A difficult question on safety

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.


  1. Bruce says

    I think Mano is right to note that a key difference seems to be whether a fact is newsworthy or is obvious. A dog biting a man is not news, except maybe to kids five years old. Sic year olds may feel insulted that they are being treated as a little kid by warning them again that dogs bite.
    In contrast, pet owners would want to be told if a man has come to the park with a history of biting dogs without provocation.
    So advice to new faculty could go either way, and likely depends on how it relates to the (new) situation of joining a faculty, rather than merely to the (old) situation of being a minority or female, which presumably they already knew. But as a new faculty member, I would have appreciated tips on pitfalls in dealing with such issues, even though being a WASP-culture male.

  2. dean56 says

    “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.”

    Yes, because that’s how that sort of information is weaponized to deflect blame from the rapist to the woman. It isn’t just how she saw it, it’s how many men see it, and the feedback from the non-scientific survey indicates that.

    I would assume the editor didn’t report on how the victim was dressed (quite correctly). Reporting that she was drunk is no more relevant.

    “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.”

    It’s been a good long time since I finished grad school but I, and the women in our program, routinely saw the “backward attitudes” (far too polite a term) of some of the faculty. I’m guessing the new faculty you addressed had seen similar things in their graduate programs and were already aware of what the might encounter. Perhaps the warnings weren’t needed?

  3. eliza422 says

    I find it extremely frustrating when I discuss anything relating to security with men. A good example is my manager. I mentioned one day I don’t like to stay late at the office because our office is located in a heavy industrial area, at an isolated end of a road, but next to a major highway which is quite loud. If anyone came for me there would literally be no one to hear or see anything.
    He just looked flummoxed as to why I would say that. He was like, “I don’t mind staying late.” ARGH! And he as a wife and 2 daughters who I’m sure have expressed the same types of concerns.
    And yet if something did happen I’m sure I would face blame -- why was she there late, why didn’t she park in a better place, wasn’t she aware of her surroundings, etc etc.

  4. dean56 says


    “… were already aware of what the might encounter.”

    clearly should be

    “… were already aware of what they might encounter.”

  5. Just an Organic Regular Expression says

    In your orientation talks, were you able to include information on formal channels for reporting harassment and discrimination? Were you able to give examples of successful whistle-blowing? If so, that would justify being explicit about the threats. “This has happened, we hope it won’t again but if it does, this is how and where to report it.”

    If all you could say was, “This kind of thing could happen, it sometimes has, let’s brainstorm how you might respond informally…” that would certainly be a depressing message and very negative about Case.

  6. garnetstar says

    I think it is outrageous to report that the victims were intoxicated. It is completely irrelevant to the crime. And, does it imply that the rapist knew they were intoxicated, rather than just leaving a bar, and so picked on them? The man who abducted a woman off the street somehow determined first that she was intoxicated? He might well have abducted her even if she were not.

    Doesn’t reporting that “the victim was intoxicated” risk giving a false sense of security to other women that, if they’re are *not* intoxicated, rapists won’t attack them? Completely unproven. That if women play by the rules and don’t drink and wear only “modest” clothing and behave “like a lady”, they are safe from such assaults? Which is well proven to be completely untrue. That damage of instructing women not to do such things outweighs any possible good that may come from “warning” women to police their own behavior.

    The “what if rapists only attacked women with pink hair” analogy is false. Pink hair isn’t something that is used to excuse the criminal’s actions: it is something voluntary, comparatively trivial, and and easily changed or concealed. But it is also liable to give the false sense of security that, without pink hair, a woman is safe from attack. She is not.

    Mano, I think that you were quite right to warn incoming personnel that the workplace would present them with difficulties. That this is acknowledged as fact prevents them from thinking that they are somehow individually to blame when they’re treated with bias. It’s good to suggest ways they can mitigate that, and to apologize for them having that burden.

    However, it should always be stressed, when giving this advice, that the institution will *vigorously* take action to prevent or stop such behavior. That the burden of bearing it is not just on the personnel, but on the institution to take action to prevent it, stop it, and not tolerate it. To take positive action themselves, and not just to leave it up to individuals to make all the effort.

  7. steve oberski says

    I’m now inclined to agree with the female respondents, I’m not entirely sure how I would have responded prior to reading this article, but it did make me feel quite uncomfortable so I suspect I previously may have put the onus on women to avoid potentially dangerous situations.

