It was my senior year in high school when I first realized that I might be more of a feminist than I originally thought. My friends and I were discussing what my friend, Amelia, was learning about rape in her women’s studies class, and my friend Jason was sitting next to me and uttered the words, “Well, if a girl is wearing a provocative outfit, isn’t she asking to be raped?” After this comment, we all stared at him with astonished glares, not knowing how to respond to this shocking comment. We spent the next forty-five minutes discussing his opinion with him and trying to explain how no one is responsible for being attacked, yet nothing we said seemed to change his opinion. The statements he had made surprised me because I never expected someone I knew so well to express these opinions. I began to realize that what I had just witnessed was a prime example of a very real, international issue. Recently, many protests, such as the SlutWalk in New York City, have occurred in response to the multiple similar instances of targeting of female victims that have been broadcast throughout the media. The recent trend of turning victims into the offenders of their own sexual assault continues because of current media and works to perpetuate rape myths among the youth of today’s society.
In a world where information is easily accessible, it is surprising that many rape myths continue in our society today. According to Kahlor and Eastin for the Journal Of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, rape myths are “persistent beliefs and stereotypes regarding forced sexual intercourse and the victims and perpetrators of such acts” (216). Supporters of these myths “suggest women fabricate rape when they regret consensual sex after the fact and the women that claim rape are promiscuous, have bad reputations, and dress provocatively” (Kahlor and Eastin 216). These generalizations only apply to a small number of sexual assaults, and even if a woman is acting in the manner mentioned earlier it does not put her at fault if she is attacked. Along with this behavior, it is a common belief that if victims are intoxicated they can be in partly responsible if they are attacked, but this is another myth because even if victims are inebriated they are not choosing to be assaulted (Kahlor and Eastin). Another rape myth is one in which strangers are the main perpetrators of rape; however, acquaintances or people who are close to the victim often commit the crime. Despite the vast amount of information available to today’s society, these rape myths still manage to persist and will continue to if greater measures are not taken to educate future generations.
Rape myths have a substantial impact on today’s youth, and many of them have skewed views on what does and does not constitute rape. In an article written by G. Viki for the journal Sex Roles, the author showed “that American undergraduates perceived a victim’s rights as less violated when she had been raped by her husband in comparison to a non-marital perpetrator” (Viki). This is one example of how adolescents are unaware that even if someone is well-acquainted or even married, sex without consent is still considered rape under law and is equally as unjust as when rape is committed by a stranger. Today, “how the victim is dressed, the absence or presence of victim resistance, and the relationship between the victim and perpetrator have been shown to be situational factors that influence people’s judgments about sexual aggression” (Viki). Many people use these situational factors to blame victims by accusing them of putting themselves into the situation. These factors work to alleviate the perpetrator of fault in the incident and transfer responsibility to the victim. When our society excuses the actions of these offenders, it emphasizes to minors that a victim can be blamed for another’s choice.
Though it is concerning that these beliefs about rape continue to be present in our culture, their perpetuation through the media, such as network television shows, is more worrisome. One journal says, “total television viewing operates as the cultivator of reality, and this data indicates that higher levels of rape-related content in genres such as soaps and crime dramas independently cultivate perceptions related to rape and sexual assault” (Kahlor and Eastin). The shows that people watch on television, fictional and non-fictional, have an effect on how they view sexual assault. Many of these shows propagate the rape myths, and it has been found that there is at least one reference to a rape myth in most television series (Kahlor and Eastin). For example, in an episode of Grey’s Anatomy, a patient in the hospital was attacked and raped by a stranger, when in fact someone who knows the victim often commits rape (Rhimes). Television in our society has the ability to falsely portray ideas about rape and sexual assaults, and it works to conceal the realities of sexual assault through the continuation of rape myths.
Along with television, many of these views on sexual assault are furthered by the news media’s portrayal of these cases. Recently, major news networks have used situational information, such as a victim’s alcohol level, to sway the viewers towards sympathizing with the accused rather than the victim. As S. O’Hara says in Language And Literature, “as the primary source of information for most people, the news media plays a vital role in shaping public opinion. Therefore, a misleading representation of sexual violence may cause the public, police and members of the court to revert to these understandings when establishing definitions of rape”(248). Major news networks surround people, and they are often the only information that can be accessed when looking into controversial cases. The news media is able to skew the facts by using rape myths as a way to gain sympathy for the defendant or to guilt the accuser. The media’s influence, therefore, has a very sizeable influence on how our civilization interprets these controversial incidents.
The skewing effects of the media are easy to detect in many of the rape cases that have recently occurred. In many of them, such as the Steubenville rape case, there is a trend of victim-blaming because the victims of the crimes were either intoxicated or acting provocatively. In the Steubenville case, the news company Cable News Network (CNN) sympathized multiple times with the defendants and lamented the end of their football careers. In the article, “Two Teens Found Guilty in Steubenville Rape Case,” CNN commented on the remorse that the defendants felt. For example, one article commented on how the defendant, Ma’lik Richmond, was tearfully remorseful about his actions on the night of the rape (Almasy). Also, CNN focused on the girl’s drinking by saying, “the alleged victim drank at least four shots of vodka, two beers and some of a slushy mixed with vodka” (Carter). These examples make the Steubenville case an excellent example of victim blaming and how rape myths are perpetuated in society because, as Zerlina Maxwell states, “[this type of reporting] is an exercise in victim-blaming 101. All too often in rape cases, defense attorneys — and society — generally focus their attention on the actions of the accuser. How much was she drinking? Did she flirt with the boys? Is the accuser a good girl?” The media focused much on these questions during the case and many responses cropped up in retaliation to the claims that the victim is in part at fault for the crimes committed against her.
