On Rape, the Media, and the ‘New York Times’ Clusterfuck

the-new-york-times1
On Tuesday, March 8, The New York Times published an article by James C. McKinley Jr. titled, “Vicious Assault Shakes Texas Town.” Eighteen men held down an 11-year-old girl and repeatedly raped her in an abandoned trailer while recording the rape with cell phones. Much has been written about McKinley’s—and the New York Times’—irresponsible, victim-blaming, rape culture-enforcing report of the rape.  Or should I say lack of report of the rape. While the entire article is a catastrophic joke, this paragraph warrants specific mention:
Residents in the neighborhood where the abandoned trailer stands—known as the Quarters—said the victim had been visiting various friends there for months. 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.
Shakesville breaks down the story, and it’s a must-read piece. The writer points out, “Nowhere in this story is the following made clear: … that our compassion and care should be directed first and foremost toward the victim rather than the boys, the school, the community, or anyone else.”  The NYT piece is such an obvious case of victim-blaming, and terrifyingly unapologetic, that it wasn’t surprising to see an immediate petition go up at change.org, “Tell the New York Times to Apologize for Blaming a Child for Her Gang Rape.” The creator of the petition, Shelby Knox, writes, “1 in 4 American women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime. A culture that blames victims for being raped—for what they were wearing, where they were, and who they were with—rather than blaming the rapist, is a culture that tacitly condones rape.” As of now 43,820 people have signed the petition, and Arthur S. Brisbane of the New York Times has issued an apology—not without its flaws—regarding the lack of balance in the piece.
*****
That apology should’ve felt good to read. But about an hour before it was issued, I’d posted the petition on my Facebook wall, urging friends to sign it. And this was one of the first responses:

Actually…no. I just read the “offending” comments of Mr. McKinley. The complaint is that he “gave ink” to the opinions of some idiots from Texas? He’s a reporter for Christ’s sake. He’s SUPPOSED to present all angles of the story. Looks like responsible journalism to me. Attack the idiots in Texas for this. Attack the wretched perpetrators. Why in the world is anyone mad at The New York Times for telling the whole story? If anything its GOOD that they reported on those folks as well. Its important for people to know that there are idiots like that everywhere. This is wildly misplaced rage here. Wasting time on things like this is why no real problems ever get solved in this damn country. Let the public burning commence. I’ll be tied to the stake willingly. =)

Another person immediately agreed.  Thankfully, others jumped in to defend the petition, but I didn’t walk away from the thread feeling good about it. I felt defeated. Exhausted. Like I might burst into tears. So when the NYT finally got around to “apologizing” for publishing an article that never should’ve seen the light of day to begin with, I wanted to revel in the success of a group of people coming together to affect change. I couldn’t, though. And I started to think about why I couldn’t.
*****
The same day the New York Times published its story, the newspaper in my hometown published a report of another young girl’s rape, “Man accused of raping 12-year-old girl.” I read the opening paragraph: “A Middletown man has been charged with rape and intimidation of a witness after allegedly conducting a sexual relationship with a 12-year-old girl.” I read it again … “a sexual relationship” … “with a 12-year-old girl.”  I kept reading … “accused of having sex with a child younger than the age of 12” … “alleged abuse of the female juvenile.”What the hell? A child cannot consent to sex. Ever. Under any circumstance. So how does a man conduct a sexual relationship with her? How does a man have sex with her? And why does “the girl” suddenly become “the female juvenile”?  If I’d ever gone a moment without thinking about Rape Culture (and it’s hard to do), two newspaper articles published back to back—discussing the rapes of two girls as if one girl could consent to having sex with a man, while another could facilitate her own fucking gang rape—would make sure I spent a good few days and nights obsessing about the most recent media onslaught of violence against women.
*****
Three years ago, on March 28, 2008, Amber and I started Bitch Flicks. We respected blogs like Women and Hollywood that focus on women in film and explore how difficult it is for women to navigate the sexist terrain of Hollywood. And we wanted to be a part of that conversation, by looking closely at how popular films, television, music videos, movie posters, and other forms of media contribute to misogyny, violence against women, and unattainable beauty ideals. Because more than anything, we believe the blind and uncritical consumption of media portrayals of women contributes to furthering women’s inequality in all areas of life.

And we’ve noticed a few things here and there: rape being played for laughs in Observe and Report; the sexual trafficking of women used as a plot device in Taken; the constant dismemberment of women in movie posters; the damaging caricatures of women as sex objects in Black Snake Moan and The Social Network; and we’ve often pointed to discussions of sexism and misogyny around the net, like the sexual violence in Antichrist and, most recently, the sexualized corpses of women in Kanye West’s Monster video. It barely grazes the surface. I mean, it barely grazes the fucking surface of what a viewer sees during the commercial breaks of a 30-minute sitcom.

