That question, above everything else, weighs heavily on us as The Register Citizen continues to write about the rape victim bullying case that has sparked national outrage. Because without big changes in how police, school districts, parents and the media talk about rape, consent, relationships and sex, we’ve only made it worse.
Would you tell your parents or school guidance counselor or police that you’d been raped after reading on the front page of The Register Citizen that the last Torrington girl who did was called “whore” and “snitch” and blamed for ruining the lives of two popular football players?
Would you come forward if you flipped on CNN and heard about the tragedy of two young Steubenville men’s promising careers devastated by rape allegations against them and all about how much the victim had been drinking that night and what she’d been wearing?
Let’s hope that Steubenville was a wake-up call for media about buying into a “blame the victim” culture. That includes giving “equal time” or otherwise legitimizing “blame the victim” arguments. If a bystander, or a friend of the accused, or a friend of the victim, or a defense attorney, or God help us, a police chief, or school official, questions or minimizes rape based on what the victim was wearing, who she was hanging out with, what she’d had to drink or how many people she’d previously had sex with, the media has a duty to put it in proper perspective. Which is right up there with the Torrington High School students’ “whore” and “snitch” Tweets we published.
The only question before us in establishing guilt or innocence in a rape case is, “Did the accuser consent?” And consent has nothing to do with past behavior, wardrobe, the company you keep, or how much you had to drink. The media continues to legitimize the latter by treating the discussion as though it relates to mitigating factors in the crime instead of a glaring cultural attitude that helped contribute to and minimize it.
The Torrington case presents additional issues for the media.
A big part of the “blame the victim” dynamic in Torrington relates to statutory rape, and we need better language to refer to it.
A large number of Torrington High School students believe that statutory rape (in this case, two 13-year-old girls having sex with two 18-year-old high school seniors) is not “real rape.”
Local police have referred to the case as “consensual,” and “just a matter of age difference,” and “not forcible.”
We see this language as inappropriate, and harmful, and are struggling with a better way to refer to the details of the case.
The statutory rape law exists because a 13-year-old is a child, and an 18-year-old is a man. A 13-year-old can’t “consent,” period. There is an inherent power imbalance that kids fail to recognize.
In fact, if the allegations against Torrington football players are true (and only two questions really need to be answered – was there sexual contact, and how old are you?), it, in fact, was not “consensual.” It was not “just a matter of age difference.” It was “forcible.” Not consensual because they are children and don’t know what they are doing. Not “just a matter of age difference” because “just” and “rape” should not appear in the same sentence – it is so much more damaging than those words would imply. And “forcible” because of the power, status and manipulation that an adult holds over a child.
So much is at stake in how our communities respond to Steubenville and Torrington. And the very language the media uses to talk about it is crucial to that response.