Joan Smith: Victim of a class-war crime

Gang rape is used by soldiers as a bonding exercise. And that's why rootless teenagers nearer home do it

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In April last year, while a 14-year-old girl was being subjected to a series of unbelievably brutal rapes in a stairwell on an estate in east London, she recognised one of her assailants. The boy had been to a party at her house and she appealed to him for help. "I can't, because I am with my boys now," Cleon Brown told her. "I can't help you." Then he joined in the attack.

It was one of the more harrowing moments described by the girl in a lengthy interview on Friday's Today programme. Another was her recollection that a woman with two children saw her being dragged to another location, where more teenage boys were waiting to assault her. The woman asked the girl if she was all right, yet did nothing to help her.

The interview was breathtaking. So was the fact that the rapes were planned for the most trivial of reasons: the gang's 15-year-old leader O'Neil Denton, who used the name Hitman, wanted revenge because the girl had slighted him.

These events happened not in war-torn Sudan, but on a housing estate in Hackney; and last week seven teenage boys were convicted of rape and false imprisonment. The eldest of her attackers, Weiled Ibrahim, is only 17. Two other boys did not take part in the rapes, which took place over three locations, but were found guilty of preventing her escape.

In one of the most poignant sections of the interview, the girl still seemed to be in a state of disbelief, suggesting that her attackers were "not really like that"; they behaved differently, she said, once they got together in a gang.

The problem of young males egging each other on to commit grotesque acts of violence is well known, although it doesn't in any way reduce the horror of what these particular boys have done. The vicious and sustained assault on the girl – she was also orally raped – has striking similarities with those committed by soldiers in wartime.

One of the most notorious examples has only recently come to light. At the end of the Second World War, the victorious Red Army rampaged across Prussia, gang-raping German women. Many of the victims were too traumatised to speak about what happened, and the extent of the sexual violence only emerged years later in Antony Beevor's book Berlin: The Downfall, 1945.

In the book, Beevor revealed how Russian soldiers dehumanised German women and girls, ignored social norms, took pleasure in humiliating their victims and used rape as a bonding mechanism. So did the Hackney rapists; thus it was more important for Cleon Brown (now 15) to keep the "respect" of his mates than to behave with courage and humanity.

Knife crime has attracted intense coverage in the past year, but there is anecdotal evidence that the true extent of gang rape is hidden because victims are too frightened to report it. The Metropolitan Police say that around one in 15 of all rapes in London involves three or more assailants, but the Hackney attackers boasted that they had assaulted other girls and got away with it. Indeed, it seems that for boys who live on run-down inner-city estates, it's a matter of luck whether they come to our attention as victims or perpetrators, which offers a clue as to why they are attracted to gangs in the first place.

In the Hackney case, the girl's attackers were certainly no strangers to violence: Cleon Brown's father was shot dead resisting a robbery in Jamaica five years ago, and a boy aged 15, who can't be named for legal reasons, saw his brother fall to his death from a flat as they tried to escape a masked gang armed with knives. The rival gang was pursuing the 15-year-old and Jayden Ryan, 16, another of the youths convicted of the Hackney gang rape.

Arguments rage over the causes of rape, but it is clear that some cultures have much higher rates of sexual violence than others. The Red Army soldiers who took part in horrific gang rapes returned home and reverted to "normal" behaviour once they were removed from a theatre where social taboos had broken down. The families of some of the Hackney rapists, by contrast, are still making excuses for their sons and blaming the victim. "Cleon tried to help her and this is how she repays him," Cleon Brown's mother angrily told a newspaper.

No matter how great the revulsion caused by this case – and it is hard to imagine a more sickening ordeal than the one they put their victim through – it is important to understand that there are circumstances in which teenage boys become habituated to violence. Absent fathers, low expectations and an acceptance of violent crime all play a part; these boys expect to be on the receiving end of it and they expect to inflict it on others, usually someone who is weaker than them. Girls, for obvious reasons, are often the victims of choice. In that sense, there is a danger that focusing on knife crime in deprived areas misses an important point, which is the role of gang rape in boosting insecure male identities.

In her Today interview, the Hackney rape victim came across as articulate and courageous, despite her youth and her dreadful ordeal. And that is why she is struggling, as are the rest of us, to understand just how a single harmless remark could unleash such a storm of sexual violence against her.

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