A difficult topic

Recently I decided I was going to use this space to write a little more thoughtfully than I usually do online about subjects that are relevant to me, a 26 year old single woman working a corporate job in a medium sized American city. I haven’t felt particularly inspired… until this week. And I’m going to start with a doozy of a subject: rape.

First, a definition of the term “rape culture” from good ol’ Wikipedia, because that is really what I want explore, more than the crime itself:

Rape culture is a term used within women’s studies and feminism, describing a culture in which rape and other sexual violence are common and in which prevalent attitudes, norms, practices, and media condone, normalize, excuse, or encourage sexualized violence.

Normalizing and excusing of sexualized violence is what I want to talk about in this post. On March 8th, The New York Times published this article: “Vicious Assault Shakes Texas Town.” First let’s acknowledge that there is a horrible crime written about here that negatively impacted a child for life, if not worse. A girl was hurt in one of the worst possible ways anyone can be hurt. Because I’m not writing for a newspaper, I can say that this story turns my stomach and brings tears to my eyes. It’s horrific. Now, I’d like to turn a critical eye on the article. There’s about a million other people who’ve written about this more intelligently than I could*, but I want to look specifically at the language used within the Times piece and how it contributes to rape culture.

Let’s accept this as a premise first: the language we consume shapes the way we think about things. That is to say, the words used to describe something can influence one’s attitude toward it. I’m not saying I can’t perceive a different shade of blue unless I have a word to call it, but more like if I have someone calling me fat every day, I’m going to start to believe it. That kind of thing.

The language used in the Times article to describe the brutal rape of an 11 year old girl is at best insensitive, at worst dangerous. At best it acknowledges, at worst it promotes the worst parts of our culture, that normalization and encouragement of sexual violence. I realize the article isn’t an opinion piece; the journalist was reporting on a crime that occured. But I don’t think the text does simply that. I think there is a commentary in the text, and how it was framed, that contributes to rape culture.

I’d like to contrast the Times article with this one I came across on MSNBC: “18 arrested in assaults on 11-year-old Texas girl.” It’s not a perfect article, but I think it is much more even-handed and, frankly, less harmful. Let’s start with the headline and first sentence. (For the sake of simplicity I’ll just call them Article 1 and Article 2, respectively.)

A1: “Vicious Assault Shakes Texas Town.” The police investigation began shortly after Thanksgiving, when an elementary school student alerted a teacher to a lurid cellphone video that included one of her classmates.

A2: “18 arrested in assaults on 11-year-old Texas girl” – On a cell phone video passed among an 11-year-old girl’s classmates, authorities say adolescent boys and men in their 20s could be seen sexually assaulting the girl inside a dingy abandoned trailer.

The first article leads off with a headline focusing on the town rather than the victim, while A2’s headline immediately let’s me know who the victim is: a preteen girl. I realize that an article about a crime doesn’t necessarily have to focus on the victim of that crime, but in this particular case, I think it’s pretty important not to frame the town as the primary victim.

I can tell A1’s author likes adjectives. He tells us that the attack is “vicious” – good, it is. (Then focuses the effect of that viciousness on the town, buuuut okay, I’ll give him that one.) But the cellphone video is “lurid.” I know that the definition of lurid notes the gruesomeness of the thing being described, but I associate the word lurid with things that are morbidly captivating, things we maybe can’t look away from – lurid details about Tiger Woods’ sex life, for example. Even if that was the classmate’s reaction to the video, I don’t think it’s appropriate here. I think a more appropriate attitude to portray about a cellphone video of a child being gang raped would be something like disturbing. appalling. horrible.

A1 continues to describe the accused, and at least even-handedly presents a list of the accused, from those who look like upstanding citizens to those who have criminal records. A2 does the same.  Then, A1 gives us this paragraph:

The case has rocked this East Texas community to its core and left many residents in the working-class neighborhood where the attack took place with unanswered questions. Among them is, if the allegations are proved, how could their young men have been drawn into such an act?

Excuse me? “Drawn into such an act?” Okay, perhaps someone from the town could’ve said basically that, but it isn’t a quote. The phrase “drawn into,” not a quote by a townsperson but rather uncommented text from the article, is a perfect example of insidious rape apologizing. The “act” here is a horrific crime. Would “drawn into” be used if we were reading about a sociopath who killed his next door neighbor (how did he get drawn into such an act?) or a pack of robbers who think nothing of offing a convenience store clerk (how did he get drawn into such an act?). I doubt it.

