Narcissism, entitlement, aggression and rape

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A story that pictures of an alleged gang rape were circling Facebook came as a shock to most Canadians. Worse was that the rape was apparently of a drugged 16-year-old girl who had been attending a rave in British Columbia. And more bad news has come to light in the days since, with some young men who weren't involved defending the girl's attackers.

In a widely circulated interview from CTV, two teen boys (Justin and Martin) expressed some raw opinions on the girl who had been raped.

Justin stated: "We are thinking it's being over-exaggerated. I don't think she was as messed up as she's making it out to be. I don't think she was raped...".

Martin added: "It just sounds like she's more embarrassed about it so she's trying to turn it to make it sound like she's a victim of something, rather than to say that she did something and that she knows it was incredibly idiotic."

There have been conflicting reports about the alleged crime, but even still, this victim blaming seems bizarre and flagrantly ignorant. What's with this attitude, and where did it come from?

The pornography problem

Daisy Kier, a spokeswoman for Vancouver Rape Relief and Women's Shelter, was quick to blame online pornography as a negative cultural influence. She told CTV that it:

"Makes it much more acceptable for the degradation of women and the rape of women to appear on Facebook... and I think the acceptability of that kind of depiction of degrading women has influenced the acceptability of rape and sexual assault portrayed on Facebook."

The argument for this rape being fuelled by online porn is an accessible one, because it points out an easy target and that the act itself was itself so pornographic. But it also sets up a false ideal, suggesting that if we were only to eliminate pornography from people's lives, these kinds of events would never take place again.

That said, pornography does tend to legitimize sexual ideas, and because of that it's a good place to start to try to understand this story. Porn might have played a role, but not specifically the way that Kier suggests. It's not that pornography is accessible, it's more about the way porn is viewed: in what context and with what attitude.

For his book Guyland, author Michael Kimmel interviewed hundreds of young men in their late teens and mid-20s and found that three key elements dictate their lives: the cultures of entitlement, silence, and protection. As a young North American male, I feel Kimmel is accurate.

The culture of entitlement is a pervasive sense of masculinity that is almost unilaterally accepted by modern-day guys. It is a "shockingly strong sense of male superiority and a diminished capacity for empathy." The code of silence reinforces it and persists because of the fear that the result of speaking out would be social marginalization. Finally, surrounding that silence and the feeling of entitlement is the culture of protection, exemplified perfectly by those shocking quotes from Justin and Martin.

However the three factors interplay, it is "entitlement" that is perhaps the most sinister in this particular instance. Not only is it not limited to boys, it is fuelled by a broader culture of narcissism, a dominant personality trait present in those of us born in the last three decades: a group generally known as Generation Y.

Narcissus narcosis

In their book, The Narcissism Epidemic, researchers Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell describe the rise of narcissistic characteristics throughout culture; traits like overall feelings of superiority, of being special and, crucially, of entitlement. Twenge and Campbell reviewed the results of Narcissistic Personality Inventory tests taken between 1979 and 2006 and revealed that:

"College students in the 2000s were significantly more narcissistic than Gen Xers and Baby Boomer in the 1970s, '80s, and '90s.... By 2006, two-thirds of college students scored above the scale's original 1979-85 sample average, a 30 per cent increase in only two decades."

They also note that the "upswing in narcissism appears to be accelerating." Additionally, Twenge and Campbell point out narcissism's relationship with aggression -- that is, contrary to the belief that if we like ourselves, we'll be kinder to others, narcissists "are aggressive exactly because they love themselves so much they believe that their needs take precedence."

The rise of narcissism can be traced to a cultural shift driven by decades of parenting and education and, not surprisingly, by how narcissism has become celebrated in mass media. We've ended up with a generation of people convinced by both their parents and the culture industry that they are special and entitled to most things simply by virtue of being a desirable marketing demographic.

This is where pornography becomes a useful cultural phenomenon. The inherent generational sense of entitlement tells us a lot about the way that young men watch pornography, and about what happens when they aren't watching it.

Kimmel puts it this way:

"The ubiquity of pornography in Guyland is more than simply a matter of female availability and never-ending desire. It's also about guys' anger at women for withholding what they, the guys, believe is their due: sex."

Pornography encourages the sense of entitlement by reinforcing the belief that women are as sexually aggressive as the young men who are watching, but they simply don't want to show it. That idea that girls hold all the power and they know it, and that guys are in a subservient, sexually frustrated role because of it. It works to increase the anger that Kimmel found latent in many of the guys he talked to.

