How media can help stop rape

By — March 27, 2013

With the verdict in on the Steubenville rape, we are now confronted with yet another case involving two 13-year-old girls in Torrington, Conn., who say they were sexually assaulted by three young men. Presumably, the media will say these boys had a “bright future” ahead of them just as it said of the Steubenville boys. And just as in Steubenville, I expect the mainstream media to play the same game it always does—ignoring the victim and focusing entirely on how this will impact the lives of the rapists.

I think it’s time we talk about not just what went wrong, but what needs to happen differently from now on. What needs to happen to not only help survivors, but to prevent rape in the short-term. Starting yesterday.

The fourth branch of the government, aka the media, has a responsibility just as the other three branches to help put an end to the crime of rape. That they’re doing it wrong is evidenced by angry responses to CNN’s rapist-centric coverage of the Steubenville case.

Portraying the perpetrators as sympathetic characters and ignoring the survivor and what she went through is nothing new in the media (neither is having the media re-victimize the survivor). Blaming the victim is par for the course. In the media coverage of rape cases globally, there are the usual caveats of “Don’t get drunk or you’ll get raped.” But the cautionary message is even more insidious than it first appears. This sort of coverage also says to communities and families: “Please tell your kids not to commit rape because it will ruin their lives,” as opposed to “Stop rape from happening because it’s a terrible crime against a human being.”

Ma'lik Richmond cries as his verdict is announced in the Steubenville trial on March 17. TV media was criticized that day for giving too much sympathy to Richmond and his fellow perpetrators.

In this bizzaro media world, the survivor isn’t a person. She’s a dark, malevolent thing that all men need to be wary of. The only genuine attempt made to stop rape in this topsy-turvy world is telling men over and over how they are the ones who are victimized when they rape. They need to be reminded of the cost they have to pay if rape “occurs.” That their bright futures will be forever destroyed. Or their families and communities need to be told to save their would-be-rapist loved ones from a terrible fate. The media’s rhetorical devices elicit an emotional response from the audience; they create sympathy for criminals.

Would it not make more sense for the media—and society—to worry less about the lost futures of boys who have actually hurt girls and perhaps more about what we can all do to help the survivor move forward and ensure that this never happens again to another person?

Media could start with the facts. They could describe the terrible consequences for the survivors of rape as well as offering concrete numbers on how prevalent rape is in America—not to mention who is doing the raping, what kind of men they are, and why they carried out such a violent act.

Not very long ago, I actually engaged in the group lamentation. I have to shamefully admit that I did some victim-blaming of my own in my teens. I’d tell friends that women getting drunk in the presence of men were asking for it. That wearing “slutty” clothes and partying late with men exposed women to rape. (Bear in mind though that most of this was when I had never set foot outside Pakistan, so I wasn’t exposed to much of what I am now in terms of information.) My attitude was shaped by media and societies both here and abroad obsessed with the rapist and what happens to him rather than what happens to the survivor.

My first step away from victim-blaming was my experience of dating a survivor.

She’d been raped years before we started dating, but it affected every aspect of our life together. I frequently awoke at 4 a.m. to find her curled up and crying on the opposite side of the bed, or discovered her staring at the ceiling and wanting to be left alone for hours. I was repeatedly told that she wasn’t good enough for me or anyone. The thing is, if she hadn’t told me that her behavior was caused by her rape, I never would’ve guessed.

The second step was looking into the numbers. Finding out that 1 in 5 women are sexually assaulted in the United States during their lifetime was shocking to say the least. Even more shocking was that a small number of rapists are likely responsible for a large number of the rapes. My first thought was, “Gosh, I definitely know at least a few women who have been raped,” but then I quickly shot myself down. “Probably not. They would’ve told me.”

And here’s why I think the media stops itself from getting into the details of the victim’s suffering or the numbers.

Research shows that the overwhelming majority of rapes are never reported. Many survivors don’t share their story with people they know or love. They become part of a silent mass of traumatized survivors who are all around us, but who keep quiet about their suffering for fear of being not believed, or worse: shamed, bullied, and blamed for their own rape. Society teaches survivors to be ashamed; the media reflects society—it is society.

And now here’s where I think the media gets it really wrong. While potentially well intentioned, they assume that the best we can do to stop rape from happening is to teach children to respect women and stay the hell away from rape.

I actually think that this is not the best the media, or America, can do.

In the long-term, yes, educating boys early to respect women is a critical element in stopping rape. However, the numbers tell us that rape has reached a basically pandemic state here in the U.S., so we need to do more in the short-term as well. Raising children to not rape isn’t going to help people who face the threat of sexualized violence right now. By not offering much in the way of immediate solutions, by not putting actual experts on the air or offering in-depth stories about what’s going on, journalists give us the message that they assume society can’t do more than hope the future is brighter, rather than focus on the decay in front of us right now.

I realized the assumption that we can’t do something about rape in the short-term was incorrect when I got more vocal about how victim-blaming was wrong. A very close friend of mine called me one day after reading an article on rape I’d posted on Facebook. She told me she had been raped years ago. She cried on the phone; I consoled her. It was my first time finding out about a friend’s rape.

I figured it was just a freak accident, that my other friends were more careful and likely have avoided getting raped—that kind of thing. I was wrong. I got a message from another friend a few weeks later about her rape. Since then, every time I’ve written about rape, I’ve had more friends confess to me that they, too, have been raped.

In just over a year, I’ve lost count of how many people I know who’ve been raped or sexually assaulted. I’ve known these women for years, if not decades, but they only opened up to me after they realized that I would believe them. That I wouldn’t ostracize them. And, most important, that I won't be blaming them for what happened. Some made a point of explaining to me that the only reason they were telling me was because they were comfortable, knowing they wouldn’t be judged and that I wouldn’t be sympathizing with the perpetrator.

The best part, however, is that twice in the past year, friends have called me about potential rape threats and I’ve helped them get out of situations where they could’ve been victimized.

In one of the cases, a friend called me to tell me her boyfriend was being aggressive. That he was demanding sex when she didn’t want to have it, sometimes forcefully. Then she dropped a bombshell by telling me he’d choked her once.

I had all the information I needed.

“You can go to the police,” I said, “but break up with him right now!”

Instead of hearing a simple, sympathetic “Aww, I’m so sorry,” my friend heard something different: Rape is still rape if someone you love is the one who victimizes you. Most rapists are people you know. The law can be on your side. She was convinced and got away from him. And she told me that she was able to talk to me about this because she knew I would take her seriously.

If the media wants to help stop rape, they need to focus on the survivors, the prevalence of rape and sexualized violence, the underlying reasons why men rape, and tell people they have more agency to improve our world than simply shaking their heads at an atrocity and talking to their sons about it.

They need to tell survivors that they take their experiences seriously.

We can no longer simply rely on law enforcement to act after the fact, especially when the survivor is being publicly flayed for whatever she may have done to supposedly “invite” the attack. We can and must do more, and it starts with stopping the blame game and opening up to survivors and potential survivors—instead of sympathizing with rapists who might, or might not, have had a bright future ahead of them.