Media Discourse Has It Wrong on Sexual Violence

November 18, 2009

Most people have heard about the alleged gang rape of a teenage girl a couple weeks ago outside her high school. There are many shocking and horrific aspects of the event. According to MSNBC, “as many as a dozen people watched a 15-year-old girl get beaten and gang-raped outside her high school homecoming dance without reporting it.” In addition to the two suspects in custody, “as many as five other men attacked the girl over a two-hour period.”

The article goes on to be a regular crime-reporting article, and then it hits you like a ton of bricks:
“Police said the girl left the dance and was walking to meet her father for a ride home when a classmate invited her to join a group drinking in the courtyard. The victim had drank a large amount of alcohol by the time the assault began, police said.”

WHAM! She was drinking—underage, no less—so there’s an implication that the attack was her fault. No, it’s not an outright statement of blame, but an implication. This sort of coverage may lead people to believe that she “had it coming” because she participated in “risky” behavior. This discourse shows how the media uphold the status quo regarding sex crimes. We, as a society, place blame on those taking part in what is perceived as risky or promiscuous behavior. In this case, that behavior was consuming alcohol.

Rape is never okay. It doesn’t matter how much she had to drink, because that didn’t directly contribute to the personal motivations of the perpetrators to participate in a gang rape for more than two hours. The alcohol she drank wasn’t responsible for the 10 to 20 bystanders who didn’t call the cops. When reporters mention a fact like that in their reporting, they contribute to this misplaced blame. Sometimes blaming the victim is subtle, and sometimes it’s not. Regardless, it happens all too often. Look for it when you read these crime reports. Any time a survivor’s wardrobe, substance use, or even sexual history is mentioned in the article, it may be a case of victim blaming, intentional or not. But intent does not dictate how the public will interpret the report or what conclusions they will draw from it.

The opinion piece that appeared on CNN about this case mentions increasing safety precautions (such as police patrols and students identifying “hot spots” for crime and danger on school grounds, etc.) rather than focusing attention on the horrific bystanders’ behavior. The author recognizes that these are preventive measures, but they’re still superficial. The suggestions are good, but they do not solve the problem of assault. Instead, we need to get at the root of the problem to enact greater social change by shifting society’s perceptions of women, sexual violence, and power.

Sexual violence is a pervasive social problem across the globe, and we need to treat it as such by integrating greater sensitivity and accuracy into reporting about sex crimes. This is just one way of increasing public awareness about the problem and how widespread it is. I suggested in my thesis that covering sexual violence as a disturbing trend rather than as isolated incidents could hit home for many people. Getting victim blaming out of the media and public discourse around sexual violence is the first step. Consistently providing a narrative that allows for victims and survivors to feel guilty about the heinous crime committed against them is wrong. Despite what news and popular media would have you believe, sexual assault is never the survivors’ fault—never.

By:   |   November 18, 2009


  1. Kim Barbaro says:

    An important perspective–thanks for bringing this to the attention of the public.

  2. Quentin Hancock says:

    I have to say that I disagree on your interpretation of the sentence ” ‘The victim had drank a large amount of alcohol by the time the assault began,’ police said.” It can imply blame, yes, but it may also may simply imply that this girl was in a vulnerable state when her assailants raped her.

    Your observations on the CNN opinion piece that followed the story is much more illuminating. The greatest tragedy of this story, aside from the assault itself, is the fact that several bystanders did nothing. Did the editorial writer even think about this? Did he/she feel that the problem was too big, too systemic to address, and so decided to suggest the superficial, defensive measures mentioned in the column?

Join the Conversation

You must be logged in to post a comment.