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No, You Cannot Substitute ‘Sex’ For ‘Rape’

By Tara Culp-Ressler on May 13, 2013 at 3:45 pm

"No, You Cannot Substitute ‘Sex’ For ‘Rape’"

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(Credit: Change.org)

On Friday afternoon, the Associated Press ran a story about a young woman in Washington state who alleges that her high school’s officials failed to protect her from a 16-year-old boy who raped her on school property, and even allowed the boy to remain in the same classroom with her after her guardian reported she was being harassed by him. The school continues to deny most of her claims, and she is seeking at least $400,000 in damages.

In its headline about the story, the AP chose to characterize the encounter — which took place in a bathroom at the high school — as “restroom sex”:

The AP story goes on to note that a police investigation didn’t determine whether or not the sexual contact was consensual. The girl didn’t want to press charges; instead, she requested a court order to maintain distance between her and her alleged attacker. Regardless of the conclusion of the police investigation, however, the AP’s headline is irresponsible. Describing the alleged assault as “restroom sex” implies that the encounter was consensual, and therefore frames the AP’s entire story as if the girl’s allegations aren’t true.

Using the terms “rape” and “sexual assault” to describe acts of non-consensual sexual violence is an incredibly important journalistic distinction — particularly in light of our society’s pervasive victim-blaming rape culture that often obscures the gravity of those crimes. Across the country, victims of sexual assault are being told that they’re not telling the truth, or they’re the ones at fault for the crimes perpetrated against them, because they somehow “asked for it.” Pretending that “rape” is interchangeable with “sex” is a subtle method of furthering this attitude — especially because rape is about power, not necessarily about sex.

This isn’t the first time that mainstream media outlets have been criticized for glossing over the crime of rape by failing to choose their words carefully. During the Penn State child abuse scandal, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times were criticized for writing that Jerry Sandusky had “sex” with boys. And during the Steubenville rape case, prominent media outlets furthered rape culture by painting a sympathetic portrayal of the two perpetrators — focusing on their promising football careers and the devastation wrought by the guilty verdict — while emphasizing that the victim was drunk.

(HT: Jeff Emanuel)

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