guys get for having crazy fun with an easy young woman,” chimed in another. Those who initially saw her as a helpless young woman victimized by predatory men, didn’t wait for the men to be proven guilty before they started labeling them as “animals,” and “bacterium” and hoped they would “get their own jailhouse payback.” “Just looking at their mug shots” – which, one might point out, is a very familiar line-up of scared-looking, large, dark-skinned young men -- makes me want to throw up,” says one commenter on the NBC news site.

We don’t know if the men’s accuser is white, but we certainly know that there is a long and shameful history of stereotyping black men as sexual predators that dates back centuries, and I would even go so far as to argue that, in the absence of any racial identification of the victim, the iconography of a white woman brutalized by a black man goes so deep that it may account for the viciousness of some people’s response. One of the most famous gang-rape cases of the ‘80s, the case of the Central Park jogger, ended with five black teenagers serving twelve years for allegedly raping a white investment banker, until they were exonerated in 2002, after new DNA evidence suggested that all five had been intimidated into making false confessions. If she is white, her case would be the mirror image of the most famous gang-rape case of this century, when three white Duke lacrosse players were accused, then acquitted, of raping a black stripper. In that case, we were giving the narrative of three privileged white guys taking advantage of a black woman; in this case, at the very least, we would have seen a college girl targeting men whom she may not have thought were her social peers (one of the men did attend Hofstra; it’s unclear if the other four accused were also college students).

Both cases, if we believe they were resolved correctly, instead have another end: A woman attempting to ruin the lives of men through imprisoning them for an act they did not commit. Perhaps, having glimpsed the hell of a very public trial, the girl, like other rape victims before her, decided that it just wasn’t worth it (though the fact that the district attorney was so quick to dismiss the charges suggests that either evidence that she had sex with the men at all may have been lacking, or that there was other evidence that seemed to prove it was consensual). Or perhaps she stopped short of making a despicable mistake. Those whom presume the latter have responded with rage every bit as hateful as that leveled against the young men earlier in the week, back when they were rapists. For a taste, here’s Gothamist again: “I guess those four guys get one free gang rape of this bitch.”

By contrast, the men who were allegedly falsely accused seem like paragons of forgiveness. “Basically, I have no hard feelings towards her,” Stalin Felipe, 19, told a local television station. “I don’t know her so I don’t want to say anything bad about her. I grew up in an all women household. I have sisters. I respect women. I would never disrespect women, so being accused of that hurt me and my brother, you know? I’m just happy that everything is finally out in the open and we get to go home.” When told that the district attorney was considering filing charges against the woman for falsely accusing the men, his sister, Carol, 34, told the Daily News that she thought the woman “deserves a second chance. The nice thing is, she told the truth now. Right now, we are all happy.”

If these young men really did commit the crime, this response would be borderline sociopathic, but if not they are certainly showing more kindness and restraint than many of their defenders. I’m hardly in the position to say what I think happened. Truly, I have no idea which scenario fits. But if there’s any lesson to be had, it seems to be this: All of us are conditioned by a very real legacy of racism and sexism that may cause us to pin real life situations onto the narrative that seems to fit them best. Sometimes we are right. Sometimes we are completely fucking wrong. And while we all have our trigger points, it would seem that spending a little extra time cooling off might at least give us time to figure out what story we are actually in. Victims and villains, after all, don’t track neatly into demographic categories. Wasn’t that the lesson we were supposed to be learning all along?

By Amy Benfer

Amy Benfer is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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