I have a daughter in ninth grade at a suburban high school, just like the victim in the Rockville rape case and, like many adults throughout the country, I was horrified by reports of two male teens — age 17 and 18 — brutally gang raping a much younger female classmate in the bathroom of a suburban high school in Maryland. Now that the sexual assault charges have been dropped by prosecutors, I remain horrified. Hear me out.
You probably know about this case, if only because Sean Spicer chose to talk about it at a White House press briefing. And you also probably know why Spicer chose to talk about it — not because a 14-year-old girl was sexually assaulted by two much older teens in a school bathroom. No, that horrifying fact was just a convenient pretext for furthering the Trump Administration’s xenophobic policies once it came to light that those two older teens happened to be Hispanic, undocumented immigrants. Suddenly, the administration of a man who was elected despite repeatedly being accused of committing sexual assault himself — a man caught on tape bragging about how he can get away with sexually assaulting women — was now in the ironic position of pointing to a sexual assault solely to argue there is a dire need to deport immigrants. Indeed, here’s the guy who started his presidential campaign with the outrageous assertion that Mexicans who come to the United States are, overwhelmingly, rapists.
Once Spicer spoke out about the Rockville rape case, not surprisingly other xenophobes and racists and white nationalists immediately jumped on the bandwagon. As a result, pro-immigrant and progressive people and groups felt the need to rush to the defense of the immigrant community. Indeed, given that Rockville High School sits in one of the most progressive, pro-immigrant counties in the United States — Montgomery County, Maryland — the case yielded a wide range of opinions coming from parents of Montgomery County public school children about the significance of the defendants’ immigration status.
What soon got lost in the shuffle of a case politicized for all the wrong reasons was simply this: a 14-year-old girl was sexually assaulted by a 17- and 18-year-old who attended school with her. And why did it get lost in the shuffle? I’ll sum it up in two words: rape culture. The same culture that allowed a serial sexual assaulter like Donald Trump to become president of the United States in the first place, because Americans apparently didn’t think sexual assault was a deal breaker. The same culture that doesn’t believe the victim when she says she was raped, perhaps because she doesn’t have perfect recall of an extraordinarily traumatic event or has waited a long period of time to report the rape for fear she won’t be believed or worse. The same culture that wants to know what the woman was wearing or about her character, rather than consider the abhorrent conduct of her rapist. The same culture that convicted a white Stanford University swimmer named Brock Turner of a brutal rape of a woman, but then let him off the hook with the lightest possible sentence. In the Turner case, the (white male) judge rationalized that “[a] prison sentence would have a severe impact on him,” thus overtly prioritizing a convicted rapist’s future over his traumatized victim.
It turns out, however, that conservative Americans are so incredibly xenophobic and racist that they are willing to toss aside entrenched rape culture — as long as the rape is carried out by someone who isn’t a white man. Herein lies the rub with how this case has unfolded. There is plenty of blame to go around but, ultimately, our rape culture is the problem.
As a feminist, progressive, and mother, who mightily tries to avoid getting sucked into the quagmire of our rape culture that pervades every aspect of American life, I heard about the Rockville case the day it happened and my reaction to it never changed: not when I first heard that a girl was gang raped by two young men (horror because a girl my daughter’s age was gang raped in her school—by two young men, regardless of their background), not when I heard the two young men were undocumented immigrants (horror because a girl in the same grade as my own daughter was gang raped—by two young men, regardless of their background), and not even now that the prosecutors in the case have unfortunately decided to drop all charges against the perpetrators, save for a lesser count of child pornography. The truth of the matter is that the 14 year old girl in this case is a victim. Regardless of how she initially entered the bathroom, the young men very likely sexually assaulted her, and justice has not been served. Score yet another victory for rape culture! Here’s why, just based on what little we know about the case:
The defense lawyer in this case, doing what defense lawyers do — which involves coming up with some plausible explanation that exculpates their client — argued that the victim texted with one of the defendants (the younger one) and those texts showed that she actually agreed to meet up with the 17-year-old to have consensual sex during the school day. Further, the defense claims their story directly contradicts the account the girl told the police who arrived on the scene soon after the event took place — that she was pushed by both teens into a school bathroom, and physically forced to engage in various sex acts with both teens despite her repeatedly saying “no.” On the one hand, this sounds like a classic “he said-she said” and, in our rape culture, the “he” side of the story is pretty much always believed (especially when the “he” is a white male). However, there is another piece of the puzzle: The forensics report of evidence gathered at the crime scene indicated the presence of blood mixed with male fluids. Neither teen ultimately disputed that they had engaged in intercourse with the girl during this encounter. However, the 17-year-old changed his story about the reason he was in the bathroom with the girl in the first place.
