Stop calling it a sex scandal

Dear media: Learn the difference between abuse and sex -- otherwise, you're sensationalizing violence and rape

Topics: Media Criticism, Sexual abuse, Jerry Sandusky, Horace Mann, Lackland Air Force Base, CNN, Mark Sanford,

Let me fix this for you, headline writers. When you’re dealing with a story that involves rape or harassment or abuse or molestation or child porn or anything that falls under the rubric of criminal behavior, you should call those things rape and harassment and abuse and molestation and child pornography. You know what you shouldn’t call them? Sexy sexy sex scandals, that’s what.

For example, when you’re covering a story involving charges of “rape, aggravated sexual contact and multiple counts of aggravated sexual assault” at the Lackland Air Force Base, you might want to reconsider framing it, as the Washington Post does, as a “widening sex scandal,” or as the Boston Herald calls it, a “growing sex scandal,” or even, as the Christian Science Monitor says, a garden-variety “sex scandal.” If you happen to say, as the AP does, that the “Air Force says 31 victims so far in sex scandal,” or as already credibility-strained CNN declares, that there are now “31 victims identified in widening Air Force sex scandal,” please note that word “victims” there. It’s the important one.

Similarly, if you’re ABC and you want to talk about priests who’ve abused children, don’t couch it as a “guide to Catholic sex scandals.” If you’re the L.A. Times or the Hollywood Reporter, don’t say that Jerry Sandusky made for a “Penn State sex scandal.” If you’re the Village Voice, don’t say that  the molestation that allegedly went on for years at a New York private school is a “Horace Mann Sex Scandal.” Just don’t.

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A sex scandal is Mark Sanford ditching his state to cavort with his mistress. A sex scandal is Tiger Woods and a waitress. The San Antonio Air Force base story is certainly a complex one, involving charges that range from assault and rape to obstructing justice, all the way down to “having a personal social relationship.” But when the media uses the word “sex” within a story about something where there are alleged victims of assault, it’s a semantic failure on an epic scale. It diminishes crime. It sensationalizes it. It removes the distinction between a normal, consensual act and violence. Sure, you could say that sex is an element of those stories. But you’d be missing the part about force and pathology. It’s like calling armed robbery a “shopping scandal.” It’s lazy and it’s dumb and it’s hurtful to victims. Rape and abuse are not sexy. So stop making it sound like they are.

Mary Elizabeth Williams
Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "Gimme Shelter: My Three Years Searching for the American Dream." Follow her on Twitter: @embeedub.

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