We live in a society with a very real rape culture, which blames victims for being raped and sympathizes with the rapists. Ours is a culture that slut-shames women, leading to a statistical inequity in reporting the crime. This culture creates an environment where even after the judicial process is over, the victim gets no justice.
In the aftermath of the Steubenville trial — a case involving two high school football players who raped one of their peers — the judicial system delivered a guilty verdict to Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond. Despite the nature of the crime, many major news sources sympathized with the two convicted boys who showed little remorse for their crime and even harassed the victim via text message, begging her not to report them.
CNN had one of the poorest responses to the case, in which correspondents Poppy Harlow and Candy Crowley seemed to grieve the tarnished future of the two football heroes. “Incredibly difficult, even for an outsider like me, to watch what happened as these two young men that had such promising futures — star football players, very good students — literally watched as they believed their lives fell apart,” said Harlow. In Crowley’s discussions with legal expert Paul Callan, she said, “Sixteen-year-olds just sobbing in court, regardless of what big football players they are, they still sound like 16-year-olds. What’s the lasting effect, though, on two young men being found guilty in juvenile court of rape, essentially?” Callan’s tone was almost remorseful when describing that the boys’ labels as sex offenders “will haunt them for the rest of their lives.”
What about the young Jane Doe’s life? The teenager who was brutally raped; who had to see her sexual exploits gracing headlines and relive that awful moment everyday of her life; who woke up naked and confused after being violated by two of her peers with no recollection; whom the boys showed no remorse toward and instead only worried about facing the consequences of their actions.
The Steubenville coverage wasn’t unique, but was uncommonly called out for what it is: victim blaming. Another example, as covered by David Zirin in The Nation, was the public and media outcry over the rape allegations at Penn State — where assistant coach Jerry Sandusky was raping young boys and being shielded by the administration — as compared to the cover-up of rapes by the Notre Dame football team.
In all of these cases, there was little coverage about the future of the young victims who’ve been sexualized. There was no coverage about how we should be teaching our young men not to rape and disrespect women. There was no coverage on how common events like the Steubenville case are and how unlikely it is that the survivor will get a day in court, no less a guilty verdict for the perpetrators. Ethical reporting transcends being factually accurate, it means reporting the facts to tell the whole story, representing those facts equally and stripping your reporting of the personal and societal biases that you carry with you. Patriarchy is no exception.
Let me be clear, there is no other felonious crime that is covered this way in the media. You never see journalists say what a bright future the axe murderer had before he committed his crime. You rarely see it reported that the mother who drowned her children cried in court. These violent criminals are portrayed as just that: violent criminals.
Often, our culture makes it so that even when the justice system doesn’t fail the victim, society and the media plays into the narrative that rape is the victim’s fault, rather than that of the violent criminals. It is not merely what the coverage says, but to what it clearly hints. When the angle is about teenage drinking and how dangerous it can be, the message is “it was her fault she was so drunk.” When it references what she was wearing, the media is saying, “she was dressed like a slut, she asked for it.” When the media reports that she was walking home alone at night from a party, the audience shakes their heads and thinks, “she really should have known better.”
The logic of victim blaming is so prevalent because it makes all people — especially other women — feel a false sense of safety, as if there’s a list of avoidable behaviors that cause rape. In reality, the only thing that causes rape is people that rape. It’s this type of logic that leads my mother to keep making frantic phone calls because I live in a city. The media has created the archetype of an urban rapist lurking in the dark waiting to pounce on their unsuspecting victim. In reality, most women know their rapists.
As someone who lives in downtown Boston, buying into these myths can make living in a city feel like a really scary place to be a woman, but the unfortunate truth is that rape happens everywhere. I personally refuse to change my daily routes, the clothes I wear, or sacrifice my freedom in order to prevent rape. The only way for rape to be prevented is for people to stop raping, and I encourage young urban dwellers not to buy into the culture of fear and shame our society has created. I urge our generation of media consumers to stop buying into ignorance because it’s status quo.
An unfortunate example of this ignorance emerged a few weeks ago when a peer at my college posted on Emerson Confessional, a Facebook page created as a forum for students to share anonymous confessions and thoughts, about the legitimacy of consent and rape. The student claimed that, “Too often, though, the story goes like this. A girl gets shit face drunk and hooks up with a guy. She consents at the time. The next day, she wakes up and decides that she made a dumb drunken decision. So, what does she do? ‘Oh, he raped me.’” This mentality is far too common when talking about issues of rape and sexual consent.
When considering this myth that women crying wolf is so prevalent, or why commentaries like this are heard so frequently, the explanation is simple. It’s easier to buy into rape culture than to fight it. We’ve been socialized within these constructs and media coverage helps legitimize these claims. In a world where women are often devalued and seen as inferior, it’s no surprise that many people feel comfortable and confident making these accusations.
If you look at fact, statistics and past cases, there’s simply no evidence to support a claim that rape cases victimize rapists. You must learn to report these cases with the cold hard facts and leave out commentary that clearly reflects gender assumptions deriving from our patriarchal culture. We have a responsibility as avid media consumers to dispel the myths about rape and be agents within our society to create a culture in which women are safe to make their life choices without being blamed when they’re subject to violent crimes.