Pinning down “rape” in the media

By , December 23, 2010 4:39 pm

The rape accusations leveled against Julian Assange have  meant the media has lately been discussing what it means to be raped, and – more broadly- how is rape defined? I must admit, I’m having difficulty finding exact information on what Assange has been accused of. I know two women allege he committed some sexual misconduct, but some places I’ve read it wasn’t (legally) rape, while most news sources are nevertheless calling it such. (If anyone has links to better information, I’d appreciate ‘em. Thanks!) Regardless of Assange’s guilt or innocence, though, the news coverage sparked an interesting conversation between a friend and I, about the difficulties of presenting objective coverage around rape accusations.

Specifically, it made me think about the differences between discussing a crime left theft – or even murder – in comparison to discussing rape.

Because when you’re talking about those crimes, there’s (usually) no debate about whether or not a crime occurred, it’s just an issue of who did it. Most news coverage you hear around non-sexual crimes don’t debate that, say, Alice was robbed or Bob was murdered. Every so often there will be a story of arson for insurance money, sure, but those are the exception, not the rule.

Not so with rape.

Rape coverage revolves much more around the ‘what’ than the ‘who.’ Often, particularly in high-coverage cases like this one, the ‘who’ isn’t even in question – these women went to the police knowing who they were accusing, not saying, “I was raped by a stranger in an alley.” That means the way the case (and the accusation) is discussed changes. In a theft case, for example, a newspaper probably wouldn’t print, “Alice, who is claiming to be a victim of theft, is pressing charges.” They’d say, “Alice, who was robbed, is pressing charges.”

And so the language in rape-related cases becomes incredibly charged. There’s a huge difference, emotionally and in terms of how coverage is perceived, in saying “Alice, who is claiming to be a rape victim, is pressing charges,” versus “Alice, who was raped, is pressing charges.” The former calls into question the very events being presented, while the latter places an implication of guilt on the accused.

The more I think about it, the more I’m realizing it’s a lose/lose situation: either coverage calls into question the victim’s experiences, or calls into question the accused’s innocence. The former offends me as a feminist, the later as someone who strongly believes in “Innocent until proven guilty” as a fundamental requirement of a fair criminal justice system.

From what I’ve seen, the media seems around Assange seems to be focusing on “accusations” and not straying into territory where they take a stance on whether or not Assange committed any crimes. (Which,  I suppose, inherently means they leave open the possibility that rape didn’t occur, meaning they are sort of taking a stance.) I don’t know what the answer is, though, or what I want the media to be doing. I just now that the deeper into discussions of rape I get, particularly when talking about media portrayal of and reporting on the subject, the murkier things seem.

9 Responses to “Pinning down “rape” in the media”

  1. RMJ says:

    The women are definitely alleging rape. One victim alleges that she consented to sex with Assange with a condom, but after the condom broke and she withdrew consent, he refused to stop and used physical force. The other women alleges that he raped her while she slept. Here’s an explanation of how this got turned to “sex by surprise” (as many media outlets are referring to it). Sady Doyle, Kate Harding, and others have also written about it in detail.

    You raise an interesting question in this post. What about, “Alice, the alleged rape victim” or “Alice, who made the rape allegation”?

  2. Jamie says:

    There is no “better” information. That’s a very good clue to the fact that he’s being framed by the US National Security apparatus.

    Last time I heard, one of his accusers is now in Israel. Israel? Does the name Mossad ring a bell?

    • rose says:

      With great respect: do your damn research. These women came to the police with essentially date-rape charges *before* all the wikileaks shit went down. Even if, IF, one of these women does have ties to Mossad (which I highly doubt), that does not mean she deserves to be raped, or that her rapist should not be charged.

      • Rebecca says:

        [potential links with government agencies] does not mean [Assange's accuser] deserves to be raped, or that her rapist should not be charged.

        I completely agree with the first part – no one deserves to be raped – but the second part brings up the difficulties I’ve found: how do we determine if she (or anyone, ever) was raped? And how should those discussions be held in th media? What’s the difference between saying “her rapist” and “the man she’s accusing of raping her” or “her accused rapist”? When should one be used instead of the other?

        I’m asking lots of question that, unfortunately, I don’t really have the answers to…

    • Rebecca says:

      I’d rather focus on how rape can be respectfully and honestly discussed than on Assange, but if you have any sources on any of that, feel free to share.

  3. Tristan says:

    You might want to check on Rapist Ethics by Stolenberg (part of Refusing to Be a Man). We read it in my DV class and it is interesting look at sexual ethics and how the male sexual ethic is essentially rapist, but also has some interesting views on rape itself (how the way in which we construct gender makes it right to rape and wrong to be raped, thus victim blaming).

    • Rebecca says:

      Thanks! I’ll check it out.

    • r. says:

      Man, are you serious? The male sexual ethic is essentially rapist? WTF?

      A generalised statement like “the male sexual ethic”… I don’t even know where to start with that.

      I’m going to go read me that Stolenberg, but I can’t say I’ll be approaching it with a particularly eager mind. Yeah, there are definitely men with fucked up power dynamics going on. I’ve come across some conniving women who fit right into that category too. But there are a bunch of men who approach sex as a matter of trust and love and fun.

      I will go read it. But it sounds mighty Dworkin-ish to me.

    • r. says:

      Okay, I went and read the Stoltenberg essay. It reminded me strongly of Andrea Dworkin, which is to say I didn’t think it had much relevance to real human relations.

      Since I can’t get my head around his starting position, I’m just going to have to agree to disagree with everything in it. What a loathesome, self-hating pile of nonsense.

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