(Reuters/Brendan McDermid)

Bill O'Reilly at his most odious: Everything Fox News gets horribly wrong about rape culture and sexual assault

"Being kidnapped by a pedophile: it’s basically like summer camp that never ends, if you ask Bill O’Reilly"


Kate Harding
October 25, 2015 8:00PM (UTC)
Excerpted from "Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture and What We Can Do About It"

In her 1992 book "Virgins and Vamps: How the Press Covers Sex Crimes," Helen Benedict writes of “eight factors that lead the public, and the press, to blame the victim for a rape and to push her into the role of ‘vamp.’” Not surprisingly, they dovetail with the basic rape myths.

The eight factors are:

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  1. The victim knowing the assailant.
  2. The lack of a weapon.
  3. The victim and perpetrator being of the same race.
  4. The victim and perpetrator being of the same class.
  5. The victim and perpetrator being of the same ethnic background.
  6. The victim being young.
  7. The victim being perceived as pretty.
  8. The victim “in any way deviat[ing] from the traditional female sex role of being at home with family and children.”

Regarding items 3, 4, and 5, Benedict explains what you probably already guessed: the more privileged the victim, and the less privileged the assailant, the more likely it is that the media will take an accusation of rape seriously. If you must be raped, you should try to be an upper-class white woman attacked by a poor person of color, because that’s your best chance of being perceived as credible.

Says Benedict, “If prejudices to do with ethnicity or nationality can be called in to slur the assailant, the victim will benefit.” Similarly, the less sexualized you are, the more likely you are to be believed, so you should try to be an older woman who’s never been considered much of a looker.

"Virgin or Vamp" is old enough that in writing about the Central Park Five case, Benedict operates on the assumption that the right men were convicted. Nevertheless, after reading a great deal of more recent reporting on sexual assault and rape charges, I can confirm that not too much has changed in the last twenty-three years.

If the most blameworthy sexual violence victim by current Western standards is, say, an attractive, poor, twenty-something trans woman of color, employed as a sex worker and raped by a police officer, then what would a blameless victim look like? Perhaps a freckle-faced, eleven-year-old California girl abducted by strangers on her way to school? Or a young white boy the same age, taken while riding his bicycle in rural Missouri? If kids like that were held and repeatedly raped by violent criminals for years on end, we couldn’t possibly blame them, could we?

Have I taught you nothing? Of course we could!

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Shawn Hornbeck, the young boy, spent four and a half years living in a one-bedroom apartment with his rapist and captor; he was rescued in 2007 as a result of the search for a younger boy the criminal had recently taken. And when Jaycee Lee Dugard, the California fifth grader, was found in 2009, she’d been a prisoner of convicted sex offender Phillip Garrido and his wife, Nancy, for eighteen years and had two children by Garrido.

The first—and second, third, fourth, and gazillionth—question each one of them was asked in subsequent interviews was, “Why didn’t you try to escape?”

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In each case, the abused child had some contact with other people, some theoretical opportunity to get away, and that was enough to set folks a-judgin’. Everything we know about Stockholm Syndrome, brainwashing, and abuse—to wit, that a controlling, manipulative person can convince someone else to feel completely, helplessly dependent on them—didn’t curb some people’s need to blame the victim.

Fox News’s reliably odious Bill O’Reilly, for instance, didn’t “buy the Stockholm Syndrome thing” with regard to Shawn Hornbeck and suggested on his show, The O’Reilly Factor, that the boy didn’t try to escape because “there was an element here that this kid liked about this circumstances.”

Go ahead and take a second to let that sink in.

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O’Reilly’s logic, if you can call it that, dictates that spending four and a half years in a one-bedroom apartment with a man who regularly rapes you, never seeing your family or friends, and fearing for your life might not be such a bad deal for a kid because, hey, no homework!

