Covering rape responsibly

By — February 1, 2013

In the light of the recent coverage of the rapes in India, it’s time to talk about how we cover rape in this country. For some 20 years now, I have been criticizing the press for never asking why men rape. Now, with the rapes in New Delhi gaining so much attention, I ask it again.  

In short, when we cover rape in the Sudan, Rwanda, the Balkans, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and now in India, we look at why the men do it. We write about the beliefs of child soldiers that raping a virgin will protect them from AIDS, or about the way men are trained to see women as booty in war. We discuss rape as a tool of ethnic cleansing and genocide. And lately, concerning India, we’ve been running stories about the traditionally subservient role of women, how the economy is liberating them, and the subsequent violent reaction of men.  

But as soon as we look at rape among our own, whether civilian or military, this perspective is entirely neglected. Instead, we ask questions about the victim: what she was doing, her past, how she was behaving, her relationship to the assailant, whether she’d been drinking, etc., etc. And we cover rape as a psychological aberration, never asking how and where men learn to rape, never seeing it as symptomatic of something in our culture. Thus we entirely neglect to look at why rape fails to decline while other crimes drop, why one in six women is raped in her lifetime, why nearly one in three women is sexually assaulted in the military, and why no woman in America walks free of the fear of sexual predation and violence.

A word cloud generated from some of the headlines calling what happened in the Air Force; Steubenville, Ohio; and at the Horace Mann School and Penn State University “sex scandals.”

So here are some questions I’d like to see answered now:

Why is it that the discussion of the link between pornography and sexual violence is left to feminist academics and never seen in the mainstream press?

Why is it that videos of the rape and torture of women are considered mere pornography, and protected by the First Amendment, when the rape and torture of a man because he is black or Jewish never would be?

Why is it that we in the media never cover how we teach our boys to rape?

Why is it that we in the media never examine why so many men in our culture hate women?

And why is it that, even after some 40 years of feminist scholarship on rape, we still cover it as sex rather than violence?

When it comes to the military, about which I’ve been writing for six years now, I ask these same questions. The military is a misogynist culture and always has been. Yet virtually no one but more of these feminist academics is saying so.

But there is hope.

In 2008, I wrote an article called “Why Soldiers Rape,” laying out what makes the military a rape culture. I quoted a recent Iraq War veteran describing his Marine Corp training:

“The [Drill Instructor’s] nightly homiletic speeches, full of an unabashed hatred of women, were part of the second phase of boot camp: the process of rebuilding recruits into Marines.”

I also quoted Army Specialist Mickiela Montoya, who was in Iraq for 11 months from 2005-2006 and who told me: “There are only three things the guys let you be if you’re a girl in the military: a bitch, a ho, or a dyke. One guy told me he thinks the military sends women over to give the guys eye candy to keep them sane. He told me in Vietnam they had prostitutes, but they don’t have those in Iraq, so they have women soldiers instead.”

I explained that while rules now prohibit drill instructors from using racial epithets and curses, those same instructors still routinely call recruits “pussy,” “girl,” “bitch,” “lady” and “dyke”—all denigrating words in the military.

I quoted this Naval Academy chant:

Who can take a chainsaw
Cut the bitch in two
Fuck the bottom half
And give the upper half to you…

I talked about the open use of pornography (even though it is officially banned in the military), the constant harassment experienced by military women, the prevalence of gang rape, and the epidemic rates of assault and rape.

The article was published in the magazine In These Times, which is hardly mainstream, but then—surprise!—I was invited to testify to Congress, twice, about its culture of misogyny and the plight of military women, and I was invited exactly because the committee read this article.

Now we’ve seen a huge shift. On January 24, the Pentagon lifted its ban against women in ground combat and suddenly discussion of sexism within the military was everywhere.

For example, I was thrilled to hear Gen. Martin Dempsey of the Joint Chiefs of Staff acknowledge that the ground combat ban relegated military women to second-class status of women, and link that status with rates of sexual assault. He concluded:

“The more we treat people equally, the more likely they are to treat each other equally.”

It was wonderful to hear this from a general. But then I gave it some thought. Don’t we know this already? Must it be a shocking revelation to assert that it’s a good idea to treat women as equals?

We have a long, long way to go. And we, the press, could be doing so much more to get there.

The bottom line is this: Just about any discussion of women’s rights is still seen in the mainstream press as radical, opinionated, and biased, not as legitimate news. I documented this in my 1991 book, Virgin or Vamp, and I’ve seen little change since. Perhaps, though, we can take the discussions of cultural misogyny that are allowed about the military and about India (or any other country that isn’t us), and apply them to our own culture—to ourselves.

Then, and only then, might we get somewhere.

EDITOR'S NOTE: On January 25, Benedict gave a version of this talk at Columbia University in New York for “Global sexualized violence: From epidemiology to action,” an all-day symposium co-hosted by WMC’s Women Under Siege and Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health.

The third paragraph has been edited to reflect that rape is not necessarily on the rise, but that it is not necessarily on the decline either.