Asia-Pacific / New Zealand

Roast Busters: Rape Culture in New Zealand

New Zealand police are being fiercely criticized as details surface that officials responded ineffectually to allegations against a self-styled rape club, going so far as to ask victims what they were wearing when they were attacked. The so-called “Roast Busters” are a group of high school boys in the Auckland area whose goals are to select underage girls, get them drunk, gang rape them, and then post videos of group members slut-shaming their victims on social media. The group has been in operation since 2011, and police have had access to evidence of the group’s activity since it began—until the scandal broke, the group had pages on Facebook, Twitter, Spring.me, and other social media platforms on which they publicly named and harassed their victims.

Despite this massive accumulation of evidence, police say that charges could not be filed against the Roast Busters for their “inappropriate” behavior because none of their victims had yet been “brave enough to come forward with a formal complaint.” Much to the discomfort of New Zealand officials, however, reports are now surfacing that since 2011, four of the group’s victims have given the names of their rapists to the police. Furthermore, those who tried to report their rapes were treated poorly—officers told one 13-year-old who came forward that she had no case because of what she had been wearing when she was attacked.

Since the Roast Busters scandal has come to light, New Zealand’s government has suggested a number of remedies in response to the public outcry. One such move has been to propose a bill that would more harshly regulate and prosecute cyber bullying. Unfortunately, this does nothing to educate the public on the nature of the harassment involved in this particular case—harassment that involves assigning blame to rape victims rather than to their rapists. This reaction of the criminal system is indicative of what is referred to as a rape culture: a general understanding of rape that functions to undercut the victim and, to a large extent, legitimize the crime by reframing rape as a lesser crime. The proposed bill serves to reframe the issue in this case as a more general problem of cyber bullying, but a rape culture exists with or without social media as a platform for its transmission. Another suggested solution has been to designate a female police officer to head the Roast Busters case. This is a fine gesture, but again, does nothing to address a society that views both the rapists and their victims as responsible parties. It also has the added detrimental effect of framing sexual violence as an issue that is exclusive to women. Both measures are problematic because they can placate the public without establishing any real change, and attempt to reframe the case as a much lesser crime.

Outside of the legal realm, the public response to the scandal has been divided. Although protesters have taken to the streets to criticize the official response to the allegations, the Roast Busters and the culture of victim blaming that they represent are not without support. Internet commentators have expressed hostility toward the victims, arguing that “they went to the parties”, and therefore deserved to be raped. Friends of the Roast Busters have also come to their defense, saying, “I don’t think they’re rapists. They’re really cool dudes. They can make really dumb decisions, but they’re being teenagers.” Meanwhile, the Roast Busters have not only defenders but also admirers—officials have observed the presence of online copycat groups. The Roast Busters themselves remain cavalier about their actions. One Roast Buster’s Facebook status, directed at one of his victims, is emblematic of this attitude: “Go ahead, call the police. They can’t un-rape you.”

The Roast Busters scandal sheds light on rape culture in New Zealand, but it cannot be designated as only New Zealand’s problem. Last August, a young woman in Steubenville, Missouri reported being raped by two football players. Rather than being supported by her community, she faced a largely hostile response for “ruining these poor boys’ bright futures.” Currently, the media is featuring reports of a gang rape in Maryville, Missouri in which the victim was also blamed for her rape because she had been drinking that night. These incidents directly parallel the Roast Busters case in that the communities placed the interests of the rapists ahead of those of their victims.

It is encouraging that the Roast Busters case has been so prominently featured in the New Zealand media and faces widespread public disapproval. Still, it would be overly optimistic to expect lasting change in its aftermath. The public tends to respond to cases like these with brief spurts of outrage that fizzle as quickly as they arise. In the Roast Busters case, the measures taken in response to national anger have been insufficient, but manage to comfort the public into believing that some change has been accomplished nonetheless. Instead of designing roundabout “solutions”, policymakers and the public alike need to focus on changes that address the problem of rape culture specifically. Unless legitimate shifts are made, cases like these will continue to drift in and out of the media because of the fickle nature of public interest, and rape culture will carry on uninterrupted in New Zealand and elsewhere.