Rape Culture: Torrington, Connecticut, Confronts ‘Blame the Victim’ Mentality
The young men were football players, 18 years old. Popular on the field and off. One was the MVP of the team.
The girls were 13. Middle school students. Far removed from membership in the handful of cliques that rule the hallways of Torrington High School.
So the opportunity to hang out with two of the most popular guys in school was exciting.
Three months after meeting on the night of Connecticut’s historic February blizzard, four Torrington football players are charged with rape. The girls are reeling from public social media bullying by high school students in which they were called “whore” and “snitch” and accused of “ruining the lives” of the players.
The case has made international headlines and has been featured in the New York Times and on CNN. In part that was due to its similarity to Steubenville, Ohio, a small town that was rocked when football players were accused last August of the rape of a girl who was later mocked and blamed on social media. In both cases, the school system, the police and the media have been criticized for buying into a “rape culture” where victims are blamed and a rapist’s actions partially excused. And since Steubenville and Torrington, that dynamic has played out in other communities, with tragic results. Rehtaeh Parsons, 17, killed herself on April 4 after photos of her alleged gang rape were circulated around her high school in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, and she was harassed via social media. A few weeks later, three teens were arrested in Saratoga, Calif., and charged with the rape of 15-year-old Audrie Pott, who killed herself in September 2012 after similar pictures were circulated.
Social media and cyberbullying are a common thread, but as a headline in The Atlantic pointed out: “The Problem with Torrington is the Problem with Rape, Not Twitter.” “Victims have always been blamed. People who have experienced sexual violence know this isn’t a new phenomenon,” says Anna Doroghazi, director of public policy and communication at Connecticut Sexual Assault Crisis Services. Social media is just a window into the victim experience, she says. “We’re suddenly all privy to it,” Doroghazi says. “The way people talk about the issue is very centered on the victim’s behavior.”
Fundamentally, that stems from a societal message that women and girls are “less than.”
If genders were switched in the Torrington case, and the victims were 13-year-old boys, no one would say “that 13-year-old boy is a real whore, a real slut,” Doroghazi says. “They’d say, ‘High five, man!’” The message fed to children at a young age is that “girls are sexual, and your tool for pleasure,” and that “being a man means you always want sex, and it doesn’t matter where it comes from … it’s yours for the taking.”
That mentality was on display when the Torrington case hit the March 19 front page of The Register Citizen (a sister publication of Connecticut Magazine). Co-Managing Editor Tom Cleary had discovered dozens of public Twitter posts from Torrington High School students bullying the 13-year-old girls and defending Edgar Gonzalez and Joan Toribio, the football players charged with statutory rape. The newspaper decided to publish the tweets without redacting the Twitter IDs or profile photos of the students. Parents were horrified to see athletes, honor roll students, male and female, bullying rape victims.
The general theme of students’ tweets was that the 13-year-old girls were “acting like whores” for hanging out with the players, while Gonzalez and Toribio were simply “boys being boys.”
Extensive reporting by Register Citizen writer Jessica Glenza revealed that previous to the rape arrest, Gonzalez had been allowed to play football all fall, and was named MVP, even though his coach at the time knew he was facing felony robbery and assault charges.
Torrington High School Athletic Director Mike McKenna denied that there was any kind of behavior problem on the football team despite a hazing scandal last fall and the rape case. Since his statement, two additional unnamed 17-year-old members of the football team have been charged with statutory rape in connection to the Gonzalez-Toribio case, and two other Torrington teenagers have been charged with “forcible” rape in unconnected crimes.
Torrington police described the case against Gonzalez and Toribio as “statutory rape,” “consensual,” “just a matter of age difference” and “not forcible,” language criticized as ignoring the fact that a 13-year-old child can’t “consent” according to the law. For a time, it seemed to give cover to students who were blaming the victims and speaking as though statutory rape was not “real” rape. One compared statutory rape to jaywalking. Criticism of how police characterized the case intensified after arrest warrants released weeks later showed that one of the 13-year-old girls told police she repeatedly said “No,” she wouldn’t have sex.
“It happened” anyway, the girl told police, after one of the men got her drunk and high on alcohol and marijuana. The warrant describes the girl being pressured to drink more, including one of the men pouring a shot of alcohol into her mouth. It also described her arm being twisted behind her back at one point as he was “convincing” her to have sex.
As with the Steubenville case, the media has played a role in perpetuating Torrington’s “rape culture.” In Steubenville, CNN was heavily criticized for lamenting the “ruined lives” of the accused rapists. Other media focused on classic blame-the-victim saws such as what she was wearing, who she was hanging out with, how much she had to drink. The day after those damning warrants were released in the Torrington case, the Waterbury Republican-American’s lead front page headline referred to the alleged rape as a “tryst.” And in an editorial that day, it lamented that society considers it “bad form” to talk about how victims could be at fault. The paper went on to suggest that the victims’ parents were to blame for not “exerting discipline” and that society teaches girls to “act provocatively” and boys “respond accordingly.”
The Connecticut chapter of the National Organization for Women called on the newspaper to apologize and re-examine its coverage of sexual assaults. “News coverage like this is the realization of every fear victims have,” says Connecticut NOW Co-President Jacqueline Kozin.
“The root cause of sexual assault and lots of different kinds of violence is treating a group of people as ‘less than,’” says Patrick McGann, director of strategy and planning for Men Can Stop Rape, a national organization that is partnering with Connecticut Sexual Assault Crisis Services (CSACS) to launch a statewide education campaign in Connecticut this spring. Through posters, flyers, advertisements and local forums and workshops, the “Where Do You Stand?” campaign will encourage men and boys to stand up for “healthy masculinity” and to speak up when women are being demeaned or put in danger or a victim is being blamed.
Beth Hamilton, director of prevention and programs at CSACS, says that conversations about healthy sexuality and consent have to happen at home, at school and in the media if we are going to change “rape culture.” “So many folks are dying in silence,” she says, noting estimates that only 10 to 20 percent of sexual assaults are even reported. Sexual violence can “affect and infect entire communities,” Hamilton says, and the public bullying of victims and the way that police and the media have talked about the case could cause future victims to remain silent.
As Torrington residents are horrified that their city has become nationally known for the bullying and blaming of rape victims, a coincidental anniversary may hold out hope for change.
Another crime that made Torrington infamous happened 30 years ago this June. The brutal attempted murder of Tracey Thurman at the hands of an abusive ex-husband sparked a nationwide dialogue that led to the creation of modern domestic violence laws. It fundamentally changed the way police, health care providers and the media treated and talked about victims.
Perhaps Torrington can play a similar role in how society confronts rape.