Why Do Teenage Girls Commit Sexual Assault Against Other Teenage Girls?

Source: Unsplash
Source: Unsplash

When Marina Lonina's friend was raped in front of her in February, she didn't intervene or call the police. Instead, the 18-year-old high school student livestreamed the attack on the app Periscope, where she got too "caught up in the likes" and positive response on social media to do anything but keep filming, according to her lawyers. 

Lonina has since been charged with kidnapping, sexual battery, pandering sexually-oriented matter involving a minor and rape — the same slate of charges being brought against her friend's assailant, 29-year-old Raymond Gates. Prosecutors and psychologists alike are dubious of her defense, yet Lonina isn't the only young woman to watch a friend be brutally attacked — or to participate in the attack herself. 

Source: Pixabay

It's near-impossible to tabulate how many young women participate in acts of violence against other girls, but anecdotally, we know it happens. Vicious girl-on-girl attacks, whether they're sexual in nature or not, are common enough to have become a cultural trope — fodder for episodes of Law & Order SVU or How To Get Away With Murder, or dark comedies like Heathers and Jawbreaker

In fiction and real life, these crimes are often portrayed as being motivated by a vengeful ringleader or sadistic man, who eggs on young women who are thirsty for approval. That's not totally wrong, says N.G. Berrill, executive director of the New York Center for Neuropsychology and Forensic Behavioral Science. But it overlooks the reality that some young women do have antisocial proclivities all their own, which could include physically harming other girls. 

"Often, we underrate the extent to which adolescent girls can behave in an antisocial manner," Berrill said in a phone interview with Mic. "We typically think of antisocial behaviors as being male, but there are plenty of girls who get off on the violence, who feel gratified by it. It fuels a sense of grandiosity when they engage in violent acts." 

However, as Berrill noted, we're inclined to assume men are the primary perpetrators of violence, especially of a sexual nature. That's what makes cases like Lonina's so perplexing: Why would a young woman engage in an act of sexual violence against another girl, whether as an accessory or an active participant?

Source: Pixabay

Naturally, the answer is complicated and context-specific. While sexually violent acts are often considered distinct from other types of attacks, young women could well have the same reasons for participating in a rape as they do for committing any other type of violence; after all, sexual assault is rarely if ever about sex, and more about power. 

That's one reason sexual violence might be more likely to happen in group settings among teens (generally preoccupied with social status), according to Kristen Houser, chief public affairs officer for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center

"What we know about sexual violence is that with anything sexual that's done against your will come deep feelings of shame and humiliation — and I think right there is the key as to why we see sexual violence used in hazing, in hate crimes, in gang initiations, in bullying," Houser said. 

"Whether or not teen girls get that connection in a cognitive, deliberate, intentional kind of way could be debatable," she added, "but it's certainly something that's prevalent enough in our culture — you're going to pick up on that, even if you don't know how to name it."

To instigate or encourage others to engage in sexual violence, a person would likely display antisocial tendencies and a desire for control, according to Berrill; to stand by or act as an accessory to a sexual assault tends to be more about wanting to go along with whatever is happening, especially in a larger group. 

"Because young women — all adolescents — are prone to peer pressure, they want to fit in, be part of a group," Berrill said. "And if this is where the group is headed, they don't have the ego strength or a well-developed sense of right and wrong [to stop it]. They're willing to suspend what they know to be right to be part of the group or to be congratulated and complimented." 

That's one of the key challenges of relying on bystander intervention as a primary means of preventing sexual assault, especially among younger people. The phenomenon of onlookers choosing not to act (in effect facilitating an assault, like Lonina) isn't specific to girls and women, according to Candice Lopez, director for the National Sexual Assault Hotline at the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. Younger women can, however, have particularly acute or salient concerns about intervening. 

"Folks may ... think reacting could put them in a dangerous situation," Lopez said. "[Girls] might question themselves and not be quite sure what to do. We know witnessing something like [a rape] can also be a traumatic experience, and the way people respond to trauma is very different — freezing, or maybe behaving in a way people don't expect." 

"The way people respond to trauma is very different — freezing, or maybe behaving in a way people don't expect." 

Acceptance also doesn't have to come solely from a broader group. According to Berrill, it's common for young women to engage in sexual violence to please a man. A (somewhat dated) FBI study found that women who were romantically involved with male sexual sadists and who committed acts of violence against other women, were overwhelmingly motivated by their partners. 

One example is Karla Homolka, the Canadian murderer who helped rape and kill several women (including her sister) with her husband, Paul Bernardo. In Homolka's case and others, though, it's difficult to tell how much of a role coercion played in attacking other women, and how much was motivated by a genuine wish to participate. 

"Many times you have women who end up harming other people because they feel like they're in a position where it's them or the other person," Houser said. "Other times we do see dynamics where women really are acting as offenders because they want to be cruel and hurt other humans. When you have group assaults going on, usually it's not at all about the victim, but about having a ritual that ties the assailants together. It's about performing for one another." 

Power and affirmation can be motivators to step aside while sexual violence is happening — or to join in and fit in. It's the same reason teen girls participate in rape culture, cyberbullying and slut-shaming: They're trying to build themselves up, and following cultural cues for how to do it. 

Helping to strip someone else of her bodily autonomy is inevitably about power; as Houser put it, "anything about sexuality is such a damaging and harmful tool to use to humiliate another person." And for some young women, participating can seem like a way to avoid being humiliated themselves. 

Correction: May 2, 2015
A previous version of this article identified Candice Lopez as a communications manager at the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. Lopez is the director of RAINN's National Sexual Assault Hotline.

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Jenny Kutner

Jenny Kutner is a senior reporter at Mic, covering feminism, reproductive justice and sexual violence. She is a native Texan based in New York. Send tips or friendly messages to jenny@mic.com.

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