The brutal gang rape of a university student in Delhi last December out-raged the establishment media, which were quick to paint India as a nation plagued by deep-seated sexism and misogyny.
The New York Times opined (12/29/12) that the rape reflected “an alarming trend in India” of “tolerat[ing] shocking abuse of women” who are “shamed into silence and callously disregarded by a male-dominated power structure” and therefore “never go to the authorities to seek justice.” The Times went on to lament that “women are routinely blamed for inciting the violence against them,” which is why “India must work on changing a culture in which women are routinely devalued.”
While it was refreshing to see rape culture discussed in the mainstream press, such criticism seems to be exclusively reserved for non-Western cultures where the treatment of women is perceived as barbaric.
It was especially ironic for the Times editorial board to lament India’s culture of victim-blaming, given that a year earlier the Times (3/9/11) described an 11-year-old Texas gang rape victim as “dress[ing] older than her age, wearing makeup and fashions more appropriate to a woman in her 20s.”
Meanwhile, around the same time as the Delhi gang rape, the small, football-obsessed town of Steubenville, Ohio, began making headlines. Two of its star high-school football players were accused of dragging an unconscious girl from party to party and raping her in front of other students, none of whom called the police or tried to stop the abuse. Instead, they snapped pictures of the assault and posted them on social media.
In stark contrast to the Delhi rape, most mainstream outlets failed to examine the underlying culture that gave these young men the impression that violating an unconscious girl was no big deal, to the point that they confidently documented their crime on the Internet.
Certain journalists were actually caught fawning over the rapists, most notoriously CNN’s Candy Crowley and Poppy Harlow (3/17/13). Reporting from the courthouse just after the guilty verdict was announced, Harlow was emotionally distraught “as these two young men that had such promising futures, star football players, very good students, literally watched as they believe their life fell apart.” CNN’s legal contributor Paul Callan expressed concern that registering as sex offenders would “haunt them for the rest of their lives.”
Despite the many failures, the media did provide extensive coverage of a story that would have otherwise remained untold. The same can’t be said about the scant media coverage of 15-year-old Audrie Potts, a California teen who killed herself in September, just eight days after three teenage boys, all football players, sexually assaulted her while she lay unconscious at a party (AP, 4/12/13). Her abusers took pictures of the attack and shared them online, just like in Steubenville. The torment and humiliation that followed was unbearable, so Audrie took her own life.
So did 17-year-old Rehtaeh Parsons, who endured months of harassment after four boys raped her at a party in Nova Scotia, Canada. Parsons hanged herself on April 4 (Huffington Post, 4/9/13). Nineteen-year-old Lizzy Seeberg, an Indiana college student, also killed herself after being sexually attacked by a Notre Dame football player, who continues to play on the team with full backing from school officials (Nation, 1/7/13).
Clearly, the media’s refusal to address U.S. rape culture doesn’t make it any less real. Nor does it change the fact that we live in a country where 1 in 5 women will be raped in their lifetime (CDC); where all-male panels of elected officials regularly debate limiting female bodily autonomy (Nation, 2/16/12); where a male candidate for Senate proudly declared rape pregnancies to be a “gift from God” (Think Progress, 10/23/12); where a male governor in Virginia mandated invasive ultrasounds for women seeking abortions (Huffington Post, 3/7/12); where a male judge in California scolded a rape victim for failing to “put up a fight” against her attacker, and claimed that a woman’s body “will not permit [rape] to happen” if she doesn’t want it to (Associated Press, 12/13/12); and where the GOP’s last vice-presidential candidate sponsored a bill that would allow a rapist to stop his victim from terminating her pregnancy (Mother Jones, 8/14/12).
Is it really any wonder, then, that many boys have so little respect for women? Perhaps this is a reflection of our “male-dominated power structure.” You know, that thing the New York Times so eloquently condemned in India. Perhaps it’s the U.S. that “must work on changing a culture in which women are routinely devalued.” But that would require the establishment media to own up to its complicity in perpetuating it.
Rania Khalek (RaniaKhalek.com) is an independent journalist reporting on the underclass and marginalized whose work has been published by the Nation, Truthout, In These Times, Salon, Citizen Radio and more.