Another example of victim-blaming by the media, similar to that of the Steubenville case, is a rape case in which the media questioned the behavior of an 11-year old girl in the aftermath of her rape. In Cleveland, Texas, “between September and November 2010, an 11-year old girl is thought to have been gang-raped on at least four separate occasions by men and boys from her town” (O’Hara). The media twisted this crime, which is an obvious tragedy, and analyzed if this girl put herself in this situation. One article claimed “she dressed older than her age, wearing make-up and fashions more appropriate to a woman in her 20s. She would hang out with teenage boys at a playground” (O’Hara). This article used the rape myth that if a girl is acting and dressing provocatively, then she is being risky and is partly at fault for her situation. Again the news here works to spread rape culture that encourages society to question the victim’s actions instead of those of the perpetrators. However, those with conflicting opinions are beginning to respond to these claims.
In response to the multiple instances of victim-blaming that are occurring throughout the country, many people are staging protests in major cites to fight this trend. In New York City, for example, thousands of people gathered to show their support for these victims in a SlutWalk in 2011 that works to bring attention to victim-blaming and slut-shaming (Mathias). The SlutWalk movement originated in Toronto, Canada, when the police chief directed women within the city not to dress like sluts in order to avoid being sexually assaulted. Since then, SlutWalk protests in many cities work as way to raise awareness for the victims of slut shaming and victim-blaming. At these protests, many women wear scandalous clothing to emphasize their message. One of the leaders of the New York City protest said “[that] people in the 21st century still believe that women are ‘asking for it’ if they dress in sexy clothing is hardly surprising, but it is troubling. The quicker we dispel these myths the better. No victim is ‘asking for it’ and shaming the victim is a tradition that needs to die a quick death” (Kane). The SlutWalk movement is working towards reversing the rape myths that are currently implanted in society and creating a more understanding community.
Unlike when I first heard my friend blame a victim for his or her sexual assault, I am now more aware of how pervasive rape culture is and how often the victim’s actions are questioned in these cases. This trend of victim-blaming continues in part because of the news media’s depiction of controversial cases and its ability to affect the views and knowledge of today’s society. It does not only affect society as a whole, but it specifically affects adolescents, which means that it will continue into the future unless a change begins to occur. As a whole civilization, we need to shift our focus from the victim to the perpetrator and begin to ask why they thought their actions were acceptable. A victim of sexual assault, no matter who it is, should not be criticized for wearing a revealing outfit, drinking, or acting a certain way. We should not question his or her actions, but rather question the actions of those who committed the crime and work towards changing our society from one that places blame into one that stops this violence altogether.
Almasy, Steve. “Two Teens Found Guilty in Steubenville Rape Case.” CNN Justice. Cable News Network, 17 Mar. 2013. Web. 2 Apr. 2013. <http://www.cnn.com/2013/03/17/justice/ohio-steubenville-case>.
Carter, Chelsea J., and Poppy Harlow. “Alleged Victim in Steubenville Rape Case Says She Woke up Naked.” CNN. Cable News Network, 01 Jan. 1970. Web. 18 Apr. 2013. <http://www.cnn.com/2013/03/16/justice/ohio-steubenville-case>.
Kahlor, LeeAnn, and Matthew S. Eastin. “Television’s Role In The Culture Of Violence Toward Women: A Study Of Television Viewing And The Cultivation Of Rape Myth Acceptance In The United States.” Journal Of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 55.2 (2011): 215-231. Academic Search Complete. Web. 28 Mar. 2013.
Kane, Erik. “NYC ‘SlutWalk’ Protests Raise Rape Awareness.” Forbes. Forbes, 02 Oct. 2011. Web. 2 Apr. 2013. <http://www.forbes.com/sites/erikkain/2011/10/02/nyc-slutwalk-protests-raise-rape-awareness/>.
Mathias, Christopher. “Slutwalk NYC 2011 Takes Over Union Square To Protest Slut-Shaming, Victim-Blaming.” The Huffington Post. The Huffington Post, 03 Oct. 2011. Web. 26 Mar. 2013. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/03/slutwalk-nyc-2011-takes-o_n_992181.html>.
O’Hara, S. “Monsters, Playboys, Virgins And Whores: Rape Myths In The News Media’s Coverage Of Sexual Violence.” Language And Literature 21.3 (2012): 247-259. Scopus®. Web. 28 Mar. 2013.
Rhimes, Shonda. “The First Cut Is the Deepest.” Grey’s Anatomy. American Broadcasting Company. ABC, 3 Apr. 2005. Television.
G. Viki, et al. “Social Perception Of Rape Victims In Dating And Married Relationships: The Role Of Perpetrator’S Benevolent Sexism.” Sex Roles. 62.7/8 (2010): 505-519. SocINDEX with Full Text. Web. 28 Mar. 2013.
Maxwell, Zerlina. “Steubenville Case: Why Acquaintance Rape Is Not a Myth.” MSNBC. NBCUniversal, 13 Mar. 2013. Web. 4 Apr. 2013. <http://tv.msnbc.com/2013/03/13/steubenville-case-why-acquaintance-rape-is-not-a-myth/>.