Language Matters: Media’s Role in Sustaining Rape Culture

The language we use is integral to how our collective psyche understands and translates sexual violence. In this vast information age, the media plays an increasingly vital role in developing and using language that is accurate, responsible, and meaningful. Yet, this is rarely the case. Recent events, like the Rolling Stone UVA fiasco and the Bill Cosby scandal, have catapulted sexual assault coverage into the media spotlight. I am hopeful we might use this moment to shine some of the light on refining the language we use and the stories we tell.

Rolling Stone magazine has made many serious errors over the past several months, beginning with and following the publication of their November feature story, “A Rape on Campus” about an alleged gang rape against a freshman referred to as “Jackie” on the UVA campus in the fall of 2012. Rolling Stone decided not to fact-check their story, (in deference to Jackie’s wishes, the magazine claims). Following newly emerging details, Rolling Stone issued a note to its readers, apologizing for what appear to be inaccuracies in Jackie’s story. I repeat, what appear to be inaccuracies. Whether or not Jackie’s entire story holds up, detail by detail, to a belated fact-checking frenzy, the fact remains that rape continues to be a daily threat to all women.

And the fiasco played on. Rolling Stone‘s initial “apology” ( “A Note to Readers“) placed the burden of responsibility on the alleged victim “Jackie,” prompting an immediate outcry. So, Rolling Stone modified this apology to reflect another smidgeon of responsibility by inserting: “These mistakes are on Rolling Stone, not on Jackie.” The writer, Sabrina Rubin Erdely should undoubtedly be held accountable, but the burden of responsibility rests on the shoulders of the Rolling Stone editorial staff, who first published an unsubstantiated story and then failed rape victims everywhere by publishing an apology that has fueled the fire of “rape doubters” and that undermines the progress made by anti-rape activists everywhere.

In the Dec. 5th “Note to Our Readers” Rolling Stone managing editor Will Dana writes:

we were mistaken in honoring Jackie’s request to not contact the alleged assaulters to get their account. In trying to be sensitive to the unfair shame and humiliation many women feel after a sexual assault, we made a judgment – the kind of judgment reporters and editors make every day. We should have not made this agreement with Jackie and we should have worked harder to convince her that the truth would have been better served by getting the other side of the story. These mistakes are on Rolling Stone, not on Jackie. We apologize to anyone who was affected by the story and we will continue to investigate the events of that evening.

Dana’s “Note” certainly does not read like an apology to me. If he intended it as such, he would have written something like this: “Rolling Stone apologizes for publishing this story without first checking the facts,” thereby acknowledging what precisely Rolling Stone did wrong. Instead Dana deflects attention from the magazine’s errors by enumerating on the many  “should have dones” that pepper his note. Dana does apologize to “anyone affected by the story,” a vague admission of some abstract wrongdoing. At bottom, I am far more concerned with what Dana does not say than what he does.

In addition to issuing a relevant apology that specifically names Rolling Stone’s errors, Dana should have made explicit to readers that the magazine’s failure to follow established protocol in investigating and substantiating this story IN NO WAY DIMINISHES THE SERIOUSNESS OF THE ISSUES THE STORY RAISES: THAT CAMPUS RAPE AND THE INCIDENCE OF RAPE BEYOND THE IVORY TOWER REMAINS A SERIOUS THREAT TO ALL WOMEN. Rolling Stone has dealt a grave injustice to rape victims by not underlining this fact. The absence of this and of unequivocally clear language renders Dana’s statement ineffective and potentially harmful.

But, I am not surprised. After all, Rolling Stone routinely publishes material that perpetuates stereotypes encouraging the sexual objectification of women–a contributing factor in the cultural normalization of rape, and it caters to a predominantly white, male, college-educated readership. Over the past several decades, it has increasingly published content that objectifies and hyper-sexualizes women, so we find the horrific details of the UVA story sandwiched in between content that actively promotes the conditions that encourage rape culture to flourish. Sociologists Erin Hatton and Mary Nell Trautner conducted an analysis of images of women and men spanning more than four decades of Rolling Stone magazine covers (1967–2009). Their data showed “that sexualized images of men and women have increased, though women continue to be more frequently sexualized than men.” However, their most compelling finding illustrated “the change in how women—but not men—are sexualized,” concluding that it women “are increasingly likely to be ‘‘hypersexualized,’’ but men are not”.

