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

Date: November 19, 2009 | Posted By:

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




What Do You Think?

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

  1. Delphyne on 11-19-2009

    Great article. Violet over at www.reclusiveleftist.com has some terrific posts about this horrific crime.
  2. C.K. on 11-19-2009

    Totally agree that we need a cultural shift to put the blame for sexual violence and onus on its prevention where it belongs.

    I've blogged about this a little too:

    http://tiny.cc/odBdB

    To quote SAFER: “There is just no way to protect women from sexual violence by having them alter their behavior, unless we completely remove all women from social situations. The rapist is the problem, and he will eventually find a victim.”
  3. Leslie on 11-19-2009

    So are you suggesting that the media should censor the facts to avoid people misinterpreting them?

    The way I see it no implication was made, just facts reported. People can interpret anyway they like or not at all. Doesn't mean their interpretation is right.
  4. E.C.W. on 11-19-2009

    While I am against underage drinking, I agree that it is an entirely separate problem from gang rape. This is a horrifying incident, showing how voyeuristic, jaded, and antisocial our society has become. Thank you for reporting on it so well!

    Also, the original artical made a grammatical error. It should say "had drunk"; "had drank" is incorrect.
  5. kate on 11-22-2009

    In horrific situations like this, I think it's completely appropriate for news organizations--that strive to maitnain that ultimately unachievable "objectivity" in reporting--to use harsher, more vivid language to convey the horrificness of the events. I think the AP was doing its "job" in reporting that she had been drinking--you have to convey the facts of the story. And I don't think we should necesarily jump on the news outlet right away for spreading the idea that a woman is at fault when she is raped or that she could have prevented it. However, I DO think that newspapers and journalists should have the liberty to go outside the "objective" box and let their readers know what rape is really all about and emphasize the nightmarish atrocity that happened that night.
  6. sabrina on 11-23-2009

    I agree with Kate--I don't think that they news story suggested that the girl was at fault. I read the article and have also read a lot of similar articles detailing the crime, and my interpretation of each one was that the men deceived the girl, making her feel comfortable hanging out and drinking with them, or using peer pressure to get her to drink. Once she was in a drunken state, it was easier for them to take advantage of her, though some articles that I read mentioned that she did still attempt to fight back.

    I honestly never looked at this news story as being problematic because of the mention of alcohol. It seemed to me that the general consensus in the stories I read was that this was a horrendous crime, and while the girl might have been naive, she was certainly not to blame.

    I do agree that our culture tends to blame girls for being drunk while they are raped, but I think that this case was so extreme, that the thought never crossed my mind that people would blame her.

    I think that this problem exists much more in date rape cases, which usually go unreported because girls and women fear that they will be blamed. In many cases, they still are.
  7. Bob on 11-28-2009

    I'm in agreement that this is a horrific crime and problem. One perspective I'd like to add is that this sort of behavior is completely natural for our genetics. Gang rape is common in the wild among our closest relative, the chimpanzee. It's proven to be a successful survival and replication strategy(in the evolutionary sense) and that's why it's still in our genes.

    I think the more aware we are that this is in our nature and what we are capable of, the higher chance we have of using our intelligent brains to stop it. If we just try to repress it, it will happen unconsciously and on accident. If we own our destructive power, we must use it by choice, bringing accountability into the mix.

    There's no doubt that alcohol decreases our intelligent faculties of mind and let's our more primitive brain take control. When people drink, they are making the choice to give up self control. There needs to be accountability for that as well.
  8. Rachel on 11-28-2009

    Bob,

    Are you implying that because wild chimpanzees engage in a behavior that humans are genetically programmed to do the same? That is a ridiculous claim. It sounds to me like you are trying to excuse disgusting and violent behavior. Why don't you use your "intelligent faculties of mind" to learn some real science?
  9. sabrina on 11-30-2009

    Bob,

    I think that sexual desire is still in our genes because reproduction will prolong the existence of our species. However, I would need to see some more data to believe that the desire to rape is implicit in our drive to reproduce.

    Plus, I don't think you can say that "gang rape" is common in other animals, because the concept of gang rape is unique to human sociology and can't have a true parallel within other species.

    I do think I understand where your coming from, and that you have good intentions, though I hope you realize that the way you phrased it is offensive to both men and women. It seems almost as though you are arguing that men should be excused from rape because it's what they're programmed to do, and also that they don't have control of themselves or their actions.

    Also, though your definition of "human nature" can be disputed, I would like to bring nurture into the argument. These rapists are not feral beings--they have been raised and socialized within American culture.

    Therefore, I believe it is important to not only consider genetic predispositions to act in certain ways, but also the cultural influences on our judgment systems.
  10. Bob on 12-03-2009

    I am certainly not trying to excuse the behavior. I'm just trying to see what the reality of the situation is because I want it to stop. In my opinion, any offense taken or implication of excuse making is entirely of your own creation.

    I honestly don't believe we humans have overcome our animal nature yet. I think the idea that we are civilized is a joke. Just look at all the countries(including the USA) involved in totally irrational wars of aggression and conquest, killing innocent people. We just use our intelligence to rationalize our irrational behavior.

    I'm suggesting that a possible solution or preventive measure could be raising awareness of our animal nature. That way we can be on the look out for and notice the primal urges when they come up and have choice in the matter.

    If you're interested in science and psychology about this, I suggest the following books:

    The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins

    The Red Queen by Matt Ridley

    Sperm Wars by Robin Baker

    The Triune Brain in Evolution by P.D. MacLean

    Owning Your Own Shadow - Robert A. Johnson

    Anything by Freud and Jung on the Unconscious or Shadow
  11. Bob on 12-03-2009

    also:

    BIOLOGY 6th Edition - Raven&Johnson's ( very good book for beginners in biology )

    Introducing Evolutionary Psychology - Dylan Evans and Oscar Zarate

    Evolutionary Psychology, A New Paradigm - Buss, David M.

    The Adapted Mind - Tooby & Cosmides

    Evolutionary Biology of Rape - Thornhill et al

    Sexual Behavior in the Human Male - Alfred Kinsey

    My Secret Garden - Nancy Friday

    I know that's a lot of books. But, if you're seriously interested in stopping rape, I invite you to at least look into each of them on amazon and decide if it's something that might be helpful.
  12. Jennifer on 12-03-2009

    Bob -- I was not offended by your comment. In fact, I think it adds a viewpoint that is not of the usual feminist rhetoric (of which I am usually a big fan). I see what you are saying: That though rape may be natural, in this case "natural" is not equated with "good". We need to use our **humanity** to stop rape from occurring. We are not slaves to our instinct, which is what makes us humans.

    We need to understand, too, that "successful" doesn't mean "good" either, per Bob's first comment. - Jennifer
  13. Jess on 12-13-2009

    I am so sad to hear that this poor girl had to suffer at the hands of monsters. May they all get what they deserve (castration and rape themselves.)

    Men have the same ability as women to know right from wrong. Men need to stop looking the other way and take a stand against all of this advertising, too, to declare that they are not the idiots advertisers take them for and that they do not drool over females who spend every ounce of spare time in a mirror as a rule.