BUZZARDS BAY, Mass. — The bad news just keeps coming: the gang rape of a medical student in India resulting in her death; the rape and murder of a 9-year-old girl in Pakistan; a Swiss tourist gang-raped, again in India.
The latest headline-grabbing case in the United States involves the prolonged and public assault on a 16-year-old girl by two high-school football stars in Steubenville, Ohio. The pair was found guilty. One was sentenced to a minimum of one year in a juvenile detention center; the other to two years.
The Ohio case has caused outrage on many levels; but it also raises important questions of media reporting on rape.
Does the publicity surrounding such an incident make it less likely that similar crimes will occur in the future? Or, conversely, does it re-victimize someone who has already undergone significant trauma, and further discourage the reporting of sex crimes?
And, last but not least, what does the Steubenville case say about sexual violence in the United States as opposed to the rest of the world?
Rape clearly continues to be a major global problem. But the uncomfortable truth is that the United States is one of the worst offenders in this regard, at least according to available statistics.
According to the United Nations when it comes to rape, the United States tops the charts by a significant margin.
The numbers, of course, do not tell the whole story. Rape is one of the most underreported and under-prosecuted of all crimes. According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, 97 percent of rapists never spend a day in jail.
According to a US government study, 1 in 5 women in the United States will be raped in her lifetime.
Within the US military, the figures are even more dire: 1 in 3 women can expect some form of sexual assault in the course of her military career. The crimes are rarely reported, and those who do file a case can face reprisals.
But even in the face of such uncompromising and damning statistics, the US media is often guilty of a double standard in reporting such crimes, say experts. What is seen as a serious problem in other countries is treated as more of an exception in our own.
The Steubenville, Ohio, case has brought this into sharp focus. Most of the attention, and much of the sympathy, has focused on the perpetrators of the assault, Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond.
“It’s been all about the boys,” said Gail Dines, professor of sociology and women’s studies at Wheelock College in Boston, Mass. “There has been very little empathy for the girl.”
The facts of the case are not in doubt: The two high-school football players repeatedly assaulted a girl who was so intoxicated she had long since passed out. One reason the pair did not bother to deny the charges is that their actions were caught and broadcast on social media. Videos, photos and tweets amply documented the attack and made the victim an object of ridicule and scorn.
CNN provoked a popular backlash with its reporting of the verdict.
The two young men could be incarcerated until their 21st birthday. This, according to CNN reporters Poppy Harlow and Candy Crowley, was tragic, given the “promising futures” of these two “very good students.”
The bulk of their reporting focused on the long-term effect on the young men of being labeled sex offenders.
This, according to Dines, is typical of coverage by the US media in such cases.
“There is a real reluctance to take on issues of misogyny and violence against women in our own country,” she told GlobalPost.
This reluctance melts away when the violence occurs outside the borders of the “civilized” world, however.
“People in the West prefer to think that these problems are more prevalent with the ‘savages’ out there,” she said. “The truth is, rape and other issues of violence happen at exactly the same rate in this country as elsewhere.”
The well-publicized case of the medical student in Delhi, who was gang-raped on a bus and who later died of her injuries, gave rise to a rash of stories on the problem of violence against women in India. This was seen as something endemic to the Indian subcontinent, a problem that had to be addressed “out there.”
Time magazine, in its latest issue, ran a story highlighting the “ongoing problem”:
“Widespread hopes that the outrage over last year’s infamous gang rape would spark lasting change in India receded further still this weekend, as the attack of a Swiss tourist in central India made headlines around the world,” began the article.
The coverage of the rapes has sparked widespread outrage in India, and demands for change. This is something that has yet to happen in Steubenville, where the victim — not the perpetrators — is now receiving death threats.
This is indicative of a wider problem here at home, explained Dines.
“Rape in the United States is seen as some sort of hiccup, not as something integral to the culture,” she said.
The dichotomy in reporting is widespread, and covers many issues in numerous countries.
Afghanistan is certainly one of the worst places for violence against women, despite more than a decade of input and programs from the international community. Rape victims can be imprisoned for sexual misconduct; girls as young as 9 can be forced into marriage.
When Afghan President Hamid Karzai signed a law in 2009 stating that a woman has no right to refuse a husband’s sexual advances, headlines around the world screamed “Karzai legalizes rape.”
All of this is a world away from our own comfortable existence.
Or is it?
In the United States, the concept of marital rape did not exist until the late 1970s, and it was not until 1993 that rape within marriage was recognized as a crime in all 50 states. Even now, it is extremely rare that a man is prosecuted for raping his wife. There also exist significant exceptions — a husband cannot be prosecuted for rape if his wife is unconscious or otherwise impaired at the time that sexual congress takes place.
In Ireland, up until 1996, girls and women could be committed to the Catholic convent-run “Magdalene Laundries” for “crimes” including unwed pregnancy, even if the pregnancy resulted from rape. They reportedly worked without pay, could not leave, were often abused, and, according to survivors' testimonies, their babies were taken away without their consent to be put in orphanages. Some women were left in the laundries — billed as shelters for homeless women — for decades.
Ireland’s prime minister issued an apology to the Magdalene victims — last month. The survivors promptly rejected the gesture, demanding something more substantive.
Rapped over rape speech
Rape has become an explosive political issue in the United States, particularly during last year’s bitter election campaign.
Republicans made a series of gaffes on rape issues, mostly having to do with attempts to restrict access to abortion, even in cases of rape or incest.
First Todd Akin, a Republican from Missouri who was challenging the incumbent, Claire McCaskill, for the Senate, told an interviewer that women rarely get pregnant after rape, because “if it’s legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”
In addition to the remark’s obvious medical absurdity, the use of the term “legitimate rape” provoked anger among women’s groups, since it implied that many so-called rapes were actually not rape at all.
Then Richard Mourdock, a Tea Party-backed candidate running for the Senate from Indiana, publicly expressed the opinion that rape was all part of God’s plan.
“I think even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen," Mourdock said during a debate with his Democratic and Libertarian rivals.
Paul Ryan — who ran for vice president on the losing ticket but won re-election to Congress last November — also got into the fray, referring to rape “a method of conception.”
And, of course, there was Wisconsin State Rep. Roger Rivard who offered this opinion to a local newspaper about a sexual assault case: “Some girls rape easy.”
All of the candidates except for Ryan lost their elections, which may be the only good news.
Still, despite the recent political blunders and news headlines, some may still jump to the conclusion that when it comes to sex crimes, the United States and other “civilized” nations are somehow less affected.
“The key here is that we somehow feel that we can expect things like [rape] in other countries, while in our own it is an accident,” said Dines, who is originally from the United Kingdom. “But it is no mystery; we know why men rape. It is woven into the patriarchy, in the United States just as in any other country.”