On Monday, the Washington Post ran a piece by columnist Richard Cohen that confusingly attempted to combine the stories of the Steubenville rape case with Miley Cyrus’s recent performance at the Video Music Awards. It was just one of a recent rash of opinion pieces that try to use rape for a ‘trend piece’ but ultimately just end up fostering rape culture, sympathizing with rapists, or apologizing for rape. Other media outlets, including most recently the Atlantic, USA Today, and the Daily Beast, have run similar stories that cater to rape culture and gloss over the gruesome reality of sexual assault.
The opinion pieces have rightfully raised the question: Why would editors publish this material? Do they simply enjoy stirring up controversy for the sake of their traffic, or are they actually unaware of the implications of the pieces? If it’s the latter, then there’s something they can do to address this in the future. Here are four easy questions every editor should ask themselves to avoid publishing rape apologia. If the answer to any one of these questions is ‘yes,’ the editor should think hard about hitting that ‘publish’ button:
1. Does it defend or sympathize with rapists?
Framing a piece about rape around the perpetrators of a crime, rather than those who have been the victims of that crime, is a sign that the entire argument needs to be refocused. Rape victims are frequently erased in discussions of sexual assault that focus solely on the perpetrators (in 2011, the Onion aptly parodied this dynamic in a video entitled “College Basketball Star Heroically Overcomes Tragic Rape He Committed”), which is offensive to the people who have been subject to those sexual crimes.
During the Steubenville rape trial, for example, the media spent most of its time lamenting the fact that the perpetrators’ “promising football careers” were going to be thrown into question by being convicted of rape. That sparked massive backlash, but editorial pieces continue to be guilty of perpetrating this dynamic. A recent piece published in the Atlantic argued for the need to “change the preconceptions and misconceptions that society has when it comes to pedophiles” because not many people “think about the millions who grapple with sexual feelings on which they can never act.” And a Washington Post op-ed published over the weekend suggested that teachers who have sex with students shouldn’t be punished so harshly because those poor teachers probably thought it was a consensual relationship.
2. Does it fault the victims, instead of those who committed a crime?
After getting into a sympathetic mindset toward rapists, it only requires a short mental leap to imagine they may not actually be at fault because the victim likely did something to provoke the crime. This type of victim-blaming typically crops up as soon as the media starts wondering how much a victim had to drink. The vast majority of the coverage surrounding the Steubenville trial noted that the victim was “drunk” without noting that her assailants had also been drinking.
There’s also often discussion about how victims dress. A recent piece in the Daily Beast about rape in prisons includes two common rape-apologist tropes: One, faulting a victim with dressing inappropriately and inviting rape, and, two, saying that the victim secretly wanted it: “[I]t’s really not that unusual for a new prisoner to show up on the compound and begin walking around the yard in pants far too tight,” the piece begins. “Before long they drop the soap in the shower, get a little close to another naked man, and then — simply because they’ve never been able to come to terms with their own sexuality — tell anyone who will listen (but, interestingly enough, they usually never complain to the guards) that they were ‘raped.’”
3. Does it downplay illegal activity by using more casual terminology for rape?
One of the most effective ways to downplay the severity of the crime of rape is to sugarcoat the language used to talk about it. Poynter has good tips for maintaining the journalistic distinction between rape and consensual sex — but the media hasn’t been adhering to them lately.
The recent Atlantic piece about pedophilia glossed over sexual attraction to children by referring to it as “the cross-generational lifestyle.” Cohen’s op-ed brushes aside the crimes committed in the Steubenville rape case, claiming that “illegal is sort of beside the point” when it comes to violating and videotaping an unconscious girl, because asking whether that behavior is “right, proper, nice, respectful, decent” is a more “apt” way to talk about it. The Daily Beast piece about prison rape concluded on a note that attempted to downplay nonconsensual sex behind bars, suggesting Chelsea Manning might actually benefit from it: “One thing is almost a certainty: celibacy probably won’t be an option for Chelsea Manning, but she will have choices in regard to how she wants to spend her years behind bars. With that said, we need to keep in mind that one person’s prison is another person’s palace. Chelsea Manning could become the queen bee.”
4. Does it use rape as a hook in a ‘trend piece’ meant to draw sweeping conclusions about society’s moral depravity?
It’s one thing to point to the pervasive rape culture that blurs the lines between bodily autonomy and consent, and ultimately damages people’s understanding of healthy sexuality. But recent op-ed pieces have taken a slightly different tact when it comes to addressing rape: Using it as a jumping-off point to criticize some other aspect of society’s “corruption.” After Miley Cyrus’ much-discussed performance at the VMAs last month, commentators seized on the opportunity to suggest that Cyrus’ artistic decisions have contributed to a “teen culture” that promotes rape. While there are many things that contribute to rape culture, focusing on pop stars’ clothing or dance moves is just another form of blaming women for the crimes perpetrated against them. Furthermore, since Cyrus sparked widespread criticism for appropriating black culture in her VMA performance, proclaiming that her dancing helps embolden rapists amounts to specifically blaming black women for sexual crimes. Ultimately, the country’s sexual assault epidemic simply provides an excuse for commentary writers to claim that certain expressions of women’s sexuality are contributing to the downfall of society.
Rape is certainly difficult to cover. Poynter points out that the emotional difficulty often makes writers shy away from confronting the terrible truth. “Journalists sometimes slip into the habit of making victims the ‘actors’ as a way of sanitizing the language,” writes Kelly McBride in Poynter’s guidelines about how to cover rape. “We say, for instance, that a young girl ‘performed an oral sex act,’ rather than, ‘He forced his genitals into her mouth.’” But these little turns of phrase can matter immensely. And when it comes to the opinion writers whose pieces are supposed to be reflective of the culture in which we live, they can help set the tone and terms for a debate about how we treat rape and rapists. The recent opinion pieces show that many writers have failed in this regard.