Moira Donegan

Here is what the victim remembers: she arrived at her boyfriend’s house in a Rio favela at about 1 a.m. She was alone with him there. Then, she woke up in a different house, in pain. The men – there were a crowd of them, some with guns, and she would eventually count 33 – had delegated two to hold her down. They were taking turns to rape her. When they finally let her go, she was naked and bleeding. She found some spare clothes and then walked home; they had also taken her bag.

In the video that the 20-year-old suspect Michel Brasil da Silva posted to Twitter, a man stands beside the victim’s unconscious body as she stirs. ‘More than thirty impregnated her!’ he says, and offscreen, another man’s laughter can be heard. It’s clear the girl is drugged. One of the men posted a selfie he had taken next to her exposed genitals. He captioned it: ‘Rio state opens a new tunnel for the speed train.’ The victim is 16.

When she was still speaking to the police, the girl told them that in the hillside favela where she lives, women are often attacked. The favelas, home to about 20 per cent of Rio’s population, are densely inhabited and irregularly lit. If you’re not local, it’s easy to get lost. The police did a poor job of patrolling the areas even before the economic downturn led to drastic budget cuts; now, there’s almost no police presence at all. Instead, drug traffickers are largely in control, and if you’re on the right side of them, you can operate with relative impunity. The victim of the gang rape hadn’t intended to come forward. She only went to the police after she saw the images of herself online.

Following the video’s release, tens of thousands of women marched in protest through the streets of cities across Brazil, holding signs and chanting: ‘Machismo Kills.’ Hundreds of thousands of tweets expressing rage were aggregated under #EstuproNuncaMais, ‘Rape No More’. A large protest on the steps of the Rio state legislature featured a forty foot-long banner that read: ‘QUANDO DIGO NÃO É NÃO’ (‘When I say no, it’s no’). One popular slogan, ‘Ser mulher sem Temer’ (‘be a woman without fear’) was a derisive play on the name of the interim president, Michel Temer. At one point, demonstrators in Brasilia tried to march on the Supreme Federal Court; the police held them off with tear gas.

The protests were driven not only by the brutality of the attack, but by the undeniability of the evidence: the perpetrators themselves had disseminated it online. Here was the factual clarity normally absent from rape cases, which often come down to conflicting accounts of consent which are nearly impossible to prove or disprove. Many activists had hoped that the video would definitively put an end to the claims that when feminists speak about rape culture they are being oversensitive, or politically correct, or indulging in self-serving delusions of victimhood. The Brazilian government says that 6029 rapes were reported in Rio state in 2012, but activists and government agencies agree that the real number is much higher. Of those that are reported, only a fraction result in criminal convictions, and those found guilty are disproportionally poor men of colour. At the protests, women spoke of a pervasive sense of male sexual entitlement; of threats made, lines crossed and harm inflicted when they withheld consent or declined advances. It’s difficult to watch the video of what happened in Rio and think that the women could be exaggerating.

Still, many people managed it. Some supposed the victim had knowingly taken drugs on the night of her rape; others noted with disapproval that at 16, she already has a son. The lead investigator allegedly asked the girl if she had ever participated in group sex parties (he was later removed at the request of her lawyers). How any of this would have justified her rape was not made clear, but that wasn't the point. The logic of this sort of victim-blaming is not that sexual assaults aren’t happening; it’s that the assaults don’t represent injustices worthy of public attention.

Before Twitter removed the video, da Silva retweeted several enthusiastic responses to the footage. One reply read: ‘They wrecked that one’s body hahahahahahahahaha.’ In response to commenters who told him to take the video down, da Silva said he didn’t see what the big deal was. ‘People see the worst stuff and don’t complain,’ he wrote.

Read more in the London Review of Books

Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro: Rio's Favelas · 21 January 2016

Perry Anderson: Crisis in Brazil · 21 April 2016

Jenny Diski: Rape-Rape · 5 November 2009

Mary Beard: On Rape · 24 August 2000