“A lie can travel around the world and back again, while the truth is lacing up it’s boots.” – Mark Twain
Words have power. They ignite revolutions, start wars, or they calm tensions. Words can enlighten, or they can spread dangerous lies. Societies have risen and fallen based on words alone.
Which is why the words the news media chooses are so important.
The media’s ability to frame the issues and the influence they have on our public consciousness is unmatched. Why else would political campaigns spend millions on messaging? Why else would autocrats go to great lengths to control the media? The news media is the fourth estate, an institution in our country. So powerful, it’s considered a check on political power.
And nowhere is their power and influence more constant and enduring – no matter the season, the year, the decade – than when reporting on rape and sexual assault.
The words the media uses are relentless. They permeate our gray matter. We absorb them. When we hear or read a word enough times, it comes tumbling out of our own mouths unbidden. Words have a unique way of influencing thoughts and molding assumptions without us even realizing it.
Which is why the vague words the media uses to report rape and sexual abuse are so damaging. Why euphemisms and distortions are dangerous.
Tepid headlines about rape and abuse minimize the violence. When rape is called “sex,” the victims are framed as willing participants. When the rape/assault/murder is not called what it is, violent acts are protected. Every time the media fails to report the naked truth, it is serving the abusers. The desire by the media to not make us uncomfortable causes real and lasting harm to victims of abuse. And it makes future assault that much easier and more likely to go unpunished.
For every one negative thing a person is told, five positives must be told to counteract it. This is the power and the danger of words. For every lie told, the truth has to climb a bigger hill to be heard. For every misconception and minimization of sexual violence, victims have to speak out about their abuse.
Resurrecting trauma and opening old wounds until society takes notice and listens. And then, wait for dozens more to do the same before anyone believes them.
There are few things on this Earth more powerful than words.
And every time the media sanitizes rape and abuse, it not only minimizes abuse and life long trauma, it offers a helping hand to predators.
And it happens all the time.
“Sixteen Year Old Prostitute Kills Man,” is a lie. A sixteen year old is a victim of child sex trafficking. But we don’t like to think about children being sexually abused and bought and sold. We prefer to think that she must have been at fault, that a child who can’t consent to medical treatment is old enough to consent to being sold for money. This is the cognitive dissonance that our culture and our media reinforces and likes to wrap itself in. After all, centuries of sexual abuse of altar boys in the Catholic Church didn’t happen in a vacuum. It was allowed. By hushed voices and looking away.
“Woman In Coma Gives Birth,” is a lie of omission. It ignores the the crucial part of the news- that a woman in a vegetative state for 27 years was raped. But reading about a vulnerable woman in a coma is a lot harder to swallow with your morning coffee. We’re much more comfortable with the lie that a woman who can’t speak or move can consent to sex.
“Woman Died” is a whisper of a headline. “Husband Kills Wife,” is a scream that matches the violence and ongoing epidemic of domestic abuse that society prefers to ignore. One we say is a “private matter.” An issue to be “dealt with in the marriage.” What better way to keep our hands clean, after all? What better way to not have to deal with the fact that thousands of women and children die every year at the hands of angry men?
When the news media can’t bear to call rape, rape and to call lies, lies, victims are left to fend for the truth themselves. Not only is the media lying when it refuses to use the correct words, it is perpetuating violence against victims.
The medias lies and evasions support rape culture. They feed it. And just so we’re clear, there is a direct line between rape culture – a society or environment whose prevailing social attitudes have the effect of normalizing or trivializing sexual assault and abuse – and violence against children and women and the LGBT+ community.
Sanitized reporting on sexual violence absolves rapists and pedophiles of their responsibility. Is this the editor’s or writer’s intent? Probably not. Their intent is to make the subject more palatable to readers. But rape and sexual abuse should not be palatable. The idea that we need to avoid discomfort is precisely why this problem persists at epidemic proportions. This is the intersection of rape culture and purity culture.
Purity culture uses women’s bodies to sell products, but revolts at a bare breast feeding a baby. Purity culture refuses to teach it’s children about autonomy and consent and reproductive rights and birth control, for fear it will induce promiscuity- yet turns away when those same children are sexually assaulted and raped. In purity culture women and children are to serve as props. To stroke egos and stroke men. We are to take the abuse and stuff it down, not speak up about it. We are to be proper and polite and absolutely, unflinchingly accommodating in our manner and speech. And when we are abused at the hands of those more powerful, we are only allowed to whisper of it to people who aren’t in a position to help.