So, if a guy isn't getting laid -- that is, not getting what he's allegedly entitled to -- it's a knock against the accepted line of guy culture thinking. In this context, having sex with a girl is more about a guy's relationship to his peers than it is to the woman in question. She becomes a conduit through which young men can prove their manliness to other guys.

Kimmel explains:

"The pornographic universe becomes a place of homosocial solace, a refuge from the harsh reality of a more gender equitable world that has never existed. It's about anger at the loss of privilege -- and an effort to restore men's unchallenged authority."

Actual gang rape -- often a planned event -- furthers this train of thought to an extreme. But again, it is often a way to show one's manliness to other guys -- a sort of communal revenge against a perceived, non-existent, cultural slight. Not only is the entitlement to sex fulfilled, but the act also strengthens the bonds of the men involved, setting into motion the other two key factors at play: silence and protection.

Which brings us back to the comments that Justin and Martin made to CTV. It would seem that neither of those young men were actually involved in the alleged gang rape, but by their reaction to it, they are perpetuating this "guy code" of silence by circling the wagons around their peers. Their empathy lies not with the victim, but with her attackers.

Martin's comment in particular -- that the victim was simply having second thoughts about the event -- is interesting. It assumes that this gang rape was something the victim actively did or encouraged, and not something done to her. This suggests a perceived power struggle between the sexes and that by simply being there, this girl was somehow presenting herself for a sexual encounter. As if, for instance, all the guys at the party were entitled to have sex with her because, deep down, they all knew that's what she really wanted. This is the reason that pornography is so successful. It's not an instruction manual so much as it is a projection of the fantasies and validation of the feelings of its primary audience: young, white males. But, again, it's not the sole reason for the attack, just a flashpoint that highlights a symptom of a greater issue.

The Internet: A narcissist's dream

Those same young males might have been the ones who spread the pictures of this gang rape online via Facebook. They probably weren't alone. No doubt some girls did as well. After all, nobody likes to be ostracized, socially maligned, or called a narc or a bitch for having spoken out against peers.

The spread of the photos via a social network is what has made this case somewhat unique, but again it's not so much the medium that is to blame as it is the attitude of the users. That is, that narcissism thrives on the Internet, a medium filled with aggressive personalities.

The online world is replete with personal attacks, racial slurs, and one-upmanship. Members of Generation Y are as familiar with this kind of interaction as anyone, if not more so, having been raised with one hand on a keyboard. In their book Born Digital, John Palfrey and Urs Gasser explain that online, users have greater difficulty "curbing their impulses... than they do in real-space social situations." Crucially, they continue:

"[S]ome studies show that the heightened sense of importance of self leads to disinhibition. For young people who are still developing the ability to control their impulses, digital media become potentially dangerous tools."

Dangerous only because Generation Y is inherently impulsive: a generation raised on the immediacy of the Now; an impatient and forgetful group trained by our parents and the culture industry to discard what is unwanted immediately in favour of instant gratification. It is a generation of children whose grades are often demanded rather than earned; a generation exposed to the rise of i-marketing, believing that everything was produced specifically for our personal enjoyment; a generation raised in a perpetual state of Narcissus narcosis, uncritically accepting of those messages that we've received.

The Internet hardly challenges that. Instead, it tells us that we know everything, can do anything, and own whatever we want. It is a narcissist's dream where we get to own a special piece of the world devoted entirely to us, and -- most importantly -- where we deem what's appropriate to post. And so the narcissism grows. As Twenge and Campbell note (somewhat presciently):

"The sexual aspects of MySpace have drawn lots of attention, but the aggressive and antisocial attitudes often expressed there are almost as shocking -- and just as consistent with a culture of narcissism... One young man's username is "salute me bitch."

Of course it is.

It's evident that there are underlying cultural issues present in this case of alleged teen gang rape-turned-viral event, but we have to see this case for what it is: an example of a prevalent generational problem possibly taken to an extreme. Pornography alone did not cause this gang rape, nor is it the primary reason that the pictures of the rape were spread through the Internet. The alleged rape, its defense, and the online dissemination of the pictures speak to deep-seeded generational feelings of narcissistic entitlement that affect both sexes -- in this case, very, very negatively.

Colin Horgan is a freelance writer and regular contributor to the Guardian. He lives in Ottawa.

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