Another thing that is concerning about this case is the relevant law. So, let’s assume that the 14-year-old was having a flirtation with the 17-year-old leading up to the bathroom incident, or maybe even had engaged with sex with him in the past where she purported to consent. Let’s assume she walked into the bathroom of her own volition with the 17-year-old. Maryland law provides that, while a 14-year-old girl cannot generally “consent” to sex and this would ordinarily constitute statutory rape, if the perpetrator is less than 4 years older than the girl, he is not liable for statutory rape. This apparently allows for the scenario that if a high school student has a boyfriend relatively close to her own age, then sex between them is truly consensual (unless of course it’s not truly consensual.) However, the defense does not claim that the girl had an ongoing relationship with the 18-year-old who admittedly had sex with her. This would mean that the older defendant apparently only just missed being exposed — at a bare minimum — to a statutory rape charge (which sounds like a good reason to amend that law or at least provide for exceptions — an 18-year-old is considered an adult for many legal purposes, and 14-year-olds simply are not mature enough to consent to sex with adults.)
The Implausible Defense
Moreover, while the defense lawyer tried to argue that today’s high school culture totally includes three-way consensual intercourse in a bathroom during the school day, that strains credulity, especially in light of the circumstances. Isn’t it more likely that even if the girl wanted to have sex with the 17-year-old acquaintance and initially consented to that, she did not consent to have sex with this other boy that she didn’t even know, or to have sex with both of them at the same time? And why on earth would she report the incident — she would be admitting that she was cutting class to have sex with two boys in a bathroom, in a manner that is not exactly image enhancing for a ninth grade girl. I mean, let’s get real here. The outcome of this case highlights a very real double bind for a rape victim, which may mean the next such victim will hesitate to complain immediately to officials. And we all know what happens when victims of sexual assault wait to report — there is then no forensic evidence to be found and another reason not to believe the victim.
Putting aside rape culture, it’s hard to imagine this went down any way other than more or less as described by the victim in the police report, at least once the girl was in that bathroom with those two young men, yet rape culture loves the maxim that if a girl says yes to a boy once, it’s as good as consenting to sex for a lifetime (and apparently consenting to having sex with his 18-year-old friend, as well). And apparently it’s ok for the defendant to tell a story contradicted by the forensic evidence (the 17-year-old initially told the police he went into the bathroom to tell jokes, not have sex with the girl), but if the victim’s story is at all inconsistent (the girl initially failed to tell the police that she knew the younger defendant or texted with him), she is not to be believed and it’s the death knell for the case.
Which brings us to the final piece of this tragic story. How did politics come into play and why did the prosecutor decide there just wasn’t enough here to support going forward with a charge of forcible rape? It would seem that this case should have at least been heard by a jury. Well, we know that news coverage about this story changed considerably once Sean Spicer decided to point out the nationality of the defendants. The story quickly went from a local report of an albeit shocking gang rape in a high school bathroom at 9:00 in the morning, to the right wing’s prime example of everything that’s wrong with our current immigration policy, to a backlash from pro-immigrant progressives pointing this out and then scurrying out of the way, having bigger fish to fry. Sticky issues about the defendants’ immigration status and the ramifications thereof in the Trump Era hung overhead. (Is it possible that prosecutors were motivated in a way resembling the judge in the Brock Turner case—putting the future fate of a rapist ahead of the victim?)
But what kind of went by the wayside was the one thing that really mattered in this particular case. This ninth grade girl bravely reported a gang rape in a bathroom, the forensics backed up her story, and the defense’s story was highly implausible on its face, even assuming an acquaintanceship between the girl and one of the defendants. Politics can trump justice, and so can rape culture. In this case, that’s what most probably happened.