Sympathetic Rape Coverage is Nothing New

450px-Giambologna-The_rape_of_the_Sabine_Women-Loggia_dei_LanziIn the hours after the announcement of the Steubenville rape case verdict, the coverage has been non-stop. No big surprise in our 24/7 news culture. What should be a surprise, but sadly isn’t, is the sympathetic tone being taken by some reporters about the future of the two boys (or young men, depending on how you classify high school students who are 16- and 17-years old). According the Ms. Foundation, here’s what some of our major news outlets have been saying about the two students who have been convicted of raping a 16-year-old girl:


Shocked? I’m not.

Because it wasn’t that long ago when the New York Times wrote a story (for which it and its author eventually came under fire) about the gang rape of an 11-year-old girl in Texas, which contained passages like:

“[H]ow could their young men have been drawn into such an act?”


“Where was [the victim’s] mother? What was her mother thinking?” said … one of a handful of neighbors who would speak on the record.”

But it’s not just the media. Even the Supreme Court had its moment when it upheld the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in a decision that held that a high school cheerleader who is sexually assaulted might not even have the right to sit out on a cheer for her alleged attacker:

In her capacity as cheerleader, H.S. served as a mouthpiece through which [the school] could disseminate speech, namely, support for its athletic teams. Insofar as the First Amendment does not require schools to promote particular student speech, [the school] had no duty to promote H.S.’s message by allowing her to cheer or not cheer, as she saw fit. Moreover, this act constituted substantial interference with the work of the school because, as a cheerleader, H.S. was at the basketball game for the purpose of cheering, a position she undertook voluntarily.

Let’s not forget about journalist Lara Logan who was sexually assaulted in Tahrir Square. After the initial outrage over the incident, some commentators wondered publicly if Logan had brought the attacks on herself simply by being a woman covering a story in a Muslim country that has very different attitudes about where women should be and what they should be wearing in public than most of us in the West.

And, of course, we shouldn’t forget the coverage of the sexual assault of an 11-year-old in Maryland, where the newspaper headline initially seemed to blame the girl:

“Mother finds daughter performing sex act on man staying in home.”

I know you get the point.  This post could become an encyclopedic recitation of the numbers of stories like this where victims of sexual assault — even those who are still in elementary school — are portrayed as vixen behaving inappropriately, when we all know what the real truth is.

So then how do we get the media, as well as judicial scholars, to stop spreading the idea that the perpetrators of sexual assault are to be viewed as victims just as the victims themselves are? I hate to say this because I am no fan of censorship,  but maybe if we could keep books like 50 Shades of Grey from topping the bestseller lists, that would be a good start.

Joanne Bamberger is the publisher and editor-in-chief of The Broad Side. Her book, Mothers of Intention: How Women and Social Media are Revolutionizing Politics in America, is an best-seller.

 Image via Wikimedia Commons/CC License/Rape of the Sabine Women

  • My success as a mother was raising strong ballsy women who don’t take shit from anyone (especially their mom). My oldest daughter has worked in 75 world cities and hasn’t been harassed by anyone. However, she would have been thrown out of day care. When she was terrorizing Chelsea and the Upper West Side at age 2 by pulling hair and dumping sand over heads, NYC friends were predicting prison by 15.

    Being ballsy shows up early. When Emma, the former terrorist was 6 and Michelle was 4, their father took them to school everyday on the subway. Michelle was running wildly around the subway pole. When Chris tried to calm her down, she screamed at the top of her lungs, “get your hands off me.” Everyone glared at Chris and he momentarily worried that he might get arrested. At 5 she knew how to fight her battles.;postID=5822636379381688599

    This is an unpopular idea. But parents tolerate, encourage, and even enjoy defiant, rebellious daughters. Day care centers don’t.

  • I am glad this is getting such widespread attention and criticism. If attitudes are going to change, WE have to call it. Thanks for writing this.

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