“The situation here for this kid looks to me to be a lot more fun than what he had under his old parents,” he told Fox legal expert Greta van Susteren. (His “old parents”! As if the man who abducted him and at least one other boy was just Hornbeck’s new daddy.) “He didn’t have to go to school. He could run around and do whatever he wanted.”

Being kidnapped by a pedophile: it’s basically like summer camp that never ends, if you ask Bill O’Reilly.

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The following day, after reader mail made it clear that O’Reilly had gone over the top even for a champion victim blamer like himself, he offered this clarification:

I actually hope I’m wrong about Shawn Hornbeck. I hope he did not make a conscious decision to accept his captivity because Devlin made things easy for him. No school, play all day long.

(Play. All. Day. Long. You cannot make this shit up.)

But to just chalk this up to brainwashing and walk away is turning away from the true danger of child molesters and abductors. All American children must be taught survival skills, must be prepared to face crisis situations. That is the lesson of the Shawn Hornbeck story.

You know, I actually hope I’m wrong about Bill O’Reilly. I mean, I have no training in psychology, so I’m not qualified to diagnose anyone with, like, a personality disorder. I hope he does have an ounce of conscience, a soupçon of human empathy deep inside him, a scintilla of warm blood hidden in some wee capillary.

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But to just chalk this up to gross attention-mongering and walk away is to turn away from the true danger of rape culture. All American children must be taught that if someone hurts them, it is not their fault; must be prepared to understand as adults that criminals, not victims, are the ones responsible for their crimes. That is the lesson of the Bill O’Reilly story.

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In all seriousness, we should listen to Elizabeth Smart on this subject. Smart, who was abducted from her home at age fourteen and held for nine months before being rescued, told NBC News in a 2013 interview, “It is wrong for any person to ever judge someone in any situation saying, ‘Well, why didn’t you try to run? Why didn’t you scream? Why didn’t you try to do something?’ That is so wrong and, frankly, offensive to even ask that question.”

Smart, a religious virgin from a stable, two-parent family when she was taken, is the kind of victim the media can usually muster a great deal of sympathy for, but even she is asked “frequently” why she didn’t take the first opportunity to demand help. As with Dugard and Hornbeck, the element of the story that makes it so horrific—sustained captivity—is also the one that makes some people question whether these kidnapped children brought at least part of their ordeals upon themselves.

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Journalists who harp on this point may believe they’re only asking what’s on everyone’s mind, but in fact, they’re keeping an absurd, offensive question at the foreground of a story that should be about a child who’s been the victim of multiple terrible crimes. Demanding that young people kidnapped as children and held captive for months or years justify their inability to escape is the apex of victim blaming, and it’s grotesque.

I could give you examples from Fox News all day long, but I’ll limit myself to one more.

In September 2014, Forbes.com columnist Bill Frezza was fired after writing a doozy of a victim-blaming article, “Drunk Female Guests Are the Gravest Threat to Fraternities.” It was basically just what you’d expect from the title—an aging frat bro railing against “a world that no longer believes in personal responsibility” and “new standards being promulgated on campus,” wherein students are expected not to rape each other, even while drunk.

“In our age of sexual equality,” wrote Frezza, “why drunk female students are almost never characterized as irresponsible jerks is a question I leave to the feminists.”

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Ooh, ooh, I can answer that one! But first, let’s hear what the panelists on Fox News’s "Outnumbered," a show that pits one hapless man against four women, had to say.

“Where’s the personal responsibility for both sides?” asks Andrea Tantaros. “Really! If we say personal responsibility for women, the feminists go berserk!” Adopting a mocking tone, she continues, “They’re like, ‘No, we should be able to wear whatever we want, and drink as much as we want, and pass out in the streets.’”

Well, yes, actually, we should be able to do all that. Passing out in the street is never the ideal outcome of a night on the town, and I hope anyone doing that will get a stern but loving talking-to from people who care about their well-being. But there is no Bad Personal Choices threshold past which someone deserves to be raped, let alone one past which rape is not a criminal act. In your haste to denigrate women who carry themselves like some kind of adults, choosing their own clothing and deciding how much to drink without supervision, please try not to forget that.

