The following text is an excerpt published from Kaitlynn Mendes new book “SlutWalk: Feminism, Activism and Media” - PETRIe has obtained permission to publish the following words. With thanks to Kaitlynn Mendes and Palgrave Macmillan.
As a key feminist issue, representations of rape and sexual violence in the media have long been the subject of academic inquiry for feminists. As noted by Kitzinger (2009), the media is a key space in which rape is defined, and as a result, shapes the public’s perceptions on what rape is, who commits it, and why…
Sexual violence in the news
Since the late 1800s, scholars have noted how sexual violence and exploitation around women and children ‘makes good copy’ (Kitzinger 2009, p. 75) – from news of Jack the Ripper in the 1880s in the UK, to the Scarborough Rapist in the 1980s in Canada, to the recent gang rape and murder of a New Delhi student on a moving bus in 2012 – these are the types of stories which prompt outrage, fear, sadness and anger – emotional draws which are used to shift papers and make money (Soothill & Walby 1991; Worthington 2010).
Although high-profile sexual assaults and murders have long been included in mainstream newspapers, rape on its own was largely ignored before the 1970s, when feminist activists put it on the public agenda, challenging the belief that rape was rare or exceptional (Kitzinger 2009, p. 77; see also Soothill & Walby 1991).
It was also during the 1970s that the news media, particularly in the UK, became increasingly sexualized, and newspapers were interested in the lurid details involving sexual assault (Carter 1998)…
Representing rape victims
When reviewing the literature on representations of sexual assault across the globe, one key trope is that, regardless of the type of assault (domestic abuse, rape, sexual harassment), the news media blame victims for their assault. Scholars have found this to be particularly true if the victims are women of colour, knew their assailant, drank alcohol, dressed provocatively, were not virgins, or worked in the sex industry (Benedict 1992; Bonnes 2013; Cuklanz 1996; Meyer 2010; Meyers 2006; Soothill & Walby 1991; Worthington 2008).
The news media help assign blame or innocence through a (lack of) detailed description of victims – their names, ages, occupations, appearance and marital status (Alat 2006; Clark 1992). The news media also assign blame through their description of the victim’s behaviour on the night of the assault. For example, Meyer’s (2010) study found that binge drinking was seen as a provocation for rape, and any victim was thereby ‘asking for it’ by drinking excessively (p. 23).
Similarly, research into the rape trial of South Africa’s former Deputy, and current President, Jacob Zuma also found that the victim’s attire (a traditional kanga) was seen by her attacker as a sign of consent for the sexual encounter that took place (Worthington 2010).
In many cases, the news media blame victims for being unable to thwart their attacker (Carter 1998), creating the impression that women who are raped simply did not try hard enough to get away. In other cases, victims are blamed for not following common ‘rape prevention’ tips, which include ensuring your drink is never left alone (in case it’s spiked), having a buddy system during nights out, not walking home alone at night or if drunk, and so forth.
These narratives are based on the premise, perpetuated by the media, that rape is a crime committed by strangers, rather than someone the victim already knows (Carter 1998; Soothill & Walby 1991). Instead, everyday acts of violence, which take place between spouses, partners, families, friends and acquaintances are ignored in favour of unusual or gruesome cases which, in reality, are much rarer (Carter 1998).
Representing rapists: a few bad apples or just your average guy?
One key feminist goal since the 1970s has been to re-conceptualize rape from a crime of passion and sex, to one of power, violence and control (Benedict 1992). In doing so, it challenges the notion that sexual assault is a crime committed by a few ‘bad apples,’ and instead recognizes the way it has historically been used as a tool to maintain (male) dominance and (female) oppression.
Although there is evidence that feminist understandings are becoming increasingly common (see Durham 2013), research continues to show that rape is still explained as men’s inability to control their lust (Alat 2006; Bonnes 2013). Such constructions are rooted in hegemonic ideologies in which men are ‘naturally’ sexual, and driven by primitive urges, which have been ingrained for centuries (Hasinoff 2009).
Because such views are rooted in biology, they are particularly difficult to challenge. And because some men are constructed as more inherently sexual than others (poor black men, for example), we see their over-representation in news stories concerning attempted or successful rapes (Benedict 1992; Rapp et al. 2010).
For example, while Benedict (1992) found that instances of rape were more likely to make the news if the perpetrator was black (and the victim was white), it is not only in North America or the Western world where race plays a role in the cultural imagining of who commits rape. In South Africa, Bonnes (2013) highlighted how rape is often associated with poor, black men, and is often seen as a legacy of apartheid (see also Maitse 1998).
Similarly, Gwynne (2013) noted how only ‘foreigners’ are constructed as committing rape in Singapore, while its native citizens are seen as law-abiding individuals. Scholars such as Moffett (2006) have argued that narratives which understand rape as primarily a ‘race’ issue are problematic because they further ingrained racism, and make educational efforts to prevent rape nearly impossible.
Another problem with media representations of alleged rapists is that they tend to personalize the perpetrators, constructing them as nice people, a good friend, or an outstanding member of the community (Bonnes 2013). In doing so, the media fuels the belief that ‘real’ rapists are all monsters and psychopaths, and cannot also be ‘nice’ or ordinary men who may very well do good for their communities.
As a result, when it comes to trials, it becomes difficult for juries to reconcile the fact that ‘nice’ men can also be guilty of rape, and juries become sceptical and prone to believe the victim must be lying (Bonnes 2013; Kitzinger 2009). The belief that women commonly lie about rape is one of the most pervasive rape myths in circulation.
To pre-order your copy of 'Slutwalk: Feminism, Activism and Media' by Kaitlynn Mendes, click here. Out on 1 July 2015, £19.99 (paperback).
'Kaitlynn Mendes, SlutWalk', published 2015, reproduced with permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
Words: Kaitlynn Mendes
Image source: Marina Abramović, Rhythm 0, 1974