Yet, this constant, unchecked barrage of endless and obvious woman-hating undoubtedly contributes to the rape of women and girls.

The sudden idealization of Charlie Sheen as some bad boy to be envied, even though he has a violent history of beating up women, contributes to the rape of women and girls. Bills like H. R. 3 that seek to redefine rape and further the attack on women’s reproductive rights contributes to the rape of women and girls. Supposed liberal media personalities like Michael Moore and Keith Olbermann showing their support for Julian Assange by denigrating Assange’s alleged rape victims contributes to the rape of women and girls. The sexist commercials that advertisers pay millions of dollars to air on Super Bowl Sunday contribute to the rape of women and girls. And blaming Lara Logan for her gang rape by suggesting her attractiveness caused it, or the job was too dangerous for her, or she shouldn’t have been there in the first place, contributes to the rape of women and girls.

It contributes to rape because it normalizes violence against women. Men rape to control, to overpower, to humiliate, to reinforce the patriarchal structure. And the media, which is vastly controlled by men, participates in reproducing already existing prejudices and inequalities, rather than seeking to transform them.
And it pisses me off.
*****
“This is wildly misplaced rage here. Wasting time on things like this is why no real problems ever get solved in this damn country.” I decided to respond to that portion of my friend’s Facebook comment by quoting a passage from a piece on Shakesville called, “Feminism 101: ‘Feminists Look for Stuff to Get Mad About,'” in which Melissa McEwan makes the following argument:
 … in a very real way, ignoring “the little things” in favor of “the big stuff” makes the big stuff that much harder to eradicate, because it is the pervasive, ubiquitous, inescapable little things that create the foundation of a sexist culture on which the big stuff is dependent for its survival. It’s the little things, the constant drumbeat of inequality and objectification, that inure us to increasingly horrible acts and attitudes toward women.
People can argue that “the little things” are less important to point out than “the big things” all they want to. They can accuse feminists of misplaced anger, irrationality, man-hating, overreaction.  But the reality is that violence against women has become so commonplace in film and television, in advertising, in stand-up fucking “comedy,” in video games, that it’s the absolute default treatment of women in media, and we can’t pretend that doesn’t extend to how women are treated in the rest of society. It contributes to rape.  And it certainly contributes to a “liberal” newspaper’s inability to effectively report an 11-year-old girl’s gang rape without victim-blaming and slut-shaming, which, incidentally, also contributes to rape.
So. I gave myself a break. I let myself feel shitty and helpless for a minute. I’m over it now and ready to fight back. Stay tuned for our regularly scheduled programming …
  • soirore

    Thanks for writing this.

    I think often people can assume that talking about feminism in regards to film (for example) that somehow the heavy issues are not being dealt with. But it all matters! It all contributes to a toxic society.

    Teaspoons! (also from Shakesville)

  • Thank you. This captured so much of what I was feeling and is damned spot on.

  • Pavlov’s Cat

    I share your feelings on all this and it does get so frustrating sometimes, the blatant refusal of some people to even try to comprehend what the problem is, of others to give up what tiny and often imaginary gains they make from the way things are and realize just how much we all lose. You are very much not alone, however it sometimes looks.

  • Byron

    You are right on. Every such instance contributes to a skewed cultural unconscious that lays the groundwork for rape and abuse. Every portrayal matters, adds up to something larger. Big picture approaches miss the details that led to the problems in the first place. We must first change the conversation if we ever hope to change outcomes.

  • So is there some sort of magical biological switch that makes a girl able to consent to sex when she’s 16, 17, or whatever age the laws of a state agree on?

  • I posted this on my Facebook, a place where I don’t typically have this discussion because I have so many boneheaded relatives and friends likely to give me a hard time. But you know what, I’m tired too. I’m tired of pretending I believe I live in a world where there’s a level playing field and little girls are automatically viewed as not guilty of the acts perpetrated on them.

  • Thank you for this piece. I appreciate the followup to the initial reactions many of us had to the Times piece.

    The idea that fixing the little things has been around for a while–one famous example is a study called “broken windows” done decades ago. IT WORKS. And that is encouraging because everyone can take a small step that helps improve the bigger picture. It’s exactly how things CAN get done in this country.

  • Anonymous

    Very well put. I’m not someone who usually comments on things, but I wanted to say thank you for this cogent post!

  • Anonymous

    I’d like to add that these things condone versus contribute. There have been rapes long before television and print. Rapes of children, women, men, nuns, etc… It’s atrocious and it needs to stop but the media (all of it) is justifying (condoning) an action that happens. If they stopped I doubt rapes would as rape is about power. Condoning sexual assault, sexism, prejudice is a social mentality that needs to change at a personal level and that won’t happen as long as it is condoned. This is why sexual assault programs are so very important. This is a great article.

