WTF of the Day: How Reporting on Rape Can Actually Perpetuate Rape Culture. 9/8/2016
Published by FEMINIST
We know that reporting on sexual violence can increase awareness of the violence so many of us face. But a recent report
written by Joanna Jolly and released by Harvard’s Shorenstein Center
demonstrates that it’s not just whether media reports on sexual violence
that matters — it’s how.
Jolly examines the Indian English
language news media’s reporting on the December 2012 Delhi rape of Jyoti
Singh Pandey, which sparked protests across India and the world. Her
findings are not only relevent to the Indian context, but give us a
useful framework for analyzing how the American media’s attitudes toward
violence, race, and gender shapes its own reporting on sexual assault.
And we can take this a step further to understand how Western
preconceptions about gender in the Global South shapes American coverage
of sexual assault in India specifically.
First, Jolly reports, English media
reporters paid sustained attention to Jyoti Singh Pandey’s case because,
as a young woman raped while out seeing an English-language film in an
upscale mall, Singh had all the trappings of the paper’s wealthy and
caste-elite readership. In actuality, Singh was a young woman from a
working class family who managed to achieve education. Yet had she not
been perceived by the English media as coming from the same demographic
as their readership, Jolly argues, her story— like countless others—
might have gone unnoticed.
The Indian media was also receptive to
Singh’s case because, as a stranger rape, it fit a narrative with which
they were familiar. As in the United States, most rapes in India are
committed by those known to the victim: Family member, husband, or
friend. Yet also as in the United States, reporting tends to focus on
stranger rapes — those which, according to a journalist Neha Dixit,
whom Jolly quotes, least challenge the patriarchal underpinnings of rape
culture by locating sexual violence “out there” in the street and not
“in here,” in the family and community. What happened to Singh was
horrific and deserved coverage; by fitting into a socially recognizable
script, however, media neglected to do justice to the deep social
factors underlying the brutal assault and countless others like it.
Jolly analyzes several other trends in
the reporting, including media emphasis on the rape’s graphic and
sensational details and the media portrayal of the rape, and rape in
general, as a crime of lust. Both of these tendencies, Jolly argues,
obscure the realities of power, privilege, and hierarchy that underlie
Of course, the dynamics Jolly highlights are far from restricted to the Indian media. Research reveals
similar biases in American reporting on rape — including biases
specific to Western media reports on sexual violence in the Third World.
In the United States too, reporting on rape focuses on the most
sensational of cases, and tends to distance the problem of sexual
assault from the daily, systemic realities of patriarchy, racism, and
Just as focusing on stranger rape allows
us to ignore the pervasiveness of sexual violence within families and
intimate relationships, so too does a focus on sexual violence in
seemingly distant, “underdeveloped” elsewheres allow us to ignore the
reality of sexual violence in the United States. And just as reporting
on sexual violence, in both India and the United States, draws on sexist
assumptions about rape — that it is a crime of lust; that it is
primarily committed by strangers; that it is unconnected from other
kinds of oppression — so too does American reporting on rape in India
draw on centuries of assumptions about gender, race, and otherness.
These assumptions stem from a British colonial regime, and a global
white-supremacist regime, that depended ideologically both on the
feminization of Indian men, and on the portrayal of Indian and other
brown and black men as sexually rapacious threats to both white and
By relying on these stereotypes, we
ignore the global reach of gender violence, and the global
interconnectness of myriad forms of violence under Western-dominated
regimes of economic and military exploitation. Kavita Krishnan, an
Indian communist feminist who was a leading voice in the December 2012
protests, offers this
fantastic analysis not only of the racist scripts that often dominate
Western coverage of sexual violence in India, but of the way global
capitalism and economic inequality couple with misogyny and other forms
of oppression to produce sexual violence.
Both Jolly’s work and the work of Indian
leftists and feminists like Krishnan remind us that when we talk about
violence across diverse contexts, we need to speak with specificity and
without essentialism. They also remind us that media does not simply
have “biases” which mar our otherwise objective vision of reality.
Rather, writers, reporters, editors, and — yes— feminist columnists are
humans immersed in culturally-specific ideologies of gender and power
that shape our perception of reality.
It’s another reminder that when we
analyze language as part of a comprehensive vision of social justice, we
aren’t talking about superficial political correctness: We are speaking
to foundational assumptions about human worth.