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Media discourse has it wrong on sexual violence: the Richmond gang rape

By November 19, 2009 13 Comments

An earlier version of this article was previously posted at AAUW’s blog, Dialog.

This Dolce & Gabbana ad (2007) glamorizes gang rape

This Dolce & Gabbana ad (2007) glamorizes gang rape

Most people have heard about the alleged gang rape of a teenage girl a couple weeks ago, along with many shocking and horrific aspects of the event. However, some reported details may have done more harm than good in increasing awareness about sexual assault.

According to the Associated Press, “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” and, 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, 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 nonetheless—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 this “risky” behavior.

This language and discourse is how the media upholds 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.

Any time a survivor’s wardrobe, substance use, or even sexual history is mentioned in the article, you may have a case of victim-blaming on your hands, whether it was intentional or not. Intent does not dictate how the report will be interpreted by the general public and what conclusions they will draw from it.

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 over two hours. The alcohol she drank wasn’t responsible for the 10 to 20 bystanders who didn’t call the cops.

A screenshot from Jamie Foxx’s “Blame It (On the Alcohol)" video. The song and video present harmful ideas about women, drinking, and rape.

A screenshot from Jamie Foxx’s “Blame It (On the Alcohol)" video. The song and video present harmful ideas about women, drinking, and rape. (And it's in our Gallery of Offenders.)

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.

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 preventative measures, but they’re still very surface-level.

These suggestions, while good ones, 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 of sex crimes. This is just one way to increase public awareness about the problem and just how widespread it is.

Covering sexual violence as a disturbing trend rather than these isolated cases can potentially hit home for many people. Getting victim-blaming out of the media and encouraging public discourse around sexual violence are the first steps. 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.

–Katherine