There are rare instances where a rape case gains national notoriety not for a high profile defendant, but the slanted and unscrupulous media coverage surrounding it. Small town Cleveland, Texas has thus entered the national spotlight, thanks in part to a sloppy story by the New York Times. The bizarrely desperate victim-blaming that’s inundated both media coverage and a community’s response to violence has helped crystallize some disturbing aspects of American rape culture.
Earlier this month, the Times reported on the small town’s reactions to a police investigation of 18 young men and teenage boys (13 adults and 5 juveniles), all of them charged with participating in a vicious gang rape of an 11 year old girl. The very same day, online news forums and popular blogs immediately began protesting the article and its author, James C. McKinley Jr., demonstrating that the insensitive and regressive ways in which our culture talks about rape are often more revealing than any crime statistic.
In the first place, McKinley Jr. used passive voice to transfer agency from the alleged perpetrators to the child. The men did not allegedly gang rape a little girl — “the girl had been forced to have sex with several men.” See what he did there? Clearly this is a tragic case of a middle-schooler getting herself raped. Passive voice distracts readers from the act of gang rape as (1) a choice (2) made by grown men who (3) should know better. Instead, rape is figured as a pit into which little girls will trip and fall: unfortunate but ultimately just an accident. It’s a subtle but classic form of victim-blaming in rape case reporting, and there’s no justification for it.
Secondly, McKinley Jr. supplied ample sympathy for the alleged perpetrators through the myopic views of local rape apologists while failing to interview a single person who sympathized with the actual victim. Nor did he confirm or deny the obvious conclusion that there is in fact something in the water that’s turned everyone in Cleveland, Texas into sadistic monsters.
Finally, in the most insidious instance of victim-blaming I’ve ever seen, McKinley details anonymous and entirely irrelevant accounts of the child’s behavior, suggesting that wearing makeup and “dressing older” than one’s age somehow explains how 18 men and boys could be “drawn into such an act,” as McKinley so underhandedly phrased it. Frankly, the Times may as well have reported that the little girl ate a peanut butter sandwich the day those men chose to rape her for all the difference it makes. A victim’s behavior has absolutely no bearing on a person’s decision to commit rape. The fact that one of our country’s most reputable news organization would entertain accusations against even a middle school-aged victim speaks volumes to our culture’s inability to place culpability where it really belongs. It’s also very interesting that McKinley chose not to point out that, despite what the townspeople apparently think, the age of consent in Texas is 17 — what happened to that little girl is most definitely rape, there’s no question about it.
In response to a flood of outraged letters to the editor, a Times spokesperson released a statement arguing (predictably) that Mr. McKinley was merely reporting his findings of a community affected by a horrible crime. But that argument doesn’t pass muster when you consider the fact that the article doesn’t provide any context for the Cleveland community’s vitriol by consulting a victim’s rights expert for an alternative view. On a basic level, it is disturbing that any editor would publish a story documenting a town apparently populated by child rapist sympathizers without somewhere stipulating that sympathizing with child rapists is, well, really fucking immoral.
While almost 50,000 people have signed a petition demanding an apology from the New York Times, the article under question is just a drop in the bucket compared to how routinely victim-blaming is employed in popular discourse about sexual violence. Even Florida Republican Representative Kathleen Passidomo has caught the victim-blaming bug in this case. During a subcommittee hearing for an otherwise innocuous school dress code bill last week, Passidomo inexplicably announced,
There was an article about an 11 year old girl who was gang raped in Texas by 18 young men because she was dressed up like a 21-year-old prostitute. And her parents let her attend school like that. And I think it’s incumbent upon us to create some areas where students can be safe in school and show up in proper attire so what happened in Texas doesn’t happen to our students.
Yeah. She went there. This is what happens when you publish a story suggesting that a child is responsible for being gang raped, New York Times. It’s not rocket science, you assholes.
So clearly East Texas doesn’t have a corner on crazy: even state legislators think people will stop raping little girls if little girls just stop “dressing like prostitutes.” But wait – shouldn’t that tell us something about the climate in which 18 boys and men came together in one room to gang rape a small child, a climate where not one of them said Stop This Is Obviously Really Wrong, a climate where countless classmates saw a “viral” video recording of the gang rape… but only one came forward to report it? Instead of wasting all our time and energy policing the behaviors of potential victims, maybe we should consider the role that normalizing sexual violence plays in facilitating crimes like this in the first place.
At The Root, Kellee Terrell wrote about the divisive role of race in the victim-blaming surrounding this case. All of the alleged rapists are black men and boys, which was evidence enough for Quanell X, leader of Houston’s New Black Panther Party, to cast doubt on the validity of the charges at a rally in Cleveland. While it is a truly, well, discriminating anti-oppression activist who speaks out for the humanity of men and boys at the expense of a little girl, Terrell points out that the anti-racism movement has a history of rape apologism as an effort to counteract the myth of the sexually savage black man that fueled widespread lynchings.
And while, in 2011, African Americans no longer worry about public lynchings, we are consumed with fear about the prison industrial complex and an unfair American legal system. In the minds of some black folks, speaking out about rape means handing over our men to the oppressive “system.” Therefore we make a conscious (or unconscious) decision to sacrifice women’s well-being for the freedom of men.
The vitriol surrounding this rape case is a testament to our culture’s continued refusal to call systematic violence against women and girls a pervasive and preventable social problem. Oppression is not possible without violence. When we stand up for survivors of violence and speak out against violence in all its forms, we take a step to dismantle oppression on behalf of all its victims. When we respect each other enough to expect better from men, we remind ourselves that violence is a vestige of oppression, not a component of masculinity.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. That is the road to social change. It starts everywhere, including your community.