The Whys of Grope 'Sex'

Exploring the Psyche of the Crowd

What is it about being in a crowd that can make a man want to douse a woman with water, rip her clothes off, and poke and prod her while she screams? Scour history and you'll be hard-pressed to find any examples of marauding gangs of women who sexually humiliate men in their path à la the recent Central Park sex attacks. The collective female psyche just doesn't seem to run in that direction.

Which is not to say that women don't succumb to the crowd mentality. Sheer numbers can push both males and females beyond where they might go alone. Female fans have been known to pelt certain rock stars with their underwear and chase Ricky Martin down the street. And though admittedly male-led, women were amply represented at the Jonestown massacre and at Waco—group freak-outs of the highest order.

But all-male crowds are more likely to turn aggressive and violent. The victim can be a fan of the opposing soccer team or the police, who saw two of their cruisers destroyed in Los Angeles after the basketball playoffs despite the fact that the Lakers won. Add sex into the mix and the situation can become exponentially more volatile and perplexing.

The victims in the Central Park attacks weren't being sexual, of course, they were just being. Anne Peyton Bryant, an aerobics instructor, was out for a simple, sex-free roller skate when she was drenched with water, brought to the ground, and groped. Yet, according to some psychologists, the mere presence of females can force men to confront their discomfiting needs for sex, love, and intimacy. Here's how the psychodrama erupts into sexual rampaging, according to John Jay College psychology professor Fred Wright:

"Men are more prone to repress their feelings about needs," explains Wright, who has studied gender differences in group behavior. "When they do get in touch with them, it's often a humiliating experience. In the mind of a man, that humiliation is caused by women. The man often feels 'she has made me look terrible and it's only just that I strike back.' " (Women, Wright generalizes, are more inclined to blame themselves when they feel bad, thus the classic female tendency toward depression and self-mutilation, neither of which lends itself to group events.)

Men are confronted with the humiliating presence of women daily, of course, while serious wilding incidents seem to be reserved for special occasions. Students of the mind have long tried to identify the exact combination of elements that turns participants in a peaceful event into roving maniacs. In his 1896 book The Crowd, French theorist Gustave Le Bon introduced the idea of emotional contagion, drawing on the Paris Commune riots to describe the phenomenon of feelings spreading from person to person and escalating into a primitive group mind. Freud's Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego went further, arguing that groups coalesce around a particular role model or idea, which could lead them to become destructive.

Whether there was a Manson-style ringleader in the park remains to be seen (though investigators might want to pay particular attention to Manuel Vargas, who raised a triumphant fist in the courtroom while being arraigned). What is clear is that being in a crowd gave attackers a sense of anonymity, paving the way for behavior that's usually unacceptable.

"People in crowds lose their sense of being individuals," says Wright. "Their identity fades into the background and other forces emerge. They feel they're less apt to be caught and punished."

This time, with digital technology enhancing and disseminating pictures of smug male faces, the sense of impunity may prove illusory—at least in some ways. But in others, the steady stream of young men making their way down to the courthouse may end up being shielded by the group.

"How are you going to clearly identify if someone was the first person or simply following someone else?" asks Anne Liske, executive director of the New York State Coalition Against Sexual Assault. The group has been central in the push for the new sexual assault legislation which, as of last week, defines the kinds of "forcible touching" seen in Central Park as a felony. Without the new law, most of the dozens of men arrested so far would have gotten away with what Liske calls "a slap on the wrist." But Liske knows that even this victory won't do much to alter the psychological kinks that create molesting mobs in the first place.

"We need to address the underlying symptoms of the social illness," she says. "Until we're ready to talk to people about their sexuality and healthy relationships and healthy sexuality, we're going to continue to have this problem."

slerner@villagevoice.com

 
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