By Molly Freeman
Photo courtesy of Chris Gilmore.
In October of last year, Slate’s Emily Yoffe wrote an anti-rape op-ed titled “College Women: Stop Getting Drunk.” As if the headline didn’t put enough of an onus on women to prevent their own rape, the sub headline read: “It’s closely associated with sexual assault. And yet we’re reluctant to tell women to stop doing it.”
In the weeks following Yoffe’s piece, many journalists argued against her main statement that since there is a correlation between rape and binge drinking on college campuses, the simple solution would be for women to stop drinking.
But, as a fellow Slate writer, Amanda Hess, pointed out, that argument is “myopic” and a more successful rape prevention tactic would be to target the rapists rather than the victims.
“We can prevent the most rapes on campus by putting our efforts toward finding and punishing those perpetrators, not by warning their huge number of potential victims to skip out on parties,” Hess wrote.
Other publications like Jezebel and The Nation also eloquently responded to Yoffe’s article. Erin Gloria Ryan wrote “How To Write About Rape Prevention Without Sounding Like An Asshole” for Jezebel and made the point that binge drinking doesn’t lead to rape. Rather, binge drinking leads to a lack of awareness of personal safety and makes anyone vulnerable to crimes such as mugging, robbery, as well as rape.
Prominent feminist writer, Jessica Valenti, described in her article for The Nation how Yoffe’s piece falls in line with our society’s rape culture. Such attitudes encourage (or at least don’t discourage) the practices of victim blaming and slut-shaming in order to discredit a rape victim’s integrity.
“When we make victims’ choices the focus of rape prevention, we make the world a safer place for rapists,” Valenti wrote. She also mentioned the rape cases in Steubenville, Ohio, and Maryville, Missouri. Despite the similarities in the circumstances, the latter was a bit less publicized.
The victims of the events in Steubenville and Maryville were high school and middle school students, rather than college attendees. Nevertheless, many voices in the media–either directly or indirectly–blamed the girls for the crimes committed against them.
CNN painted the accused rapists in the Steubenville case so sympathetically that almost 300,000 people signed a petition asking the news network to apologize for their blatant rape apology that turned the perpetrators into the victims.
Additionally, tennis player Serena Williams came under fire when she suggested the Steubenville rape victim “shouldn’t have put herself in that situation.” However, while Williams is not the only person to suggest the victim shouldn’t have been intoxicated, she became the public face of victim blaming and using binge drinking to excuse the actions of a rapist. Journalist Jamil Smith responded to Williams’ comment on Twitter: “Pro tip for @serenawilliams or others discussing rape: if ‘I’m not blaming the girl, but…’ exits your mouth, stop there. There is no ‘but.’”
While it may seem slightly petty to attack Williams and the CNN television anchors, as Poynter’s Kelly McBride suggests, it’s actually an important step forward to change how rape is portrayed in the media.
In 2011, The New York Times reported on a young Texas girl who was gang raped in her community. The article included comments from the neighborhood’s residents that said the girl dressed older than her age and hung out with teenaged boys often. Publications like Ms Magazine railed against the insinuation that the girl had somehow contributed to the rape by putting herself in danger.
These types of stories aren’t new. The media coverage that exercises victim blaming–whether uttered by the journalist or quoted from other sources–isn’t an outdated phenomenon. Excusing rape because of binge drinking is an old tactic. The fighting back by feminist media (and increasingly, more mainstream media) becomes an important battle against the pervasive rape culture.
It’s not a fight about semantics; it’s a fight for the integrity and humanity of all rape victims and how they’re treated by the media.