Cohost Kirsten Powers then takes the baton:

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It makes the drunk girl completely clean no matter what happens—and again, we have to say it because some cuckoo person is going to start blogging how we are supporting women getting raped, which we do not support. And she is not guilty or any of those things, but the point is that the drunk woman is—she’s just not held accountable for anything. The drunk guy, however, is supposed to make all these amazingly perfect decisions, and not make any mistakes.

No one steps in to remind these women that we are talking about holding fraternity members accountable for raping people, not for drinking too much and acting like dummies. Which brings us back to Frezza’s question, echoed by Tantaros: Where’s the personal responsibility? Why aren’t female students who get wasted characterized as irresponsible jerks?

Answer: They are! By every feminist I know! (At least, the women who act like irresponsible jerks are. Some people just get drunk quietly and listen to sad music or write fan fiction; I have no beef with them.)

When it came out that the newly crowned Miss America 2015 had been kicked out of her sorority for abusive hazing practices, I read about it first on feminist blogs. When it felt as if the whole world was discussing Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson, and the NFL’s domestic violence program at the start of the 2014 football season, Erin Gloria Ryan at Jezebel.com was one of the loudest voices asking why women’s soccer champ Hope Solo, accused of drunkenly attacking her seventeen-year-old nephew, didn’t receive the same level of scrutiny. (Granted, other feminist writers called that a false equivalency, but contrary to popular opinion, disagreement is allowed within feminism.)

Here is my official position as a feminist: If you get drunk and treat people shabbily, you’re an irresponsible jerk. If you get drunk and commit crimes, you’re an irresponsible jerk and a criminal. These things are true irrespective of gender.

The reason feminists “go berserk” when people like Frezza, Tantaros, and Powers talk about young women’s “personal responsibility” vis-à-vis frat parties and rape is simple: rape is a crime. No one, of any gender, is legally allowed to rape someone else while drunk—just as no one’s allowed to drive a car, beat someone up, steal money, destroy property, or commit fraud while drunk. It is everyone’s responsibility to remain on the side of not committing crimes while drinking. Women and men are held to exactly the same standard, in that respect.

But no, victims are not typically held to the same standard as criminals. Our legal system does not (technically) require victims to make only impeccable life decisions or else forfeit their right to protection under the law. If a frat boy gets plastered, wanders into the street, and gets hit by a drunk driver, the driver is the criminal. If a businessman overindulges at happy hour and insults an equally loaded person who decides to punch said businessman in the face, the punch thrower is the criminal. If two people drink the exact same amount of alcohol and do the exact same amount of the exact same drug, and then one murders the other, the killer is the criminal, and the dead person is the victim. See how this works?

Likewise, if two people get equally fucked up, and then one rapes the other, the rapist is the criminal. Even if the person who got raped was flirting, even if she went into a bedroom with the rapist, even if her friends told her she should probably go to bed an hour before it happened, and she told them to piss off and ordered shots. The person who got raped is the victim. Period.

This principle is neither unfair nor gendered; it’s common fucking sense, and we understand that when it comes to any crime other than rape. But rape myths, combined with a feigned objectivity New York University media scholar Jay Rosen calls “the View from Nowhere,” create a media atmosphere in which every remark about rape must be “balanced” by its most extreme possible counterpart. Fox News may have “trolling liberals” in its mission statement, but mainstream and even expressly leftwing outlets sometimes seem afraid that if they take any obvious position on rape—including “it’s bad”—without airing a counterargument, they’ll be accused of an ethical lapse.

In a post at his blog PressThink, Rosen writes about the difference between the View from Nowhere and a more functional definition of “objectivity”:

If objectivity means trying to ground truth claims in verifiable facts, I am definitely for that. If it means there’s a “hard” reality out there that exists beyond any of our descriptions of it, sign me up. If objectivity is the requirement to acknowledge what is, regardless of whether we want it to be that way, then I want journalists who can be objective in that sense. Don’t you?

