The New York Times is under fire from bloggers and nearly 20,000 Change.org members to date. Why? It all started with this storyby New York Times reporter James McKinley that insinuates an 11-year-old-girl is to blame for her own gang-rape.
Last Thanksgiving, a sixth grade girl was driven to an abandoned trailer on the outskirts of Cleveland, Texas, and brutally and repeatedly raped by at least 18 men. In reporting on this appalling attack, McKinley interviewed Cleveland residents for their reactions. What he heard and what he wrote exemplify the worst possible side of humanity.
To Sheila Harrison, the biggest concern is how raping a child will impact the rapists. “These boys have to live with this the rest of their lives,” she said.
Other Cleveland residents, it seems from McKinley’s report, were far more interested in what she might have been wearing for the suspects, in McKinley’s words, to “have been drawn into such an act.” They were quick to note — and McKinley thought it was worth reporting — that the victim “dressed older than her age, wearing makeup and fashions more appropriate to a woman in her 20s. She would hang out with teenage boys at a playground.”
Sheila Harrison, the hospital worker so worried about the rapists, figured the girl’s mother must be to blame. “Where was her mother? What was her mother thinking?” said Harrison.
Yes, a reporter has a responsibility to interview people close to a story for his article. But he also has the responsibility to provide context and perspective for the quotes he chooses to use. Instead of wondering how it was possible that a whole town could turn against a child who was brutally raped, he superimposed their victim-blaming onto his story and turned it in as news. Instead of finding just one single person to express sympathy for the girl or outrage at the rapists, he tacitly approved the prevailing opinion that she (and her parents) were responsible for what happened.
It’s a reporter’s job to ask questions. Some good ones might have been: What’s it going to be like for the child who was brutally gang-raped to live with this for the rest of her life? Why does it matter that she dressed like a woman in her twenties? Does a woman in her twenties deserve to be gang-raped? Where were the suspects’ parents when they were taking turns assaulting a child?
McKinley’s failure to do his job has me asking some questions of my own.
Why didn’t the suspects’ parents and community teach them long before last Thanksgiving that a child is never able to consent to sex? Why wasn’t it drilled into them along with their multiplication tables that forced entry into a person’s body is called rape and it is never ever okay, no matter how many people are doing it? Why isn’t it a basic tenet in our education system to teach children that to immediately report a rape you see isn’t being a snitch, it’s being a responsible human being?
Why is the kneejerk reaction upon hearing about a rape to wonder what the victim did to bring it on? Why did a seasoned reporter from a respected publication react not with horror to community members’ expression of that victim-blaming sentiment, but instead accept it as the logical reaction?
The answer to most of these questions is that we live in a rape culture – a society that tacitly and explicitly belittles the seriousness of rape and those who experience it. Rape culture, as expressed in our entertainment, our sports coverage, and in the media, apologizes for rapists and sends the message that violating another human being isn’t that big of a deal if the circumstances are right.
Who benefits from rape culture? Certainly not the one in four American women who will be raped in their lifetime. Certainly not Lara Logan or the woman who Steelers quarterback Ben Roesthesberger allegedly assaulted in a locked bathroom. Certainly not this little girl in Cleveland, Texas. No one but no one benefits from rape culture but rapists.
That’s why we can’t let this instance of victim blaming in the New York Times go without an apology. This isn’t the first time a major publication has wielded the pen to silence rape victims and sympathize with rapists — but we have to start somewhere in making sure it happens far less often. If we want better, we have to demand better.