Trigger warning: this article contains depictions and discussions of sexual assault.
Reporting on rape and sexual violence is inherently political.
Historically, sexual assault has been dismissed an individual’s private concern rather than what it is: systematized abuse camouflaged by cultural biases manufactured by, well, those doing most of the raping.
And in American media, the politics of reporting on rape is deeply intertwined with racism. As Columbia University’s Professor Helen Benedict wrote in Virgin or Vamp: How the Press Covers Sex Crimes, U.S. newspapers rarely printed reports of rape until the 1930s, with “one glaring exception.” The exception, of course, was reports of black men raping white women. These articles were often pretext for lynching or other violence against the accused black men (a phenomenon echoed in the aftermath of the 1989 Central Park jogger rape case, where four black and one Hispanic boy was falsely convicted in the wake of a media frenzy that erupted at a time of enormous racial anxiety in the city).
Of course, like now, white men raped black women a century ago, but those incidents were reported relatively rarely.
But lately, it seems like rape—in the military, college sports, Boys Scouts, churches, individual attacks--is in the news every day. At least, at last, rape is a worthy topic for exposure and resolution.
Now, we know that sexual violence is about power, and as such its incidence and our formal acknowledgment of it through news accounts express and reflect anxieties about gender, race and class. And after years of burying this bias under “objective” reporting and the so-called “view from nowhere,” we finally acknowledge that the view from nowhere has always, in fact, been the view from somewhere very specific—the top of the social hierarchy.
When it comes to rape and sexual assault, the view has often been from the rapists’ vantage point, looking down on his victim, at what she was wearing, if she acted unladylike, how she could be blamed for his violence. (Of course, men, children, prisoners, people that identify as gender-diverse and others are also victims of sexual assault; for the purposes of addressing the most common victim-blaming narratives in news reports, this column focuses on men raping women.)
Sometimes the problem with victim-blaming in rape reporting is simply inaccurate word choice. For example, a recent Associated Press story about teenage girls kidnapped and then forced into brothels to be raped for recreation by soldiers during World War II referred to the victims “sex slaves.” Sex slave sounds like a consensual S&M game, not profiteering adults kidnapping children then renting their bodies out for rape paid by the hour. Another common diluting phrase is “have sex with” when the phrase should be “raped” or “allegedly raped.”
These language choices confuse sex with violence, much in the way the average college rapist does when assaulting victims.
I recently interviewed a college victim of rape. She told me she was raped in her own house, after a night of drinking and some consensual kissing. Research shows that all three of those details are typical of rape on college campuses. Also common was his weapon of choice: Confusion. She said no, but he didn’t stop. She felt paralyzed, but he didn’t stop. He told her she was beautiful, he didn’t stop. He ambushed her with words associated with sex while physically raping her.
“I know I’m not a ‘good victim,’” she said.
The good victim/bad victim narrative that plays out in the media and court goes back to the racism of rape reporting established a century ago: Essentially, good victims were white women raped by black men. Bad victims were, presumably, all women raped by white men.
If you get cast in the role of bad victim—which can happen if you are attacked in the course of acting like a real person, rather than a demure caricature of Southern ladyhood—you’re less likely to get a conviction in court than a “good victim.” Victim-blaming rape myths such as good victim/bad victim functionally police women’s dress, behavior, and whereabouts. It curtails freedom. It says: follow our rules, or else anything can happen to you.
Of course, anything happen to you if you don’t follow the rules, too (but you will have more recourse legally and socially if you’re a good victim).
The good news is that it’s easier than ever for the public to be informed about victim-blaming bias and call news outlets out on it, and get them to respond. Social media pushback is more powerful than a letter to the editor.
In 2011, angry readers responded aggressively on social media to story in the New York Times about the gang rape by 18 boys and men of an 11-year-old girl. Other journalists publicly criticized the piece, a petition was started, and eventually, the Times Public Editor acknowledged the story lacked balance—a lesson for both reporters and readers whose biases may have prevented them from noticing the problem on their own.
Sometimes change is even quicker. Earlier this month, feminist author Jaclyn Friedman tweeted at the Times about their use of the phrase “sex charges” instead of “rape charges” in a headline for a story about four athletes accused of raping two women. It was corrected within hours.
Analysis can of course get progressively more subtle, like considering at the use of the terms “victim” versus “survivor” in context. Or taking a wider-lens look at the framing of the story; details that are conspicuously included or excluded; questioning factual-sounding declarations that the victim “got drunk” when it’s not possible for the reporter to know if he or she was drugged.
Cultural biases run deep. In shrinking newsrooms—still run, in majority, by men—the temptation looms to resort to short-cut “traditional” narratives. An educated readership that pushes back—clicks back—is vital to shaping progressive narratives that reflect and define the reality of our lives, not myths built to keep us out of view and silently assaulted.
Tara Murtha will present the workshop “Victim-blaming in the Media: What it is & What You Can Do About It” as part of Ladyfest Philly on Sunday, June 9 at 1:15PM.