In a post a few months ago, I linked to a Samantha Bee clip on sexual assault where she asked why the onus of safety was placed on women, with them being advised to take precautions, such as avoiding being alone in isolated places at night, when it is the behavior of men that is the problem and should change. Women should have the right to be anywhere at any time without fear of being attacked.
This question has come up with how the media should report violent attacks on women. Chris Quinn is the editor of Cleveland.com, the online affiliate of the Plain Dealer newspaper. He sends out a newsletter and recently he described the challenge that this places on news reporting because they cannot duck this issue and have to decide what facts are pertinent when reporting a story. I reproduce most of it here because he describes the problem well and he links to a discussion he had with two female colleagues about this issue who had different views from him.
We published a story April 2 about Christian Burks, who is charged in two rape cases involving women who were attacked after leaving downtown Cleveland bars. In one of the cases, he is accused of abducting a woman off the street and taking her to an East Cleveland hotel to rape her.
We fully reported the story, using the police and court records. Of course, we did not identify the victims. We did, however, include a detail that both victims were intoxicated.
A woman identifying herself as one of the victims wrote to criticize us for using that detail. She said it feeds a notion that intoxication is an excuse to rape people.
She said that as a 22-year-old woman, “I have the right to go out drinking with my friends, and I also have the right to do so without worrying about my safety. Although this is not my reality, it should be. Including that survivors were intoxicated, and highlighting that they were highly intoxicated at the time does not give any leverage to the story.”
Her note set me back on my heels. Our newsroom would never include a detail in a story to excuse a rape or throw blame at a victim for rape, but that is how this woman saw our reporting.
I wrote back to explain that we included the detail as a caution for anyone else who might be going downtown for entertainment. I said that we think people should know of the dangers that exist in Cleveland and that predators are afoot who might be seeking out inebriated people to become their victims.
I also noted that the intoxication of rape victims has been big news lately because of an outrageous case Minnesota where a rape conviction was thrown out because the victim was intoxicated.
The woman responded with another note acknowledging the importance of letting people know of the dangers downtown, but she stood her ground on mentioning the rape victims were intoxicated.
“The crime that was committed is a terrible, traumatizing crime. I don’t feel that intoxication needs to be included in it to highlight or stress the severity of this situation. Women were kidnapped and raped. That is the story… If you are trying to keep others safe, I do feel that including the place it happened is very important. But the fact that the survivors were intoxicated doesn’t change that it was wrong and people need to be aware of their surroundings.”
Her notes have sparked some discussion among our news staff. Columnist Leila Atassi, politics editor Jane Kahoun and I talked about it Monday on our podcast, This Week in the CLE on Monday. (it’s at minute 18:40 in the episode) Leila said she agrees with the woman’s position. Jane said she struggles with the issue. She noted that someone intoxicated is unable to consent, which is an important detail in a rape case.
I want to do the right thing here. I keep thinking that any 22-year-old woman — or anyone else — who might consider going downtown would want to know as much as possible about the dangers. And if intoxication makes you more of a target in the eyes of a sick predator, then isn’t that a detail people would want to know?
What if a downtown predator was attacking only women who dyed their hair pink? Or only women who wore a certain style of clothing. Wouldn’t people want to know that before heading into town?
But I’m not 22, and I’m not a woman. I know that my perspective here is lacking. Maybe the point is made simply by reporting that women were attacked leaving a downtown bar, without mentioning intoxication. Maybe the value to the community of knowing that detail is less than the value to the victim of not having to read it, not having to wonder if people are blaming her because she overdid the alcohol.
Quinn put the question out to readers to get their feedback and got a huge response and summarized the results. He said the gender difference was striking.
A common theme in many of the responses, from women and men, was about the ridiculousness of the notion that reporting the detail served as a warning to others. They said women are well aware, from a young age, of the dangers that lurk for them when they go out. Including the intoxication detail does nothing to raise awareness, and people said any notion that it does is silly.
Another common theme came from those on the side of omitting the intoxication detail: They said they were persuaded by the victim’s argument, which I quoted in the column. A bunch said, “I agree with her.” For them, she was persuasive.
What was far and away the most striking element of the responses, however, was that chasm separating men and women. And what that told me is this is a question about empathy.
Or it should be.
Before I get to the decision here on how we’ll proceed, here’s how the responses broke down.
Of the responses that stated a position, and nearly all of them did, 55 percent said we should not include whether a rape victim was intoxicated in our reporting.
That does not begin to tell the story, though.
Of the 82 responses that clearly were from men, 61 percent said we should include the detail.
Of the 109 responses that clearly were from women, 69 percent said we should not.
That’s right. A chasm. Nearly two thirds of the men said include it, while well over two thirds of the women said no way.
He said that based on the feedback, he has decided that the detail of intoxication of a rape victim does not belong in their news stories, and that will be omitted henceforth.
It is a natural instinct to warn others, especially friends and family, of potential dangers so that they do not fall victim to crime or other dangers. Safety authorities routinely give advice to people about how to minimize the risk of being a victim of crime. Is such advice restricting the freedom of people to behave as they wish and implicitly shifting at least part of the blame onto the victim if they do not follow all the advice? The danger is that there is a very thin line that separates the giving of this advice from blaming them if they should experience any harm because they did not do everything that was recommended. Doing so would be, of course, completely wrong.
Analogies are never perfect but here is one that came to my mind about this issue, something that is far less traumatic to think about than rape. If someone steals my car, I would be outraged if the police consider it to be my fault. But what if my make of car is known to be attractive to thieves and I parked it at night in a high crime isolated area? Then does it become at least partly my fault that my car was stolen? I would say no. The thief is still entirely at fault because people should have the right to expect their ownership of property to be respected. And respect for the bodies of others is far more important than respect for property.
In a different context, I wrote about my own discomfort when I used to run the orientation program for new faculty at my university. I felt obliged to warn new faculty who were young and/or female and/or people of color that they faced challenges to gaining the respect of their students and even colleagues than those who did not fit into any of those categories did not have to deal with. I gave suggestions as to how to mitigate those factors. I also informed them that I was aware that it was unfair that they had to shoulder the burden for countering the backward attitudes of others.
In the light of the feedback that Quinn got, I am wondering whether what I did by warning the new faculty was wrong,. The difference is that many new faculty are unfamiliar with the pitfalls that confront them in academia and could get blindsided. I felt that I had an obligation to warn them so that they could make an informed decision about what actions they chose to take.