The stupidest move imaginable after a PR disaster is to respond in a way that makes plain you don’t know why what you did was offensive in the first place. Yet Wednesday afternoon, the UK’s most famous left-wing newspaper did just that, editing a firestorm-generating headline about “a girl who let herself be raped” in a way that suggested they didn’t understand why the phrase was so offensive to begin with.
The article in question, a profile of a new film adding to the hoary “teenagers’ troubled relationship with technology” genre, recounts a harrowing story about an unnamed girl who was raped by a group of boys who had stolen her BlackBerry. Here’s the piece’s description of the incident in full:
A girl who does not reveal her identity, talks with heartbreaking candour about how she would do anything for her BlackBerry; when a gang of boys takes it from her she recounts how she allowed herself to be sexually assaulted in order to have it back.
The problem with the bolded section should be obvious. No one, by definition, “allows” his or herself to be sexually assaulted. When a gang of boys take a girl’s property, and demand she perform sex acts with them to get it back, she is not consenting: she is being coerced into performing sex acts. Gang raped.
The Guardian’s formulation reeks of the depressingly common idea that, unless a victim forcibly resists, he or she is somehow “consenting to being assaulted.” That’s false: many victims choose not to resist and/or comply with the demands of their attacker for fear of harsher abuse. The fact that a victim takes steps to minimize the horror of her rape doesn’t make the violation itself any less obscene.
The online outrage focused on the piece’s subhed, which used the phrase “a girl who let herself be raped” to describe the incident. The Guardian’s solution was to change the offending clause to “the girl who let herself be sexually assaulted to get her BlackBerry back.” Not only is this likely less accurate (what happened sounds a lot like rape), but it completely misses the point. The problem wasn’t with the word rape, but with the idea that the victim “allowed” herself to be assaulted. The Guardian appears to be attempting to mollify its angry audience without actually reckoning with what it did wrong.
The Guardian isn’t alone among newspapers in failing to understand how to talk about sex and rape. In May of this year, the Associated Press used the word “sex” in a headline to describe an alleged rape, implying that rape is simply a subset of normal sexual activity rather than an entirely different, violent kind of act. Gawker got in trouble for similarly soft-pedaling rape in a piece on pedophilia a year ago.
Editors and writers talking about rape need only ask themselves four simple questions before they publish if they want to make sure they’re writing sensitively about a sensitive topic.