Originally published on The Guardian Australia
Internet forums created for men to discuss their sexual “conquests” are nothing new. There is an entire online community of “pick up artists” dedicated to reducing women to rating systems and helpless victims of evolutionary psychology. Sometimes, more disgusting and violent pages arise. Revenge porn, sites dedicated to naming and shaming women, university “walk of shame” photo galleries and city-specific forums are depressingly commonplace.
On Sunday, a story broke in New Zealand about a Facebook group called Roast Busters. The group, which had been active for two years, allegedly had boys in their teens bragging about having sex with girls who were drunk and suggested to be underage. It has since been revealed that one of the boys involved is the son of a police officer, another, the son of an actor.
The police had known about Roast Busters for the majority of its existence, yet no arrests had been made. To explain police inaction, detective inspector Bruce Scott has stated that “none of the girls have been brave enough to make formal statements to us so we can take it to a prosecution stage or even consider a prosecution stage”. This is despite police collecting evidence, the perpetrators openly bragging about their activities online, and at one point, an attempted recruitment drive for more Roast Busters boys on their Facebook page.
Since the media got hold of the story, including anonymous interviews with victims, Facebook has finally taken the page down. Police apparently allowed it to continue to operate for “operational and tactical reasons”. New Zealand’s Prime Minister, John Key, has condemned the Roast Busters as “extremely disturbing and disgusting behaviour”.
In an attempted remedy to these increasingly common situations, the New Zealand Government is working on a harmful digital communications bill. If passed, it will make groups like the Roast Busters much easier to shut down. While this is a positive step, the issue here is not just one of legal technicality, it’s one of social responsibility and ethical bystanding.
If this was a group of people bragging about breaking into houses and making Facebook videos discussing what they trashed or stole, I’d hazard a guess it wouldn’t have operated for years with police mostly just interviewing victims, and the media only breaking the story now. Yet this group had operated since 2011. Their Facebook presence very clearly breached a number of Facebook’s terms and conditions. NetSafe chief technology officer Sean Lyons has stated that it’s likely this group wasn’t shut down by Facebook until the media brought it to their attention, due to a lack of people reporting the group as offensive.
While Facebook certainly isn’t perfect in removing offensive material, if enough people had triggered Facebook’s processes to review the page with two simple clicks, it might have been removed earlier. But people are uncertain about sexual violence; unsure when something fits the criteria and not confident with how to step in.
If groups like the Roast Busters, the inaction of the police and late breaking by the media can tell us anything, it’s that our communities need to be better equipped to identify and call out reprehensible sexual behaviour. And that doesn’t come from better cyber-bullying legislation and scare-mongering young girls, it comes from better resourcing the sector who provide education, support and confidence to young people and their families. If the police are going to blame a lack of people coming forward for their inaction, we need to confront this behaviour as a community, and be better equipped to do that.
We need to value the people and the agencies that do this work, rather than gawk and clench our fists when we find out a group like this has been sitting under our noses for years, with the authorities sitting on their hands. We can help stamp out this kind of behaviour, and expert agencies have powerful primary prevention tools to do just that. But too often we only go to them after the fact, rather than resource them to help stop it happening.
NB: I think the actions of these boys is unequivocally rape. The agencies I am referring to are those in the sexual violence sector. Both these statements were removed by the Guardian’s lawyers, as the young men have yet to be charged with anything.