  • In reply to Anonymous at 10:33: Condoning certainly does contribute. When a man reads, sees, hears an article about rape, and the victim is crucified by the press while the perpetrator(s) is/are dealt with sympathetically, he is more likely to, when he finds himself in that “power over” setting, feel that he can get away with it, and that it’s *okay*, somehow.

  • Maureen: What do you mean by “contributing to rape”? I think that those who rape are morally responsible for what they do, because it was they who did it — but your claim that those of us who have not committed rape but nonetheless influenced rapists in various ways are also morally responsible for what the rapist did in some way I find more difficult.

    The issue is not so easy, I admit:

    If Alex tells Erik that Joe is despicable and something ought to be done about Joe at length and in earnest, and Erik takes Alex’s words to heart and decides to kill Joe, is Alex morally responsible for Joe’s death? In the same way that Joe is? And to the same extent?

    Because I think the situation of the main-stream media with respect to rape is no worse and perhaps better than the position Alex holds with respect to Erik.

    If the main-stream media encourages rape, either explicitly or implicitly, and someone goes out and commits the act, is the moral responsibility of the mainstream media the same or different than the moral responsibility of the person who commits rape, and is the responsibility of the mainstream media proportional to the responsibility of the rapist?

    Offhand I would want to apportion the fault more to the person who commits the deed than those who influenced him to commit it.

  • Anonymous

    @firezdog: Naturally, criminals are responsible for what they do. But that doesn’t suddenly mean other people do not hold responsibility as well. Especially if they help reinforce a mindset of victim-blaming and apologism. I don’t find that difficult at all, I find it necessarily true. Because there is such thing as tacit approval.

    It’s not really about worse or better, more or less, is it? Or should it be? In your scenario Alex is still partially responsible, yes. It doesn’t matter if he’s not as responsible as Erik is, he still had a part in it and that’s still not okay. There’s no way to excuse that, it’s enabling behavior.

  • (in reply to firezdog). Responsibility is not a binary concept. Just because one person may have responsibility in acting doesn’t absolve all other actors.

    A person who commits a rape has primary responsibility, but those who see it coming and do nothing share that responsibility. Those who make jokes about getting co-eds drunk share responsibility. Anyone who aids and abets the mindset that makes rape seem acceptable shares that responsibility.

    The rape culture is built out of these little pieces of responsibility that get abdicated repeatedly.

  • Really well said, Stephanie. Thanks for saying it so clearly. I may want to cross-post if you don’t mind.

  • What a powerful post! I followed you from my blog, Marinagraphy.I’m getting tired also, of this attack and misuse of women. It pisses me off to no end, and like you, I get depressed because it seems like we’re not winning anything — in fact, it’s only getting worse — have you read about the new “male studies” taking over universities as a backlash to feminism? But I want to fight more than I want to lie down and have my daughter raised in a world that diminishes her to an object and/or silences her by overpowering her. YOu’re doing a fantastic job!

  • Stephanie, I just wrote an article for The New Agenda, and I quoted you and linked your name to your site. It’s being published on Saturday, so go to thenewagenda.net and check it out.

  • Thanks so much for the thoughtful (and thought-provoking) comments. More details about the rape continue to emerge, and it never gets easier to read. However, this has sparked a much-needed conversation about rape and rape culture, and I love that so many people have spoken up about it.

    I read your piece, Marina, and it’s great. Thanks so much for the shout-out, and for anyone who hasn’t read it, definitely check it out:

    Rape Culture and How it Betrays Women

  • Stephanie, I quoted you for the article I wrote on The New Agenda, and it made it into Huffington Post. I linked your title to your site, so I hope you’re getting some hits from it. Here’s the link:http://www.huffingtonpost.com/marina-delvecchio/post_1849_b_838788.html?

  • Whoa! This is awesome! Thank you. :-)

  • Anonymous

    This might seem like a little thing, because it occurs so often, but it’s huge and it’s everywhere. It’s constantly on my mind and I am happy to see an open discussion to ease the burden.

  • WHile i definitely agree some of the things you listed contribute to the problem(like how the gangrape of the 11 year old was reported)i’ve seen Black Snake Moan and Taken, and neither of those changed my opinion on rape or how wrong it is. Maybe its just me, but i’ve always understood the difference between fantasy and reality

  • Pingback: Click here for boots.com discount code()

  • Pingback: Click here for oak furniture superstore voucher codes()

  • Pingback: Visit this link to find okadirect.com voucher codes()

  • Pingback: do you agree()

  • Pingback: go here to view mankind discount code()

  • Pingback: magnesium stearate free probiotics()

  • Pingback: omega 3 xl website()