    What I did find very instructive and valuable was the discussion the editor of Cleveland.com had with two female colleagues about this issue and the reader feedback, it certainly made me examine my biases and preconceptions about this issue.

  8. garnetstar says

    My department’s “diversity initiatives” consist wholly of “supporting” personnel subjected to bias, meaning helping *them* learn to deal personally with the bad effects on their work and their psyches. There is not one single attempt by the committee to *prevent* biased treatment, or lessen the occasions on which people are treated with bias by the rest of the department.

    Doomed to failure and completely enabling biased behavior in the department, so that it will never end.

  9. mnb0 says

    “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?”
    Compare entering a war zone (back in 1989 I already lived in Paramaribo, Suriname -- the country was in the final, relatively quiet part of a civil war). As I was young, somewhat careless and in love I took some risks I probably wouldn’t take now. I don’t see how that shifts even the smallest part of the blame from anyone who’d shoot me.

    “there is a very thin line that separates the giving of this advice from blaming them”
    For me it’s a big fat line. Those who cross it are ethically challenged imo.
    I never had any problem with this. Advice to be careful serves the interest of the potential victim. Prosecuting rapists, thieves, murderers etc. serves the interest of the community. Sure that’s often unfair, but what’s new? All the more reason to do something about it.

    As for reporting, I never read such news, except for the headlines now and then, and even less watch or listen to it. So it doesn’t matter to me how detailed the reports are. The interests of the victims and their loved ones hardly ever are served by the media. I know this from experience.

  10. says

    The mention of alcohol, clothing, location, time and other factors always come with the potential of shifting blame. If the woman isn’t a “perfect victim” the majority of readers will wrongly assume “it wasn’t rape”.

    And this discussion doesn’t even address the use of passive language. It doesn’t say the title of the item, but it almost certainly said “woman was raped”. Not “man rapes woman”, but “woman was raped”, as if no man were involved or worse inferring that she did it to herself, similar to “what was she wearing?”. (See also in 2020: “George Floyd died” or “George Floyd was murdered”?)

    Weighted language that defers to white, wealthy, male and xians while denigrating those who aren’t has always been and continues to be a problem. It tells the reader what to think and forms an opinion in the public mind. That’s where jurors come from, the public, so language runs the risk of biasing trials -- and considering how few rapists are ever brought to trial let alone convicted, change should be enforced, not just asked or demanded. They can say “unnamed man rapes woman” if they’re worried about libel laws.

  11. Tethys says

    I agree that the media should not report any victims details of clothing or alcohol consumption. It is not at all relevant to the fact of the predatory crime. Women know from childhood that the world has a plentiful supply of rapists. No need to inform us that rapists think women who have consumed alcohol are targets, it’s a basic reality of our existence.

  12. says

    @mnb0 — You’re wrong. Noting that the victim was drunk, was wearing a certain kind of clothing, was in a certain part of town, out late, whatever, implicitly places the blame on the victim.

  13. says

    I think that the only possible way to report a victim’s intoxication level is when using it to comment directly on how this increases culpability for the attacker. For instance, if a serial rapist goes to trial, a story might mention that the rapist intentionally chose victims he believed were intoxicated in the hopes of avoiding arrest.

    The initial reports are unlikely to have had the chance to develop that specific information, therefore you never print anything about intoxication levels in those initial reports.

    But, yes. We know getting intoxicated places us at higher risk. And in a society with so much victim blaming, there simply isn’t a way to “neutrally” report on intoxication: it’s either reported specifically so as to increase the culpability of the attacker, or it’s reported in any other way, which the aggregate readership will take as transferring culpability to the victim.

  14. Katydid says

    @10: I’ve also heard “a rape happened” to describe what happened at a party. Like everyone was gathered innocently around the table playing Trivial Pursuit, when suddenly, A Rape entered the room?!?

    @11: A few years back, I was at a conference for a product my company used. I was the only woman in our group. Our sales guy invited everyone to his hotel room for drinks after the main evening events wrapped up, and I declined and instead went to my own hotel room. The next morning my colleagues gave me a hard time for being “unfriendly”, and I had to educate them that a woman has to know that if she goes into a hotel room with a bunch of drunk guys and something happens, it’s always seen as the woman’s fault. As men, they had absolutely no idea women are trained from early childhood to be always on our guard.

