Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Consent and the media

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Words define our thoughts, so the way the media reports and discusses rape has a real effect on we think about victims and consent. After years of discussion, how much has the media learned?

I was recently jolted into acquaintance with Laura Sessions Stepp’s article on “grey rape” for Cosmo back in 2007. Stepp, who has a conveniently indexed list of public derision for this particular article, described “grey rape” as that unknown island between rape and regrettable sex.

As any budding slut-shaming-anthropologist is wont to do, Stepp traced the origins of “grey rape” back to hookup culture, alcohol and, ultimately, the victim.

I am still waiting for Cosmo, the “deeply feminist” magazine’s fashion feature, “what’s your accent colour for grey rape?” in which they coerce a model who has been given too much alcohol and notions of bodily autonomy a scarf in a jaunty victim-blaming teal.

Looking at the amount of public discussion on these issues between 2007 and 2014, you would hope things had changed and that the media has gotten its act together on how to report or discuss rape.

Oh what a glorious world that would be. A land of august debate, of seasoned analysis on law reform, robust discussion as to the veracity of credible research papers. A land where copy is filed that doesn’t present rape as a case of strays versus footballers and where all rapes are considered credible and not just the statistically small number of incidents that fit to a narrow margin of acceptable villainy.

So, hey, let’s check into recent news reports to see how far things have progressed…

Last week, the ABC covered the case of a man taken in for questioning by the Child Abuse squad. The twitter lead in: “Sydney man accused of living with a 12-year-old girl in a sexual relationship.” Note the wording, this wasn’t a report about a man in his 20s raping a child (later confirmed to be 13 years old) too young to legally give consent, the implication was that it was a story about an inappropriate but consensual relationship.

The alleged attacker faces 25 separate charges of sexual intercourse with a child aged between 10 and 14 years. He hasn’t been charged with “living with a 13 year old” or “bogus wedding”, but most of the mainstream media sold the story as if this child somehow consented to her abuse.

Just recently, the Sydney Morning Herald covered the appalling news that a teenage girl was raped by a group of men in Doonside. According to the initial news copy (no longer online), the attack “was unprovoked”. While there is no suggestion the attack was anything other than horrific, the use of “unprovoked” implies an otherwise silent standard exists where some rapes areprovoked and, in that murky mash of words, that the victim is therefore to blame.

It should be noted that after considerable online furore (something we’re helpfully told is often useless), both the Sydney Morning Herald and the ABC amended their articles.

But, despite these corrections, the message is resoundingly clear: the media doesn’t understand rape. Still.

For every editorial that tells women (specifically women, never men) how to avoid rape, the media uses diminishing language to dilute rape as an actual crime. IMF bosses and footballers aren’t facing allegations of rape, they’re in a “sex scandal” or prey to “groupies” and “strays’. News articles will continually refer to a victim’s level of inebriation or, when the journos really hit the jackpot, whether they are a sex worker (who are traditionally less likely to seek or receive appropriate defence or sentencing justice).

In fact, some profit from this buffoonery. Cosmo, Slate’s Emily Joffe, Miranda Devine and, god help me, even the smear of I-can’t-believe-it’s-feminism from Mia Freeman will undoubtedly get a bounce when their inevitable agitorials reach the public.

Could we argue their archaic, illogical stance is calculated to actually increase their profits? I want to say no, if only because I hate to think that self-proclaimed feminists would deliberately seek to increase their clicks through the exploitation of rape victims.

Because if they aren’t exploiting or attacking victims in a world statistically proven to oppose any attempts at justice for rape victims, the alternative is that wilful idiocy is no barrier to a successful career in journalism.

So where does modern media stand on rape and sexual assault? Are they exploiters, wilful idiots or actual journalists?

As each day clicks the media cycle into another year, we still have more horrendous examples to add to the “Special Memories” folder. No matter what training given, no matter what response these articles generate, it is abundantly clear that the media still doesn’t get it, quite possibly doesn’t want to get it and truly doesn’t care at all about the impact it has on past, present and future victims and perpetrators.

And it’s important that every editor and journalist realise the very real impact of their work:

For every use of “unprovoked”, a public believes the dominant experience of sexual assaultisprovoked.

For every use of a “grey” area, a public believes consent far from black or white, but a tricky quagmire standing between them and their apparent right to orgasm.

For every indication a victim had been out drinking, a public is conditioned to think women need only abstain from alcohol or late nights in order to avoid rape and damn the statistics that repeatedly show otherwise.

For every indication a victim was a sex worker, a public is conditioned to think that rapes generally only happen to sex workers, because it’s so rare for the media to define other rape victims by their profession.

Let us remember that when we talk about the public, we aren’t simply addressing an amorphous mass untouched by these crimes. We are addressing more than that glorious slice of utopia where people’s lives have not been touched by sexual assault – media coverage also addresses the victims, both past and present, whose pain can be so amplified by this kind of victim blaming.

And they are also talking directly to perpetrators, past, present and future perpetrators who never think of themselves as rapists or predators and are always looking for a means of shoring up their delusion that what they do is not wrong and is not their fault.

Anyone looking at the discussion of Woody Allen and Dylan and Mia Farrow can see all these stereotypes out on display in online discussion. For every yell of solidarity with the Farrows, out come the distancing “well, I’m no court of law but I will apply legal standards (that I never use in the rest of my life) to my appraisal of a person” statements or the ridiculing that it is “still” being discussed or – heavens forfend – written about. Because, as we all know, silence is the best method for combating sexual assault.

More disturbingly, such careless coverage will show in how people accrue rationalisations that excuse and possibly even encourage rape. That it’s not actually rape because the charge was “sexual intercourse with a child aged between 10 and 14 years” and not “rape”; that it was provoked because she was asking for it by her dress or previous attention; that it can’t be true because the mother of the victim is a liar or vengeful or that there are grey areas between the simple yes and no of consent.

This is why victims of sexual assault hide their attacks, for fear of being rejected by friends and family. This is why victims of sexual assault either drop charges or don’t report their attack at all, because “I didn’t consent” doesn’t meet the standard or proof. This is why victims of sexual assault, especially women, are statistically less likely to receive a verdict in their favour, because there are judges and juries who believe in the utterly fact-less existence of “grey rape” or that some a “high-status” male is are more worthy of protection than a “low-status” woman.

And this is how the perpetrators of rape perpetuate their delusion that what they have done or are doing is not rape.

As always, words have power. It is up to the media to remember this forms a large part of their actual job and they have a responsibility to use them appropriately.

Amy Gray

Amy Gray is a writer and broadcaster from Melbourne, Australia.

Follow her on Twitter @_AmyGray_