When People Commit ‘Monstrous’ Actions

6 Feb

Unpleasant memories can return in unexpected ways. I was reminded of this recently when, after hearing about the rape of a 5-year old girl by a 16-year old boy in Turangi, the feelings I had when confronted by a 16-year East Timorese boy who had raped a 12-year old East Timorese girl, returned. I was in Timor-Leste carrying out research on the United Nations police and had travelled with the New Zealand police to an outlying district to observe their work. The New Zealand police officer I was with was asked by the East Timorese police to assist them with picking up a 16-year old boy accused (and later convicted) of raping a 12-year old girl.

When we arrived, the scene was disconcerting. Members of the East Timorese heavily armed riot squads were wandering around, having recently been involved in a special operation to capture ‘ninjas’; Australian soldiers played soccer with local boys; an UNPOL officer handed out balloons to a group of confused children; and the Timorese police assigned to the case somehow were managing to carry out their work amongst the confusion.

The situation turned from bizarre to tragic when the rape-suspect was led out. Despite the many ways you could describe him – rapist, boy, monster, son or brother – the only thing I could think of was that he looked like a child. While I expected to feel a sense of anger and disgust, seeing how young he was brought up a whole host of other seemingly contradictory feelings such pity, sadness and confusion.

Expressing any sort of feelings about rape cases that don’t centre on anger and disgust can easily – and inaccurately – be misconstrued as showing sympathy to the suspect. However, having contradictory feelings is important; they can remind us that because we didn’t have one simple feeling in response to the issue, there cannot be one simple way to address it. The responses to the Turangi case have focused on what type of punishment the boy will receive and people have been concerned to ensure that he is tried as an adult. It is particularly important in sexual violence cases that the crimes are punished accordingly as there is still a tendency for them to not be taken seriously and for the victim to be blamed for the actions of the perpetrator (although this was obviously never an issue with this case). However beyond the focus on punishment, there has been almost no discussion of what made him do what he did and how this fits in with the broader issue of sexual violence within New Zealand.

And herein lies the problem with the ‘monster discourse’ that has developed around this case. People have been quick to label the boy a monster (see here and here example), however there needs to be a distinction between seeing someone as a monster and criticising a person committing a monstrous action. As soon as you start seeing someone as a monster it means you stop looking into why they would commit that type of action; they are framed as clearly deranged in some way for having committed that act. This makes the crime appear to be caused only by a deficiency within that person rather than as the product of wider gendered socialisation processes.

Yes, this was a particularly shocking because it was committed against an especially young child, by a not-much-older teenager. But this does not mean that it should be seen in isolation, it is merely an extreme and visible manifestation of a much wider problem. For example, in 2009/2010 there were 2,961 sexual offenses reported, although it is estimated that this figure represents only 10% of overall cases, as the majority are not reported.

I say this not to absolve personal responsibility, but to suggest that in order to prevent these cases we need to know more about why they are happening. In particular, we need to know more about how different ideas about manhood interact with social, economic and political processes to produce high rates of sexual violence. The lack of research on this in New Zealand makes it difficult to design prevention programmes which deal with the root causes of violence. A recent report suggests that for sexual violence to be prevented, “we need to focus on what we wish to bring into presence … we need to ask: ‘what is it we want to replace sexual violence with?’” In other words, attempting to prevent the emergence of problematic ideas about masculinity as a means to prevent sexual violence requires actively attempting to promote positive models of masculinity. This requires looking forward. However, to muster more public support for this people need to look beyond the constraints of the ‘monster discourse’ to arrive at a state where the complexity of sexual violence is acknowledged.

Marianne Bevan



One Response to “When People Commit ‘Monstrous’ Actions”

  1. Gradon February 7, 2012 at 10:50 pm #

    Really interesting stuff Marianne! I got talking about this with my flatmates last night and we got thinking about how the ‘monster’ label also kind of intersects with ideas about people being inherently ‘evil’ (usually men). Rather than say understanding the horrible things some people might do as being an outcome of their own suffering or sense of powerlessness, they are labelled as just ‘evil’. In no way do I wish to minimise the suffering of the younger girl in this case, but I always end up wondering about what prompts some people to do nasty things to others.

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