Also, again with the focus on the community. I get that a crime like this would really affect a community; if it happened in my neighborhood, I would be horrified. But would I want the reporting on the crime to focus on my reaction? Of course not, especially if, like A1 does, the “rocked to the core” effect on the citizens of Cleveland is shown as overwhelmingly victim blaming. A1 gives us quotes like this:

“It’s just destroyed our community,” said Sheila Harrison, 48, a hospital worker who says she knows several of the defendants. “These boys have to live with this the rest of their lives.”

and this:

They said she dressed older than her age, wearing makeup and fashions more appropriate to a woman in her 20s. She would hang out with teenage boys at a playground, some said.

A2, on the other hand, gives us something equally reprehensible:

“Maturity or not I’m pretty sure she knew what she was doing,” Robin Smith, 24, a cashier in Cleveland, said as she shopped this week.

buuuuuut displays a nice example of balanced journalism with this quote:

“She’s 11 years old. It shouldn’t have happened. That’s a child,” said Oscar Carter, 56, who is related to an uncle of one 16-year-old charged in the case. “Somebody should have said what we are doing is wrong.”

Yes, A1 makes a mention of prayer services for the victim, but that is the only textual evidence I could find of anything but condemnation of the victim, or her mother (plus some more vague statements about how it sucks for the town).

Here’s how A2 describes a search warrant affadavit:

The girl was first assaulted at a house near the trailer, where several young men told her she would be beaten up if she didn’t submit, according to the affidavit. When the aunt of one of the alleged attackers returned home, everyone, including the girl, fled.

But here’s how A1 describes it:

An affidavit filed to support the search warrant said the girl had been forced to have sex with several men in both places on Nov. 28 and cited pictures and videos as proof.

I know that some legalese has to be at work here, but I see a big contrast between A2 reporting that the girl “would be beaten up if she didn’t submit,” and A1 reporting that the girl “had been forced to have sex.” Yes, both phrases use language that reinforce that this is a rape case, language of forced submission, but A1 uses the phrase “have sex,” which disappoints me. Maybe the phrase was in the affidavit, but it didn’t have to be printed. Having sex implies participation. Yes, sexual intercourse occurred, but it’s unfortunate that A1 used a phrase that you might use with your friends. So-and-so had sex with her boyfriend! Ew, I saw my parents having sex! Not the language of alleged gang rape.

In conclusion, I don’t see A1 reporting unbiased facts. I see some facts, yes, but not other very important ones – like quotes portraying one opinion, but not another. And I see a language with disturbing implications.

I like to assume the best about people, that most individuals have good intentions and seek to carry them out. Sometimes this makes me seem naive; sometimes this makes me get hurt. Let’s just assume that the Times reporter is a smart and savvy journalist, and encountered a bunch of close-minded bigots in Cleveland, leaving him repulsed and saddened. He had to report on what he found, right? Maybe he even consulted a rape counselor for an opinion/quote, maybe he included some quotes from the victim’s mother about how her family’s life has been ruined. But then, how did the article get framed the way it did? How did subtle victim blaming language slide it’s way into print? Maybe it was the editor who stripped out any sympathy for the victim in the interest of not editorializing and maintaining an innocent until proven guilty tone, but this article was anything but balanced.

A smart and progressive peer of mine who I greatly respect suggested that perhaps the Times piece was showing the heinousness of the prevalent attitude about rape just by reporting on it. I don’t think subtlety is the method to take when reporting on rape in any medium (neither does he, to be fair). And even assuming that’s the case, I don’t know if the average American could read that article and come to the conclusion that this letter writer did.

Because people still write definitions of rape on UrbanDictionary.com like “Unwanted intercourse because you are intoxicated” and “When a woman changes her mind.” Because 60% of rapes/sexual assaults are still not reported to the police. [Source] Because when Lara Logan was sexually assaulted, there was an explosion of commentary online about how she deserved it. Because people believe if you’ve been drinking, you deserved it. Or if you dressed slutty, you deserved it. Or if you have sexual fantasies, you deserved it. And on and on it goes.

* Including, but not limited to:


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