Yes, absolutely!

But the View from Nowhere, which tries “to secure a kind of universal legitimacy” by pretending there’s no pesky human being filtering the objective facts, is fatally flawed. It’s what makes reporters go to two polarized sources for opinions, instead of applying their own reason and judgment to determine where the truth most likely lies. In reporting on rape cases, it’s what inclines journalists to treat claims by victims and alleged criminals with equal skepticism, affecting a detached, all-seeing stance, which in turn fuels the myth that a large number of rape reports are likely false. It’s what makes the Andrea Tantaroses of the world say things like, “Where’s the personal responsibility for both sides?” when the two sides in question are rapist and victim.

In a 2007 Cosmopolitan article, “A New Kind of Date Rape,” author Laura Sessions Stepp coined the term “gray rape” to describe “sex that falls somewhere between consent and denial.” Despite the headline, there’s nothing new about her subject: in 1994, Katie Roiphe published The Morning After: Fear, Sex, and Feminism, an entire book arguing that people throw around the term “rape” too casually, especially to describe regrettable but consensual drunken hookups. That book, in turn, was a reaction to the work of feminists looking to name an experience that was far from new, but rarely discussed; Robin Warshaw’s contemporary classic, I Never Called It Rape, had sparked mainstream awareness of “date rape” only six years earlier.

Stepp sees no need to acknowledge that every example she uses to bolster her argument is a clear case of nonconsent. “Alicia” told her date “flat-out that she didn’t want to proceed to sex” and told him to stop before he “ignored her and entered her anyway.” “Laura” was in college when she got drunk and made out with a guy who then stripped off her pants and entered her, despite the fact that she said no. A twenty-year-old Naval Academy student woke up to a football player having sex with her. Remind me where the “gray” is here?

But because the women in question felt guilt, confusion, and self-doubt—as a great many victims do—Stepp freely categorizes their experiences as something other than violent crimes. And she doesn’t stop at reducing these violations to lesser charges; she invents a quasi-legal term that incorporates the worst of both worlds—“rape” because it is, and “gray” because few will believe it’s that simple. The “gray” in “gray rape” is an imaginary fog of questions about what consent means and whether you really need it every time.

Repackaging rape victims’ tendency toward self-recrimination as a mitigating—or at least muddying—factor simultaneously contributes to and reflects a culture in which women are afraid no one will believe them if they report a rape. Stepp (and umpteen commentators since) have tried to blame “hookup culture,” binge drinking, the decline of religious values, popular music, teenage hormones, poor communication, and bad parenting for sexual violence. In other words, they’ve put the onus for rape on anything except rapists.

Believers in “gray rape” encourage victims of all genders, but especially young women, to consider what they might have done to provoke their attackers and whether there’s any possibility that those nice people just didn’t realize what they were doing could be characterized as a crime. They conflate being sexually inexperienced or awkward with being unable to tell the difference between consent and nonconsent, calling every report of rape into question and handily obscuring the motives of people for whom nonconsent is the whole point.

Excerpted from "Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture and What We Can Do About It" by Kate Harding. Published by DaCapo Books. Copyright 2015 by Kate Harding. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.


Kate Harding

Kate Harding is the author of Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture--and What We Can Do About It, available from Da Capo Press in August 2015. Previously, she collaborated with Anna Holmes, Amanda Hess, and a cast of thousands on The Book of Jezebel, and with Marianne Kirby on Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere. You might also remember her as the founding editor of Shapely Prose (2007-2010). Kate's essays have appeared in the anthologies Madonna & Me, Yes Means Yes, Feed Me, and Airmail: Women of Letters. She holds an M.F.A. in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a B.A. in English from University of Toronto, and is currently at work on a Ph.D. in creative writing from Bath Spa University

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Andrea Tantaros Bill O'reilly Books Editor's Picks Fox News Kate Harding Rape Culture Sexual Assault

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