The crime alone was heinous enough. According to police in Cleveland, Texas, an 11-year-old girl there was gang raped six times last fall by a total of at least 19 assailants, some of them boys, some of them ex-cons more than twice her age. Her assailants documented their attacks using cell phone videos and photos that went viral among the victim’s middle-school classmates. Police said the images were shot inside an abandoned trailer where the girl was raped by a string of men, some of them summoned by other assailants who phoned their buddies to invite them to join in the brutality.
The final shocker came when police began making arrests. Many Cleveland residents openly blamed the victim. At a community forum earlier this month, attendees complained that the girl dressed older than her age, flirted too much and made suggestive comments on her Facebook page. As one woman told an Associated Press reporter, ‘she wanted this to happen. I’m not taking nobody’s side, but if she hadn’t put herself in that predicament, this would have never happened.”
The monstrous crime — and the appalling reaction of some Cleveland citizens — has sparked nationwide headlines and an online backlash. Writers from across America have sent angry missives to the local newspaper reminding its readers that no 11-year-old “asks for” gang rape. On Monday, representatives of various advocacy groups held a press conference in the town to urge locals not to “victimize the victim.”
The collective scorn heaped upon Cleveland’s criminals and their excuse-making enablers is richly deserved. Yet taking aim at that distant target does not excuse the rest of us from considering the possibility that Cleveland is not the only place in America where a girl can be stripped of her innocence while a chorus of onlookers scolds her for it.
What happened to that little girl in East Texas is a one-of-a-kind nightmare, far surpassing in its horror the indignities visited on the average middle-schooler. Still, there are shades of her literal stripping and shaming in the virtual stripping and shaming that is taking place among a growing number of American girls today.
The process begins as early as elementary school, when girls first become aware that they are expected to demonstrate their value by demonstrating their sex appeal. They usually learn this first from television, where Lolita-like characters clutter the airwaves and teenage girls routinely are portrayed as sexually insatiable women hiding in children’s bodies. A 2010 Parents Television Council analysis of prime-time broadcast shows geared to teens found that when underage girls are on screen, more sexual content is shown, girls are shown responding almost uniformly positively to their own sexualization and their sex acts are portrayed mostly as jokes and hook-ups — incidents that happen outside any form of committed relationship.
Bombarded by such images, encouraged by clueless or complicit parents and submerged in a society where child porn is an epidemic, many girls come to see themselves as the wider culture does: budding sex objects. At age 8, they buy padded, push-up bikini tops from Abercrombie Kids and sport super-skinny jeans with “Juicy” stamped across their rear ends. A few years later, while still in the pre-teen or “tween” years, they sport T-shirts that scream “Legal-ish,” “Hottie” or “Vixen.”
And then they go online, where the toxic stew of Internet pornography, free-for-all social media sites and wall-to-wall coverage of celebrity bad girls confirms their suspicion that the only way to get noticed is to get raunchy. “Sexting” — the sending or receiving of sexually explicit text messages or photos — often follows. A 2009 survey by AK Tweens, a marketing company, found nearly one-third of pre-teen girls engaged in sexting. The girls typically received the sexualized messages and images as early as age 10 and begin sending their own by age 12. Their most frequently cited motive: to “get attention.”
Of course, the attention they get too often is from adult sexual predators or male classmates who share the girls’ nude photos with everyone they know, leading to school-wide or even city-wide bullying. In several high-profile cases in recent years, teenage girls at the center of such sexting scandals have committed suicide. They were victims of merciless peers and their own bad choices, yes, but also casualties of a culture that long ago forgot how to protect girls’ innocence yet still remembers how to shame them when that innocence is lost.
The blame for the atrocities that transpired in that trailer in Cleveland lies with those who perpetrated them, not their victim, her fashions or her Facebook posts. But the problem of a culture that goads girls into growing up too fast, then mocks and shames them for the consequences of their own sexual exploitation, extends well beyond the limits of one sleepy Texas town.
(© 2011 Colleen Carroll Campbell)