Mean Girls and Bystanders: When Women Aren’t “Nice”


Last week, I encouraged womankind to start screaming “fuck” a lot more. Now I’m turning my attention toward third-party bystanders.

Did you ever notice how, during all the chatter about the Steubenville rapes, the discussion focused on a narrow ideological conflict? It essentially boiled down to whether rape means force or lack of consent, because in 2013 we’re still having that debate, apparently. There was some moralizing about “football culture,” teenage drinking, and social media, but by-and-large, the question everybody was asking was either “Why was that girl so drunk?” or “Why didn’t those boys ever learn that you can’t have sex with an unconscious person?”

The most revealing part of the story is what nobody was talking about: Where the hell were all the other girls in Steubenville when this was happening? Why didn’t anybody immediately call the cops upon seeing photos of an unconscious girl being exploited by her classmates? For that matter, where were Rehtaeh Parsons’ friends, and why didn’t they immediately organize a school-wide boycott of the four suspects’ genitals?

Rachel Simmons, author of Odd Girl Out (which I highly recommend), has an explanation for the girls’ silence:

The accusation of rape disrupts the intricate social ecosystem of a high school, one in which girls often believe that they must preserve both their own reputations and relationships with boys above all else… it’s hard to ignore the power of a culture that pushes [girls] to choose boys over each other and punish other girls to protect their own reputations.

My favorite second-wave blogger has posed the conundrum thusly:

It is the great tragedy of the women’s liberation movement that fully-realized feminist consciousness is too rarely achieved by women who are still young and fit enough to take on Dude Nation in a knife fight.

Two explanations come to mind. First, teenagers – girls and boys – are often unrepentant sociopaths who will do just about anything to gain status over one another, and this includes slut-shaming their peers. This isn’t entirely their fault; Americans have collectively agreed to put all children, ages 13-18, in a giant holding cell where noncompliance with the social hierarchy’s norms often goes severely punished.

A second explanation is the Bystander Effect. Inaction in an emergency situation is a common human failure. We assume that somebody else will intervene, and when nobody else does, we conclude that it must not be a real emergency after all. This is a real phenomenon that affects women and men of all ages, and it’s a tough one to counteract. But here’s the bottom line: somebody needs to take control in a potentially bad situation, and if it’s not you, then it’s going to be the pair of Nantucket Reds who’s already dragging a half-concsious girl into the house party’s sex room (there’s always a sex room).

This goes back to the Not Giving A Shit mentality I wrote about last week. I’ve largely aged out of the raging house-party scene, so I’ll direct this to the college/under-25 set (women and men): act like a grown-ass adult, already. When you see somebody* being taken advantage of, say something. Is being called a “feminist cunt” or a “cockblocker” really that terrible? What are you, in high school? 

A note to parents, as well: a young woman who grew up with self-esteem and Muay Thai lessons, or a young man whose parents taught him all about consent, doesn’t leave the nest and automatically gain the knowledge of what to do when they see a sexual assault happening, or about to happen, to somebody else. Do you want your daughter to be a complicit Mean Girl? Do you want your son to be this guy?

44% of rape victims are under age 18; 80% are under age 30. If young people are left to figure this stuff out on their own after graduation, or well into adulthood, or after they have their own children, or never, then it’s way too late.

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