There is also the matter of framing and representation. Stories about young, white college students are conducive to eliciting interest (prurient or otherwise) among the Rolling Stone readership—and selling stories. The Rolling Stone coverage of this particular genre of sexual assault–campus rape–responds to an agenda, one that prioritizes the raped bodies of coeds over others. But Rolling Stone is not alone in its selection bias; the media at large also selectively covers sexual assault, a practice that both reflects and reproduces our collective racist and classist beliefs about which rapes are worthy of reporting—and about which “victims” are in fact worthy victims. Let’s face it, the overwhelming majority of raped bodies never make the headlines, much less a byline. These include sex workers, trans women, children and women of color, incarcerated adults, incarcerated youth, wives and partners.

Another obstacle in re-framing media coverage about rape and sexual assault is that we have yet to put into practice an adequate language, for example, one that places the onus on the rapist instead of transferring attention to the assaulted body. We say, “Mary was raped” (let’s just say, by Bill), addressing the object and not the subject, aka the rapist. The rapist acts; the raped body is acted upon. When news media state that “Mary was raped,” the rapist escapes notice. Few, if any, news stories actively state, (for example) “Bill raped over a dozen women.” Instead they lead in with sentences like “More women have come forward alleging rape,” effectively isolating the women in our field of understanding.

Some male journalists have stepped forward recently in response to the Rolling Stone story and the Bill Cosby scandal. For the most part, I have found their tepid responses ineffective and even counter-productive. Some, like Nicolas Kristoff in his Nov. 26 NY Times op-ed, “Bill Cosby, UVA and Rape” continue to divert attention anywhere but on the perpetrators themselves. Kristoff quickly retreats from naming Bill Cosby as the “unofficial serial rape suspect” by declaring:

… that’s a cop-out for all of us. Whatever the truth of the accusations against Cosby — a wave of women have now stepped forward and said he drugged and raped them (mostly decades ago), but his lawyer denies the allegations — it’s too easy for us to see this narrowly as a Cosby scandal of celebrity, power and sex. The larger problem is a culture that enables rape. The larger problem is us.

Perhaps, if the “us” includes Bill Cosby—a fact Kristoff pointedly avoids in his op-ed. Whatever the truth” rape victims might claim as theirs (despite happening decades ago), Kristoff has the temerity to suggest that “we are all enablers” and that “We collectively are still too passive about sexual violence in our midst, too willing to make excuses, too inclined to perceive shame in being raped. These are attitudes that facilitate violence by creating a protective blanket of silence and impunity.”

And while I agree that we as a society collectively participate in sustaining a violently misogynist culture, surely someone of Kristoff’s stature is capable of seeing the difference between rapists and rape victims–and that to group the two together within the collective “we” is downright offensive? He signs off with a “Bravo to those of you speaking out.” Bravo? The inclusion of this genre of vacuous observation in a major publication like the NY Times is precisely part of the problem Kristoff names and serves as a shining example of the more subliminal ways rape culture is perpetuated in the media—by standing by and writing nothing.

Rape is rarely called out for what it is—an act of extreme cowardice and brutality. If physically overpowering a vulnerable body is not troubling enough, we seem to have an epidemic of rapists who either use alcohol or drugs to render their victims absolutely powerless, effectively bypassing risk, struggle, rejection. First render the body helpless, inert and then impose your will, your body onto and into a defenseless, corpse-like life. Does a greater act of cowardice exist?

And yet for some incomprehensible, insane reason, we don’t take rape and sexual assault seriously in this boys-will-be-boys culture. Rape is about power and about sex, but, it seems clear from these recent stories, rape is also the unfortunate result of entitlement. The web of impunity that encourages rampant sexual assault is complex–and how we talk and write about these violences makes a critical difference to how they are understood and reproduced.  By thinking substantively and writing responsibly, the media at large can work toward upending the culture of rape–a culture in which  perpetrators routinely escape scrutiny and accountability  while those who suffer at their hands, they continue to suffer.

2 thoughts on “Language Matters: Media’s Role in Sustaining Rape Culture

  1. Liz, right on! Great post. I felt the same way about the whole Rolling Stone fiasco. And good for you for taking Kristoff to task. Bravo? Wow! And he is one of the good ones. Oh, my.

    Like

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