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Breaking news: Sexual assault

The mainstream media’s endorsement of rape culture

Trigger warning: this article contains discussions of rape and sexual assault.

Rape culture is still a prevalent side effect of our patriarchal society, affecting every single one of us. So why doesn’t it cease to exist, even as awareness of it continuously rises? One facet of the problem lies with the media. Mainstream media – often sensationalist – chooses to expose news that will attract the immediate attention of its consumers. This kind of exploitive yellow journalism tends to focus on big cases like the Steubenville incident. Many things were wrong with the coverage of this particular case, including the trend of illustrating situations with very low to no conviction time given to the rapists. Other examples are the Daisy Coleman case in Maryville, which is recently being re-investigated, the Florida State case against Jameis Winston, and even the accusation of rape against three McGill football players that came up this past November in the media.

The McGill case illustrates the dilemma that comes with the depiction of sexual assault in the media. The case went by mostly unnoticed, with the accused perpetrators staying on the football team until a Montreal Gazette article entitled “McGill football players face sex assault charges increasing public awareness” was published two years after the assault itself. The McGill community responded with harsh criticism of the University, that claimed not to have been aware of the case before May of the past year, even though the Gazette claims to have contacted them in September 2011. The article led to a broad understanding in the community that the University’s inactiveness in dealing with the issue created space for rape culture. The community responded by collectively suggesting and achieving improvements in the way McGill treats rape culture, as seen in Ollivier Dyens email to the McGill community shortly after the article was published. Next to acknowledging that McGill’s “over-all response did not meet [the] community’s expectations,” Dyens stated that the University is going to make some progress, like the hiring of a full-time coordinator, a forum on consent in terms of sexuality in January, and an annual forum on safe-space. This shows that media can be useful and is necessary as a proclamation against injustice.

The problem is that media is commercialized as journalists are also dependent on a living. The Gazette article did achieve a certain amount of social justice, but at the same time it put attention on yet another case in which neither the McGill administration, nor the coaches of the Redmen football team treated rape as a serious crime. The alleged sexual offenders were able to just go on with their lives for almost two years, while the survivor dropped out of university and left the province

Media uses rape culture for its own profit. Sex sells and assault is a punchline.

The sensationalist coverage of cases like these is disproportionate to the almost non-existent coverage on the cases of rapists that, if convicted at all, were sentenced to more than the average two years in jail – even though the maximum penalty could be 14 years. The Globe and Mail states that police are seeking lesser charges in cases of sexual assault because they are easier to prove than higher level assault charges and more likely to result in a conviction. Unfortunately, the charges are then lower than they should be in many cases.

More important for the media, however, is the impression that non-controversial cases are of less interest, as they do not pose the same attraction to audiences. As a repercussion, rape can generally be conceived as a less severe crime and increase the incentive of possible perpetrators to act on their intent. Stricter law enforcement, and the awareness of such, could lead potential perpetrators to not take action confronted with the apparent consequences. This would however not be an explanation for the non-ceasing existence of rape.

One reason for sexual assault is power, and the power of one’s own dominance over another human being. All oppression is a direct result of a hierarchical construct of human worth. This past November, Nikki Mosello and five other students in the class “Contemporary Issues in Education” organized a workshop, open to the public, as part of their class. During the workshop, which consisted of education and discussion on rape culture, Mosello stated, “We live in a culture of hypermasculinity, where the man has to be dominating and powerful.” The cultural notion of hypermasculinity, paired with misogyny, prevails in media, advertisements, and entertainment that we are confronted with every day.

“We are surrounded by sexual imagery, but we don’t talk about it.”

Lisa Trimble, lecturer within the McGill Education faculty, who was teaching the class last semester, stated, “I think it is very problematic that we are surrounded by [sexual imagery], but we don’t talk about it. If we could [have an] open, candid discussion about sex, maybe we wouldn’t perpetuate rape culture, maybe we wouldn’t perceive it as a game, and sex wouldn’t be seen as a commodity.” In our society, healthy sexuality and sex-positivity are viewed as taboo, with even basic sexual education in schools being controversial. The missing open discourse can lead to people associating shame, violence, and power with sex, instead of love, intimacy, and joy, because that’s what we are brought up to do, and what popular culture and media try to teach us.

People often don’t believe in the culpabilty of a perpetrator, especially when the latter is a well respected member of society. Candace Steinhart, co-organizer of the workshop, said, “The myth is that sexual perpetrators are crazy perverts. In reality, they are often people we know in a community who have done something wrong. By vilifying rapists, we separate them from mainstream society, taking away any of their human qualities.” This contributes to the maintenance of rape culture by giving the potential offender the impression that – based on the privilege or their social status – they can get away with it. Media repeatedly reinforces this assumption. CNN’s Poppy Harlow for example made the heavily disputed statement on the Steubenville case that it was “incredibly difficult, even for an outsider like me, to watch what happened as these two young men that had such promising futures, star football players, very good students, literally watched as they believed their lives fell apart.”

Media uses rape culture for its own profit. Sex sells and assault is a punchline. Sexist TV shows and advertisements are not the only problem though. Media reinforces the notion that rape culture is not serious by their specific choice of stories that show cases in which the perpetrators got away easy. “Even though rape is the perpetrators’ fault, as bystanders we have the responsibility to reduce rape culture,” asserted Madeleine Hicks, one of the co-organizers, during the workshop. Media could help in preventing rape culture by getting rid of the obvious sexism it displays and by putting more focus on cases that were treated with the necessary rigour. But as of now, mainstream media is not only a bystander, but also a precursor, of rape culture.