Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Media reporting on rape, the daily mail and Strauss-Kahn

This post originally appeared on the Fresh Outlook

There is a pervasive rape myth that influences a lot of the ways newspapers and mainstream media outlets continue to talk about rape. Feminists call this the myth of the ‘perfect victim’. It is a myth because of course a perfect victim does not exist. But what this myth does is create a false divide between victims and survivors of rape who the media consider ‘innocent’, and victims and survivors who the media paint as blameworthy, or guilty of ‘causing’ the rape. This happens in many ways. A recent news report in the Daily Mail blamed a 12-year old girl for being gang raped, reporting the defence statement that claimed she was a ‘Lolita’ who had accepted alcohol from the men who then raped her and her friend, as well as calling her a liar because she led them to believe she was older than she was. These children were painted as ‘bad’ victims because they were out at night, drinking alcohol, and were ‘dressed provocatively’. Comments on the news stories painted the perpetrators of the rape as the victims of these girls, as they had been ‘led on’ and ‘tricked’ by girls who were dressed ‘sluttily’.

The myth of the perfect victim means that much of the reporting around violence against women and girls falls into two distinct categories. Firstly, when rape is reported in the news (rarely) then it will generally be a story about stranger rape. Despite the fact that stranger rape is far, far less common than rape by a partner, friend or colleague, it makes up the bulk of news reported rape cases. More often than not, the victim or survivor will be white, middle class, sober, and attacked in the day or early evening. Two – the rape will be reported as a ‘cry-rape’ case. This is when the case has not progressed, or the accused hasn’t been found guilty for whatever reason. In this case, the media assume that the woman lied about the rape, even if the defendant has not gone on to accuse or charge the women with false accusation. Despite the false accusation rate being between 3-5%, whilst 100,000 UK women are raped each year, the media paints a picture that all non-convicted rape cases are ‘cry rape’ stories, which is simply not true. A quick search of the term ‘cry rape’ on the Daily Mail website reveals 166 stories, including coverage of the recent Dominique Strauss-Kahn case.

The recent reporting around the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case shows how pervasive the myth of the perfect victim is. Here we have a very powerful, very respected political leader. He has a history of sexual harassment and since his arrest more women have come forward with claims of sexual assault. He is accused of sexual assault by a poor, black woman from an immigrant community who cleans his hotel room. He is arrested for sexual assault. But if you read some papers, this isn’t the story at all. This is a ‘sex scandal’. This is British and US women being ‘uptight’ whilst the French have a more ‘relaxed’ attitude to sex. And finally, this is an unreliable woman, who, *gasp*, may have worked in prostitution, lying about sexual assault, victimising a powerful man, for financial gain.

Firstly, sexual assault is not a ‘sex scandal’. It is a crime. He didn’t get caught having an affair. He was accused of sexual assault. Secondly, British and US women are not ‘uptight’ about sexual assault, and French women are not ‘relaxed’ about sexual assault. If a crime has been committed, if he did assault a woman, then the news story isn’t about national stereotypes around sex, but about violence against women. Thirdly, and this is where the myth of the perfect victim crops up again, poor, black women from immigrant communities who know some dodgy characters do get raped and sexually assaulted too. None of these things make her an unreliable witness. Her class, her nationality, her immigration status, the fact that she has gone through FGM, the fact she didn’t tell immigration officials that she had gone through FGM; none of this is relevant to the case. What is relevant is the DNA evidence, which clearly shows that something did happen and needs to be investigated. 

The New York post is now being sued by representatives of the woman regarding stories in their paper claiming she had worked in prostitution, something which she says is not true. The paper seems to believe that a history of working in prostitution discredits you as a witness in a sexual assault case. They seem to believe that it means she couldn’t have been sexually assaulted. Dominique Strauss-Kahn is released on bail, and suddenly the woman is in the metaphorical dock, as her history is raked over to ‘prove’ that she was lying.

Due process says innocent before proven guilty. This is the cornerstone of justice. But innocent before proven guilty does not translate to ‘woman must be lying’. It means that each party is believed and allowed a voice and legal representation. And yet so often when it comes to cases around violence against women, there is a presumption that the woman is making it up. Rape myths live in juries’ heads, in lawyers’ heads, in CPS officers’ heads, in police officers’ heads and they are perpetuated by the media over and over again.

Sadly, tragically, all women still know that if they accuse a man of rape of sexual assault, or rape, they are taking a risk. They are taking a risk that they won’t be believed. They are taking a risk that their past will be raked over, that the actions they took before, during and after the alleged assault will be twisted to discredit them. We know that if we drank alcohol, took drugs, were out on our own at night, had had consensual sex previously with the accused, had known the accused, had dressed ‘provocatively’ then we could be discredited. We women know that if we go to the police we might not be believed. If the police believe us, then the case may still fall apart. We know that if the accused rapist is not found guilty, then we will be accused of lying. Great leaps have been made to improve justice for rape victims and survivors in the last 50 years. But still, most rapes go unreported, still most rapists walk free. And when we see the treatment of a woman who accuses a man of sexual assault in perhaps the biggest international news story in the world, is it any wonder that most sexual assaults remain unreported, and the UK conviction rate remains at 6.5%.

This post has been picked up by Liberal Conspiracy here:


The men who were sentenced for raping a 12 year old girl have been released. Apparently the girl was more "sexually experienced than the men" and "wanted sex".

The fact that a child cannot meaningfully consent to sex doesn't seem to matter to our judges in this case. Excuse me whilst i cry.

No comments: