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WTF Wednesday: Gender role reversals in sexual assault

Catherine McIntyre

Canadian women made headlines this week for some (gender) inappropriate behaviour.

On Monday, three girls pleaded not guilty to pimping out other teenage girls in an

Ontario based court. Together, they’re accused of using a Facebook and Twitter party ruse to first lure and then force young women into a sex trafficking ring. The Crown says the girls were held captive, assaulted, and threatened when the resisted servicing johns. All the girls involved were between 13 and 17-years-old at the time.

What’s most shocking about this story isn’t the sex trafficking part (unfortunately that’s widespread). What’s shocking is the gender role reversal; girls aren’t usually pimps—boys are.

It challenges our collective assumption that men sexually exploit women—an assumption that exists because it’s true in most cases. About 99 percent of sexual assault offenders are men and 90 percent of victims are women. These numbers contribute to gender role norms surrounding sexual assault.

Norms come with a set of predictable attitudes and behaviours, or what psychologists call behavioural scripts. These scripts cue our reactions in particular situations. When someone violates a norm, we have to change up the script. Suddenly, we have to improvise: we must interpret rather than react.

So how do we react to women sexual offenders?

Well, the research is limited and often contradicting. In the girls pimping girls case, the judge is pushing for an adult sentencing. This supports what researchers call the “evil woman thesis.” A study published in Feminist Criminology explains: “It is expected that women will receive more severe punishment for sex offenses because a sex offense reflects a severe departure from gender roles.”

Other studies support the “chivalry hypothesis” where women in general are viewed as needing protection. This explains why women serve less time than men for similar offenses. Even when female sex offenders break social norms, the justice system is reluctant to do the same; it maintains the women-are-victims script.

The problem with this mentality is we risk brushing off sexual offenses as no big deal.

Last week, a 19-year-old man reported being sexually assaulted by four women in their mid-thirties after leaving a Toronto night club. This shook the public’s gender role stereotypes, and instead of adapting our attitudes to the situation, we maintained our gender role scripts. The attitude being: sex with four women is not a violation; it’s every man’s fantasy.

The man was attacked on Twitter and on the comments sections of news sites. People got a kick out of the story. They were tickled, baffled, generally entertained.

But what if we switched the genders in some of these comments? What if @Halo_RX tweeted, “the woman got sexually assaulted by 4 fat white men, how can you not find that hilarious, them boys are #Thirsty”, or if @Skye54 tweeted “HAHAHAHA!! Woman sexually assaulted by 4 men after leaving club”.

Not that women don’t face victim-blaming—they do. But discrimination against male victims is tenfold, especially when the offender is a woman.

And if being assaulted isn’t traumatic enough, it’s this kind of commentary that can hurl someone into a depression and keep them there for years, if not life.

We all remember Amanda Todd’s (very public) case, and just this week another young girl—17-year-old Rehtaeh Parsons—committed suicide a-year-and-a-half after allegedly being raped by four boys who photographed the assault and distributed the images.

Todd, and now Parsons, inspired positive media attention and anti-bullying campaigns. People were outraged, but now with the gender roles reversed, they’re laughing.

Amidst the laughter, some people noted the whole story could very well be a joke, or (as a Toronto Star column suggested) the assault could have been as minor as “a pinch on the bottom.”

Regardless of whether or not it happened or how severe the assault was, men can be victims of sexual assault and women can be offenders. It’s rare, yes, but we should approach it with the same sensitivity we do (or should do) as any other sexual assault.

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