This is what the media is endorsing and selling every time they diminish violence against our bodies and souls.
The ripple effect of how it’s reported is never ending. It shows up in how law enforcement and District Attorneys interpret a victim’s story. In pop culture. In the way schools and churches try to cover it up. You see it when judges and juries and neighbors refuse to believe victims. When society treats the victims like a collaborator. An accomplice in their own abuse.
When you do this, dear media, you are telling every little child who has had their soul shattered by sexual abuse that they were complicit. You are telling every teen girl who gets groped by grown men that they are to silence the sick feeling. You tell every person living in denial about what is going on in their own home or their school or church that sticking their head in the sand is not only acceptable, but how polite society handles such unsavory subjects. You tell every man who has the desire to rape and abuse that you’ve got his back and you will soften his sick cruelty when you speak of it to the world.
Every time you water it down or sanitize the truth you perpetuate rape myths. The myth of the false accuser. The myth of the victimless crime. The myth that rape is only rape if it’s in a dark alley at the hands of a stranger. And cuts and bruises better be present or it’s not “legitimate rape.” The myth that a victim’s clothes render a predator unable to control their actions. Every single one of these myths you’re feeding is weaponized against victims- in courtrooms and in jury pools and in schools and the town rumor mill. These are the things whispered in the ears of victims who fight back. It’s what rapists tell their victims “no one will believe you, you filthy whore. You know you want it. You asked for it.” Intentional or not, you’re sending the same message as every abuser and rapist in their most violent moments. It’s as if you lifted his script and cleaned it up for the evening news.
And you wonder why victims don’t report.
When news reports of rape or sexual abuse are doused in antiseptic, the lie travels around the world twice before survivors have even had a chance to speak their truth. The retractions and corrections will land with a dull thud, barely making a sound. Your words are carnival music playing during the carnage scene of a bad movie. One that they are trying to rewrite with every breath and every step forward. And it leaves victims feeling alone in a world that doesn’t want to see or hear what they can’t forget.
And with each muddled headline the media looks increasingly like the puppet, with the likes of R. Kelly, and Harvey Weinstein – and every other disgusting abuser bloated with his own self imposed entitlement – pulling your strings. From the creepy network executive, to the slimy anchor with a door lock button under his desk, to the filthy man grabbing girls on the bus, you are their flunky. Repeating their message for them, taking the horrors they’ve visited upon the innocent and making it sound not that bad, really. Brave people are coming forward to tell their stories. And each of them is showing the world what truth looks like, making the lie harder for you to sell.
What would happen, dear media, if you stopped shrouding the truth in soft words? What would happen if the news spoke to these things plainly, clearly, every time?
Maybe judges will stop telling young victims they should have kept their legs closed.
Maybe it won’t take 265 women coming forward before a man receives due justice and is finally stopped from abusing young girls.
Maybe rape kits will get processed and rapes will get prosecuted.
Maybe we’ll start believing victims. One single victim. Without a chorus of victims behind them.
Maybe judges won’t hand out light sentences for predators and maybe fathers of rapists won’t call it “twenty minutes of action” and maybe the public will stop worrying about a college-bound rapist’s future and maybe children will actually be safe in their homes and their schools and their churches and at sports practice and maybe women will be able to go to college without being one in four and maybe women will be able to go to work without their bodies being groped while their ideas are ignored and maybe black trans women will not be murdered and immediately forgotten and maybe you can see that this is a very real problem you’re perpetuating every time you speak of it softly.
Maybe it won’t take a hashtag movement before the world starts believing the stories we’ve been telling. The stories that have existed since the beginning of time, yet somehow half the population is bewildered at all the #MeToo’s.
Maybe victims can take a break from the fight for truth about abuse. Because we’re tired of carrying water for the media and a society that doesn’t want to hear or see it.
Maybe our children will grow up in a different world. One that no longer offers shelter to abusers.
Those who’ve opened up their wounds to bleed, to right the wrongs still being done, will not stand by while the media continues to soft-peddle acts of violence. We will scream the truth until it circles the globe, before the limp words drip out of your mouth.
Dear media, words matter. The false propriety you hide behind is a facade. An excuse. They make you the collaborator. The mouthpiece of the predators. The foothold to power structures that profit off of victims. They make you complicit, even if you didn’t intend to be a participant.
Time’s up on your ancillary reporting.