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Davis, California

Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Rape and the media

During finals week, the Steubenville story was erupting in every news source, social media site and coffee shop conversation in the country. It’s been two weeks, so unsurprisingly the Steubenville case is no longer on anyone’s radar.

Why write the column, then? Because I’m just as angry about this now as I was then.

Hopefully I won’t need to go out of my way to convince you that what happened to this girl was rape, and that rape is wrong. If you disagree with me there, you should probably stop reading (and hope I don’t find you).

What I would like to focus on is what we can take away from this story, now that the dust has settled a bit and we’ve all had some time to reflect.

As angry as I am at the offenders, what really gets me bent out of shape is the way the media portrayed the case.

Rape is a multifaceted cultural issue, an issue so complex that many feel there is not much that can be done about it (besides advising women to trade in their “provocative” clothing for pepper spray). And as satisfying as it is to read snarky blog posts that claim the best rape prevention strategy is “don’t rape her,” in reality, we don’t have such immediate control over those individuals who choose to rape.

What we do have control over, however, is the media, especially in its portrayal of sexual assault cases like these.

The most obvious reporting blunder (as few will let CNN forget) was over-sympathizing with the two convicted boys. But I won’t beat a dead horse.

In reality, the media problem extends far beyond a single screwed-up news segment.

One piece of “advice” I’ve heard and read repeatedly surrounding the Steubenville coverage is that we should take this case as a lesson — to practice more discretion with technology and social media, rather than be aware of rape and know when to intervene.

If the use of social media here should teach us anything, it is that the bystander effect is only evolving with technology. There were not only a number of “uninvolved” witnesses present at this crime, but also many who felt entitled to document and circulate the victim’s humiliation via Instagram photos, Twitter updates and a now infamous YouTube video (not to mention those who saw these things online and did nothing).

It’s much harder to claim the bystander effect when you tweet that the “Song of the night is definitely Rape Me by Nirvana.”

And it’s infinitely more maddening to see intelligent people interpreting this case as a cautionary tale about getting caught, not as a failure to recognize the seriousness of the situation and intervene, or even call the authorities.

Another aspect of the Steubenville media coverage that irked me was the emphasis on the victim’s intoxication.

Don’t get me wrong — there is evidence that the girl was drunk, and that is an essential part of the story. I don’t blame any news sources for including this fact. I only blame those who used it in the context of victim-blaming.

And citing the girl’s intoxication wanders into this context when reporters use it to emphasize the “gray area” of her consent. If anything, the fact that the girl was drunk to the point of being unresponsive should clarify the issue; by indicating otherwise, these news sources have equated silence with consent.

While reporting such as this is clearly irresponsible, it also provides clues for those wondering how much a thing could happen in the first place. Presenting the case’s “takeaway” as online discretion skirts the issue of awareness and intervention. Focusing on the victim’s inebriation muddies the definition of rape when, in this case at least, it should solidify it.

If one good thing has come of this, it’s that the story has opened up the rape dialogue across the country. It’s snapped many people out of their blissful ignorance by reminding them that rape culture is here, pervading our media just as much as our parties.

MARISA MASSARA wants to hear your reaction to the Steubenville media coverage; she can be reached at mvmassara@ucdavis.edu.


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