A teen in Texas has admitted to authorities that he took part in the twenty-person gang rape of an eleven year old girl because of taunts that he was gay if he refused to participate. Many people are discussing whether this is a good enough excuse or whether his seven years’ probation is sufficient legal punishment. I actually want to discuss it on a slightly different level that I feel encompasses all those others. I want to speculate on why he did it, because I think rapes like this one can occur for slightly different psychological reasons than do most rapes. And if we want to prevent rape, we have to understand why it happens in the first place.
I have talked before about assertions that most rapists have Narcissistic Personality Disorder, according to FBI profilers. There is definitely a shortage of study into what makes rapists tick, but if profilers find a narcissist profile helps them locate and successfully prosecute rapists, then there has to be something to it. This information has rubbed many readers the wrong way for various reasons. (And yes, I’ll be getting into the whole topic in more depth when I do the NPD series.)
Rape is different from most crimes in that there is rarely any incentive to commit it other than pure enjoyment – most rapists have a taste for rape (which is emphatically not the same as having a taste for sex). It really does take a particular personality type to enjoy rape and want to do it not once but over and over for a lifetime, as most rapists do. Hence the search for a personality profile that can enjoy torturing people – like NPD.
But there are exceptions, and this boy may be one. Sometimes there are other incentives to commit rape. This will be helpful to point back to during the NPD series, so you can see (a) no one’s saying all rapists are NPDs and (b) what is required to create a situation in which a non-NPD will rape.
Let me also be clear that I don’t know anything about this boy’s psychology. I don’t know if he’s remorseful. He may well be on his way to developing NPD. And let me be very clear on the fact that what he did is absolutely inexcusable, and my desire to understand why this tragedy happened isn’t about excusing the boy at all. You’re welcome to discuss issues of blame and responsibility in the comments, but I’m just talking about this to examine some reasons why someone who is does not get off on torturing people might become involved in a rape anyway.
- Peer pressure. We warn kids about peer pressure because we know it’s extremely potent. Peers have ways of taunting each other into behaviors they would never engage in individually. Would this boy ever have sought out a victim and raped him or her alone? We don’t know, but it’s entirely possible the thought never would have entered his mind.
- The teenage brain. Proper neuroscience (the kind that isn’t bent on proving that certain people are biologically superior to others) is finding the teenage brain undergoes massive reorganizing, oh, about every five minutes. It’s really an amazing process, but it leads to very poor decision making while it’s happening. Even teens who never got in trouble can probably recall making a decision or two they not only regretted but later found unfathomable (I know I can) – it’s just part of the maturation process.
- Authoritarianism/crowd psychology. While adult brains are more stable and equipped to make quality decisions and ignore peer pressure, many simply don’t bother. They opt to defer authority to someone in authority, whoever that may be, and blame any undeniably bad decisions they make on the authority figure (at which point they rather mindlessly pick a new authority to follow). Studies consistently show that if an authority figure tells someone to act outside their own moral code, most do. In the Milgram experiment, the test subjects administer electrical shocks to a person who claims to have a heart problem (the shocks are not real – the person receiving them is part of the experiment and fakes the symptoms). Despite clear indications they are torturing someone (screams, convulsions, pleas about the heart condition), most subjects keep going. But it’s worth noting that they feel discomfort and stress. They do not enjoy what they are doing/have done. They experience remorse. Similarly, a gang can function like an authority figure, because the individual responsibility seems to be diffused – you feel you have plausible deniability. At least, until later, when it hits you what you’ve done – then your conscience, if it exists, beats you up.
- Stockholm syndrome. I find most people don’t understand this one as well as they think. In a nutshell: when you are around someone who is hurting people, you know you are in real physical danger. If this person invites you to join them or sympathize with them, you may sincerely believe that standing up to them will only result in getting yourself hurt or killed, and will not save the person they’re assaulting. And in many situations, you would be entirely right. Before judging someone who has experienced this syndrome, think of rape victims who “cooperate” with rapists in hopes of reducing the brutality (or lethality) of the assault. Just being around someone who’s wantonly violent is always terrifying and highly stressful. We don’t necessarily make the most ideologically pure decisions when our very survival is at stake – nor should we be expected to, since those decisions might not be the most safe.
Any or all of these factors may have been involved in this boy’s choice to engage in a rape, and they illustrate how someone who has a conscience, empathy and remorse could get involved in a crime that normally requires a lack of all three. He may have seen the victim’s position was hopeless (she was going to be raped by many people, no matter what he did) and realized he could either put himself at serious risk against this violent criminal group (by letting them declare him gay and then proceed to harm him in the ways so many gays experience in this society), or he could get on their good side. It’s tempting to think we wouldn’t make the same decision, but most of us don’t know what it’s like to be around someone who obviously enjoys committing wanton acts of violence.
Of course, it’s also possible this boy participated more willingly than he’s let on, and he’s now backtracking not because he feels remorse, but to reduce the consequences of his actions. Again, you can talk about this, but I don’t see that we have enough information to begin to guess.
I’m also going to leave this part of the discussion to the commenters. I would like to emphasize that I’m a big fan of holding adults 100% responsible for their actions. I don’t care how badly someone was abused as a child – that does not force them to become an abusive adult (as indeed most survivors of child abuse do not become abusers). Talking about how society contributes does not relieve the individual of his responsibility. Of course in this case we’re talking about a teen, not an adult, so issues of responsibility become less simple. I’m not saying he shouldn’t have been punished at all, but it’s very possible he should not be punished to the same degree as as adult rapist.
That said, society does contribute a great deal to the situation that led to this tragedy, and that’s just one more angle you’re welcome to discuss.