  15. dean56 says

    “Noting that the victim was drunk, was wearing a certain kind of clothing, was in a certain part of town, out late, whatever, implicitly places the blame on the victim.”

    Yup. It’s one of many tools used to put some part of the responsibility on the victim. A completely clueless writer might not intend it to be used that way but that’s how it is currently wielded in public: it’s a (slightly) less blatant version of “she shouldn’t have been there”.

  16. K says

    garnetstar; isn’t it infuriating that there’s never any emphasis on holding the people who do the abusing responsible? Instead, it’s seen as progressive to support the victims of the abuse and assault.

  17. GerrardOfTitanServer says

    The thief is still entirely at fault because people should have the right to expect their ownership of property to be respected.

    Gotta disagree. At some point there needs to be recriminations. If someone left the car keys in plain view in the car, with the car unlocked, in a known high crime area, and leave it alone during night, and it gets stolen, then there needs to be some recrimination on how the owner could be so irresponsible.

    As a practical political matter, I do not support such recrimination for rape victims because I believe that it is harmful to the victim and because it’s unproductive. I think the situations are vastly different in other ways which matter -- cultural context. Everyone agrees that a thief is still the wrong-person when they steal a car, even if the car is unlocked with the ca keys in plain view. This is not a problem that we as society are grappling with.

  18. John Morales says

    Gerrard, you’ve disputed an issue about property crime with an analogy to property crime, which I’d leave alone. But that you then put in a caveat about rape and excused that on the basis of “cultural context” is (I reckon) inadvertent, which itself is informative.

    (The real reason is that rape is not a property crime)

  19. GerrardOfTitanServer says

    What about telling young black people, especially young black men, about how to survive a police encounter? That’s not a property crime. Is it victim blaming -- is it wrong-headed to coach young black children on how to survive police encounters?

    I don’t agree with your assessment that the peculiar problem hinges on property crime vs bodily harm. I think my other example with black victims of police violence also shows that the critical difference is whether society wrongly blames the victim -- either over amounts of blame, or blame for not using unreasonable and ineffective danger avoidance mechanisms (e.g. don’t wear skimpy clothing to avoid rape, or don’t be a criminal and don’t resist to avoid being killed by police).

  20. John Morales says


    I don’t agree with your assessment that the peculiar problem hinges on property crime vs bodily harm.

    I’m trying to show you why your comment was, um, problematic.

    Perhaps consider what is the salient difference between these two of your examples:

    (a) don’t wear skimpy clothing to avoid rape; and
    (b) don’t leave the car keys in plain view in the car, with the car unlocked, in a known high crime area, and leave it alone during night

    (Remember: there needs to be some recrimination on how the owner could be so irresponsible)

  21. GerrardOfTitanServer says

    It could be problematic if one equates the two things, but I said while they are comparable in some ways, they are not comparable in other important ways, and one should not advise women to avoid rape by avoiding wearing skimpy clothes. So, I can only see how it’s problematic if any discussion whatsoever of the underlying reasons is problematic, and I don’t think I can accept that.

  22. garnetstar says

    K says @16, yes, it’s infuriating. And, when I point out that deficiency to my department, it doesn’t go over well. It’s not *their* resposibility to decrease biased actions! It’s the targets’ resposibility to endure with them.

  23. dean56 says

    “It’s not *their* responsibility to decrease biased actions! It’s the targets’ responsibility to endure with them.”

    At our school I’ve had friends phrase it differently: their take is
    “They knew academic life was cuthroat: they need to stop whining and deal with it.”
    just as terrible, but presented in a (what I assume is to the people spewing it) more civil manner.
    Final comment: I am the youngest of a good number of children. The next oldest in the string is 12 years older than I am. The point this is leading to is the age of my grandparents on my mother’s side: when I was in 10th grade they were in their early 90s. I I still remember two things my grandfather said to me.

    1. If this war (Vietnam) is still going on when you get to draft age I’ll give you enough money to go to Canada and get a new life.
    2. If I ever hear of you hurting your girlfriend any women, in any way, I will beat the shit out of you and turn you over to the police.

    I never doubted him on either one. I don’t agree with the remedy he mentioned in #2, but I agree with the sentiment.

  24. GerrardOfTitanServer says

    Gerrard, you equated rape to a property crime, stop trying to weasel out of it.

    I compared and contrasted. I showed the similarities, and I showed the dissimilarities, and I said that the dissimilarities are great. I don’t see anything that I need to apologize for.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *