By Jesse Marx
By Chris Parker
By Jake Rossen
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By Michelle LeBow
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"The chat-line was just a funny thing for them. Everyone has a phone at home, and if you're cut off from everyone and can't go anywhere, obviously you're going to do anything like that."
When it comes to sex, adds Hang, most teenage girls have very little information on which to base their decisions. "The perception people have is that sex is not something you do when you're a teen. So if you want to have sex, you get married. And then you see all this sex on TV and you think that's what being American is, that's what America is about. A lot of kids don't have friends who aren't Hmong. What they know of America is really more from popular culture and not from people."
Partly cut off from their own parents, and yet unable to socialize with other teens, Hmong kids make incredibly naive runaways, adds another youth worker who knows many of the gang-rape victims and their families. "Girls aren't given the opportunity to do things," says the Hmong woman, who asked that neither her name nor that of her program be used for fear that its participants could be stigmatized. "They can either be a good girl or run away. That's why we have so many problems with young girls."
(What "being good" means can be a matter of some confusion: When Hang was growing up, she says she assumed it meant doing nothing that wasn't expressly permitted. At 21, after several years of living away from home at an East Coast university, she finally asked her mother. "She said, 'If you're going to have sex, don't get pregnant,'" Hang recalls.)
Faced with what they see as an impossible choice, some Hmong girls conceal their social lives from their parents--compounding the older generation's suspicions that they are up to no good. Hang says that while the Hmong community's response to the gang rapes has been shock and outrage, she has heard a few elders speculate about how the victims got themselves in trouble: "They probably wanted to be in a gang and that's how this happened," she's heard them say. In fact, that assessment may hit the nail on the head--only it wasn't the victims who were seeking to join the Asian Crips.
"It,s the end of your childhood, Chia," Ramsey County District Court Judge Charles Flinn said at 16-year-old Chia Vang's sentencing in May. "You will be in your early 20s when you get out of prison and you will be on supervised release for a while. What you have done cannot be undone, either from your end or the victims' end." The first of the boys who raped Mai, and the first to make his way through the court system, Vang was sentenced to nine years in state prison.
Court documents reveal as little about Vang as they do about Mai and her family. His attorney, Ramsey County Public Defender Heather McCleery, says he moved to St. Paul from Fresno, California, within the last two years to live with his brother-in-law, who is Vang's legal guardian. The thirtysomething brother-in-law speaks English. Vang's parents do not.
According to his statement to police, Vang briefly attended Johnson High School here and completed the 10th grade, earning mostly C's and D's. Vang said his parents came to the United States in 1978--whether from Laos or Thailand he was not sure. He was born in St. Paul, but spent most of his life living with his parents in an apartment in Fresno. He said he didn't know how his mother and father made their living.
McCleery describes Vang as "very much a follower," a kid who knew what he did was wrong, but had no idea how wrong--or of how serious the consequences would be. Once arrested in connection with the rapes, he, like most of the others convicted in the cases, immediately confessed. (When City Pages asked Vang through McCleery about his perception of the case, he would only say that when he was arrested, neither the police nor the Gang Strike Force officers listened to him.)
McCleery's description of her client squares with the standard profile of gang-rape participants, according to Suzi Kim, youth outreach program coordinator for Minneapolis's nonprofit Sexual Violence Center. In group rapes, she says, offenders often are motivated by their desire to fit in or impress someone else, and the crime often serves as an initiation rite. "Group rape is more about acceptance than it is about control," says Kim. "In most gang rapes, the offenders have a sense of ambiguity. They don't bear sole responsibility for the rape--they did it to participate."
Kim, who has worked with Hmong victims of sexual violence and conducted research into the psychology of gang rape while at the University of Minnesota, compares the mind-set of group-rape perpetrators to that of fans who riot after a game. "Your sense of morality becomes even weaker because other people are there, egging you on and directing you," she says. Kim adds that her research shows that gang rapes by teens are on the rise, with many reported among white, rural teenagers.