English: Miley Cyrus singing in concert (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Over at Salon, Katie McDonough has written a piece called “How not to be terrible when talking about rape.” It’s fantastic, and I’ve re-posted it in large part below (with editing for length and language). Head over to Salon to read the original.
Fourteen-year-old girls in juvenile detention facilities do not “consent” to rape by corrections officers. Latex-clad pop stars do not “encourage a teenage culture” in which boys can sexually assault unconscious girls. A thirty-day sentence for a convicted rapist who violated the terms of his rehabilitation programs has not received a sentence “appropriate given the nature of the case.”
A year after the “legitimate rape” comment that killed Todd Akin’s political career, it’s become clear that Akin’s view of sexual violence is how many people talk about rape: quick to blame survivors and excuse perpetrators.
It is so easy to be better. Here are five ways to start.
1. Being sexually assaulted is a tragedy. Going to prison for sexually assaulting someone is not.
Empathy is a good thing. Empathy for people who commit terrible crimes can be a good thing.
Judge G. Todd Baugh initially agreed with Stacey Dean Rambold’s defense attorney when he argued that Rambold — a forty-nine-year-old teacher who raped his fourteen-year-old student — should not serve the recommended fifteen years behind bars because he had “suffered enough” during his trial.
Rambold’s victim, however, was repeatedly raped by an adult who was legally responsible for her care; she committed suicide at only sixteen years old.
To suggest Rambold’s experience of being found guilty of a crime is on par with the experience of being a victim of that crime is not only offensive — it’s delusional.
Then there was CNN’s commentary on Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond, the two high school football players found guilty of raping an unconscious teenage girl and, in Mays’ case, circulating photos of the assault. After delivering news of the guilty verdict, correspondent Poppy Harlow lamented:
Incredibly difficult, even for an outsider like me, to watch what happened as these two young men that had such promising futures, star football players, very good students, literally watched as they believed their lives fell apart … when that sentence came down, [Richmond] collapsed in the arms of his attorney … He said to him, “My life is over. No one is going to want me now.”
It isn’t a tragedy when people who commit crimes face consequences. It’s justice.
2. Female sexuality does not ever invite rape.
On Tuesday, the Washington Post ran a piece by Richard Cohen suggesting that Miley Cyrus might be responsible for the crimes committed in Steubenville.
In a story for USA Today, Joanne Bamberger took a similar position, blaming Cyrus for failures of accountability from the criminal justice system. Bamberger cites the pop star’s onstage writhing and grinding as the reason that judges like Baugh think girls like Rambold’s victim are “as much in control of the situation” as their assailants:
Even though [Cyrus] is 20, many of us still see her as the tween/teen star of Disney’s “Hannah Montana,” and maintain a mental image of her as that more wholesome child, even as she struts on stage today, inviting sexual attention. Shows like “16 and Pregnant” reinforce the idea that girls are sexually mature before they graduate from high school. The music industry inundates us with salacious female images, like the Britney Spears/Madonna French-kissing episode ten years ago on same MTV award show.
3. Being anti-rape is not anti-sex.
Only days before the Washington Post ran Cohen’s editorial, they published Betsy Karasik’s musings on why sending a forty-nine-year-old man who raped a fourteen-year-old girl to prison for longer than 30 days is “utter hysteria.” Teachers who rape students, Karasik says, exist on a “nuanced continuum of sexual interactions.”
As Katie Halper recently noted for Salon, a fourteen-year-old girl literally cannot consent to have sex with a forty-nine-year-old man. There is no “sex” between a teacher and a fourteen-year-old student. It is rape. The same goes for the recent trial of a forty-year-old corrections officer who raped an incarcerated fourteen-year-old girl.
The Poytner Institute has a wonderfully concise rule of thumb on distinguishing between rape and sex when reporting on sexual violence: “Describe charges of sex without consent as rape, not anything less … sometimes writers minimize the trauma of rape by describing it as sex or intercourse if the rape doesn’t involve the kind of physical violence that requires medical attention.”
4. Don’t use a stand-up comedian as the crux of your defense of a convicted rapist.
Seriously. Just don’t do it.
5. “Prison rape” is rape.
Last month, the Daily Beast ran a piece announcing that “true rape” does not happen in prison and that it’s “really not that unusual” for incarcerated people to lie about being sexually assaulted. Mansfield Frazier’s piece (which has since been edited to remove this passage) continued:
Indeed, the vast majority of experienced convicts know that “true” rape is not a common occurrence in prison. That doesn’t mean that homosexual sex doesn’t occur — it certainly does. But it’s really not that unusual for a new prisoner to show up on the compound and begin walking around the yard in pants far too tight. Before long they drop the soap in the shower, get a little close to another naked man, and then — simply because they’ve never been able to come to terms with their own sexuality — tell anyone who will listen (but, interestingly enough, they usually never complain to the guards) that they were “raped.” And a week or two later it could happen again, and then again.
The story generated near-immediate outrage, which the editors responded to by significantly altering the piece and posting a public apology, but the Daily Beast was far from the first media outlet to make light of sexual assault in prison.
On CNN that week, Richard Herman said that Chelsea Manning, a transgender woman, would get “good practice at being a woman” while in prison. Disgusting.
As Salon’s Mary Elizabeth Williams noted in 2012, minimizing rape in prison isn’t funny. “Ever wonder why, though men make up at least 3 percent of rape victims, the crime so often goes unreported?” Williams asks. “Couldn’t have anything to do with our cultural propensity for turning sexual violence against men into a smug joke?”
Rape doesn’t suddenly become acceptable when it’s committed against a person who is incarcerated. It actually just keeps being rape.