Wasps with a vicious sting

Our Guys
August 29, 1997

At a time when Labour is promoting reading skills and homework and extolling the virtues of two-parent families to combat rising levels of crime, Our Guys: The Glen Ridge Rape is a reminder that crime is not the prerogative of the uneducated offspring of single-parent families. It explodes the myth that gang rapes involve only deprived or black kids, who, it is argued, like the young English teenagers who raped a 33-year-old Austrian tourist last year, are the products of the "underclass".

Glen Ridge, where in March 1989 six privileged young men raped a young woman, is a wealthy suburb in New Jersey where the "cream" of Americans raise their sons, epitomised by what Bernard Lefkowitz refers to as "the height of Anglo-Saxon Protestant gentility". Achievement at sport was considered the epitome of success.

So what happened? The book focuses on six teenagers, all athletes and the offspring of intact, respectable families, who were implicated in a horrific gang rape of a 17-year-old young woman with learning difficulties, whom they all knew and with whom they had grown up. Like most gang rapes the assailants were all acquainted with the victim. Three of the young men enticed the woman to the basement of one of their detached, spacious houses where she was forced to give oral sex. Seven other young men who were there then left, but did nothing to stop the others. The remaining six forced a baseball bat, a broom handle and a sharp stick up her vagina. Although three years later the three young men responsible for these acts were found guilty on two counts of aggravated sexual assault, which usually results in long-term imprisonment, none has until now served a day in prison. They have been allowed out on bail pending appeals that have still, four years after the verdict, not been heard.

Lefkowitz tells how adults saw the evidence, but chose to ignore it. He outlines the reluctance of the community to take action against the perpetrators and the constant delays of the judicial process. The power of money and influence in buying time and the best lawyers is starkly portrayed. Despite the enormity of the crime, the young woman was still portrayed as a "slut". Yet what makes this book stand out is the excoriating analysis of the childrearing values of American culture where, as Lefkowitz puts it, "if a single bonding ethic defined the culture of this community it was 'winning is a helluva lot better than losing'". The author firmly attributes the seeds of the atrocity to the mainstream, rather than to a deviant culture of misogyny embodied in an individualistic, highly competitive society where intelligence, physical strength, a sense of superiority, and winning above all are the qualities most extolled by parents and teachers. Many of the athletes, who called themselves the Jock clique, were isolated from girls and grew up with the idea that boys were entitled to take what they wanted from them. Sexism knew no bounds. Scoring not only applied to sport but also to sexual exploits, and it was no accident that a baseball bat was used for the assault. For years, according to Lefkowitz, boys bragged about their sexual exploits and denigrated girls.

Lefkowitz deals incisively with the causes of the assault, but lets the judiciary off the hook when he argues that the "law follows culture, and until we re-examine how we mould children and what we expect of our creations, we don't have a right to hold judges and lawyers to a higher standard than our own". Research has shown that the most important factor encouraging gang rape is the tendency to ignore, cover up or exonerate such incidents.

The relevance of this book to the UK should not be dismissed. Apart from recent media concern that the perpetrators of gang rape are getting younger - there have been two recent gang rapes involving primary schoolchildren - gang rape is not a topic that receives enough attention or academic analysis. Lefkowitz demonstrates all too clearly the dangers of a society where there is too much stress on competitiveness, work and achievement and where there was little room for those who did not fit the Glen Ridge model.

Sue Lees is professor of women's studies, University of North London.

Our Guys: The Glen Ridge Rape and the Secret Life of the Perfect Suburb

Author - Bernard Lefkowitz
ISBN - 0 520 20596 0
Publisher - University of California Press
Price - £22.95
Pages - 443

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