Two years ago, after CBS correspondent Lara Logan was sexually assaulted in Cairo, Egypt, and greeted by a wave of implications that she brought it on herself, I suggested in a back page essay that 2011 was shaping up to be the year of the victim blamer. Now, it seems I was wrong. To paraphrase "The Wire," years end.
In mid-March, Ma'lik Richmond and Trent Mays, two players on the Steubenville, Ohio, high school football team, were found guilty of raping an unconscious 16-year-old girl at a party. There had already been an ugly wave of victim blaming in the community via social media and man-on-the-street interviews, but it wasn't until the verdict that mainstream, national media got in on the act.
Reporting from the courtroom, CNN correspondent Poppy Harlow lamented how "incredibly difficult" it was to see these "star football players" and "very good students" have their "promising futures" ruined. Legal expert Paul Callan added that being added to the sex offender registry would "haunt [Richmond and Mays] for the rest of their lives," making no mention of the fact that being sexually assaulted also tends to haunt someone for the rest of their lives. The difference being it's not a choice.
The Associated Press and USA Today both stressed that the victim was drunk at the time of her assault, while ABC News, playing up the fact that the crime was documented in photos and on video, reported that the story was "a cautionary tale for teenagers living in today's digital world." Apparently Mays got the same message: In court, he apologized specifically for taking pictures of the assault he committed, i.e., for creating evidence that led to his conviction. Both Fox News and MSNBC, in a major breach of journalistic protocol, also aired footage of Mays saying the victim's name. It's long been custom that news outlets not reveal the names of sexual assault victims.
It doesn't end with the verdict, though; just last week, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine announced charges against two girls who had made death threats against the victim online. The same week, in an almost direct parallel to the case, Jessica Glenza of The Register-Citizen newspaper of Litchfield, Conn., reported that two 18-year-old football players at Torrington High School have been accused of raping a 13-year-old girl. According to the reporter, the victim has been subjected to a campaign of abuse via social media. "Even if it was all his fault, what was a 13 year old girl doing hanging around 18 year old guys." reads one reproduced Tweet. "You destroyed two people's life" reads another, using much the same language as the CNN coverage.
Back in February, at the University of North Carolina, a student who reported her own rape was charged with a violation of the section of the student honor code prohibiting "disruptive or intimidating behavior that willfully abuses, disparages, or otherwise interferes with another," despite the fact that she didn't even name her attacker in the report.
Earlier, feminist blogger and survivor of sexual assault Zerlina Maxwell told Fox News' Sean Hannity that she thought encouraging women to carry concealed firearms to prevent sexual assault was putting the onus on the wrong party. Rather, she said, "we should be telling men not to rape women and start the conversation there with prevention." After Maxwell's appearance, she received a flurry of racist hate mail, death threats and rape threats. So not only is intoxication worthy of rape, apparently so is questioning the effectiveness of guns as a rape deterrent.
All of this is victim blaming, to be sure, but it's more than that. It's something even deeper and uglier: the complete reversal of victim and perpetrator. It's not that people like Poppy Harlow or these anonymous idiots on Twitter lack sympathy. It's that they reserve theirs for people who have committed a horrible crime, one that is used as a weapon of war, and who, as a direct result of that crime, are being punished. Maxwell was, of course, absolutely right about the need for education. It's no wonder so many men think they can get away with victimizing women when our society and media have spent so much time and energy telling those same people that not only is it the victim's fault, but the perpetrator is the one deserving of our pity. S
Zack Budryk is a freelance writer in Woodbridge.
Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.