A turn for the worse (NOT KNITTING CONTENT)

[TRIGGER WARNING: rape, victim blaming]

Usually when I write a feminist rant for this blog, I try to connect it to crafting in some way, because that is the ostensible purpose of this blog, and the intersection of feminism and crafting is a surprisingly rich mine of material. Today, however, I am so angry about an issue that I find so important that I’m going to veer off of the subject of crafts altogether to talk about the broader societal message that our culture is sending to women right now and I’m going to focus on something very specific to talk about it.

Recently, as an American and as a woman, I’ve been feeling like there’s been a misogynistic shift in our rhetoric and I’ve found it disturbing. As a political being, I’ve been seeing ways in which I believe my lawmakers are trying to strip me, as a woman, of my political power and bodily integrity. But what I want to talk to you about today is more insidious and less obvious. I want to talk about what we’re doing to our girls, and I want to do so because knitting and crafting are seen as women’s hobbies, and what has happened here affects all of us.

Two days ago, on March 8th, The New York Times published a story about a horrific rape in a small Texas community. The victim is an eleven year old girl. As of now, 18 men have been arrested in connection with her rape, and the Times ran a short piece on the story dealing primarily with the community and how the rape has affected it. The crime is horrific in its own right, but the coverage in the Times and in The Houston Chronicle has been disturbing on the basis of its choices and not just the details of the crime.

Rather than parsing all of the disturbing language in the articles about this crime, I’m going to focus on a few things that stood out to me. The following quote is from The Houston Chronicle.

If she refused, the statement said, she was warned other girls would beat her up and she would never get a ride back home. Soon she was having sex with multiple young men there, the statement said.

Bolding mine. I want to point out the infuriating use of the pronoun she in this instance. She is the subject of the sentence, and what the predicate says, she does. So in this sentence, we learn that the person “having sex with multiple young men” is the girl, which more than suggests that the person with the agency is the victim and that the sex is consensual, even though the previous sentence makes it clear that it is not, and even though the child is 11 years old, too young to consent to sex with anyone. A more accurate and less victim-blaming sentence would have been, “Soon, multiple young men were raping her.” Having sex is an act between consenting adults. Rape is what happens without consent.

I picked that sentence to start with to point out how subtle some of the victim blaming language is, not just in the two articles cited here, but in general. We like our racism and misogyny nice and blatant, but it often comes in the guise of objectivity and distance. The sentence I cited is presented as a fact, and the author of the article distances himself from the language choices he made by referring to a statement, presumably made by someone other than the author. Note, however, that it is not a quote. The author chose the language and it was not objective, or the only choice. The reporting of facts requires many choices and it also requires a certain amount of responsibility that becomes that much more important when the subject is a child and a victim.

From the Chronicle story we learn that the child victim has now been forced out of her community, that her mother feels threatened and believes that some members of the community want to find and hurt them. However, when discussing how this happened, the only questions of parenting raised in either the Times or the Chronicle article are about the victim’s mother. Where did things go wrong? Not, apparently, with the parents of the up to 28 young men who raped a child. No, the fault must clearly have been with the female parent of the little girl who was raped. I do not believe that trying to fault parents is usually the right response to a crime, but I can’t help but notice that the questions raised in this case are not about the kind of parenting that would lead to raising a victimizer, but rather a victim.

Again, from The Houston Chronicle, referring to the victim’s Facebook page:

Sometimes she comes across like a little girl, such as when she talks of her special talent for making “weird sound effects” and “running in circles” to overcome nervousness.

But she also makes flamboyant statements about drinking, smoking and sex.

You know why sometimes she comes across like a little girl? SHE IS A LITTLE GIRL. I have an eleven year old son. He’s over five feet tall, kind of gawky, into Judo and making up stories with his friends. He’s a big guy who wears men’s shoes and men’s shirts, but he’s still a little boy because eleven year olds are little kids who happen to be at the precipice of puberty.

And finally, we get to the coup de grâce from The New York Times, that venerable Grey Lady.

Residents in the neighborhood where the abandoned trailer stands — known as the Quarters — said the victim had been visiting various friends there for months. They said she dressed older than her age, wearing makeup and fashions more appropriate to a woman in her 20s. She would hang out with teenage boys at a playground, some said.

“Where was her mother? What was her mother thinking?” said Ms. Harrison, one of a handful of neighbors who would speak on the record. “How can you have an 11-year-old child missing down in the Quarters?”

Ah, yes. Let’s talk about what she wore, because that’s hardly a cliche in rape culture. Let’s focus on the unbelievably offensive insinuation that the way she dressed had something to do with the fact that adult men, including an almost 30 year old, chose to commit a violent assault on her person.

Let’s talk a little about victim blame, which is a problem across society, and which is not unique to this situation. Yeah, it’s wrong when we blame the victim of a robbery from being in the wrong part of town, or the victim of a mugging for not hiding his wallet better. But there’s no cultural message telling people that they have to run down a dark alley waving their wallet and that they’ll be shunned if they don’t. On the other hand, there is almost nothing but a cultural message to young girls that “wearing makeup and fashions more appropriate to a woman in her 20s” is what you need to do if you want to be popular and desirable. And then we see the flip side of that coin in the statement above: that dressing that way encourages men to victimize you, making it your fault when you become a victim. In discussing this yesterday on a friend’s Facebook page, I hit upon a pithy summation of the message we send to young girls (and to young boys) with this mixed cultural message: “You’re not sexy enough, slut.”

I’d like to connect the dots between the horrifying rape story and the victim blaming in The New York Times to this seemingly unrelated story from the Today show about the sexualization of little girls’ toys.

Anyone who thinks that there is no cultural pressure to dress like a (sexy) 20 year old really needs to take a look at what toys marketed to little girls are actually saying.

The thing is, THIS AFFECTS ALL OF US. Today, the victim blaming is falling on a little girl in Texas who was brutalized by men in her community and then brutalized again by her neighbors and the media. This is one example, but it exists in a broader culture that is teaching women and men how to relate to each other. Right now, at this moment, the takeaway message for girls is, “You’re not sexy enough, slut,” but it’s also boys who are taking that message to heart. And it’s adults, who should be protecting children, who are instead looking to place blame on the victim and her specific, personal upbringing, rather than the culture that spawned this unhealthy simmering mess of mixed messages, or the victimizers, or the enablers who prop up the victimizers.

Noticing language and reading critically is a small part of what we need to do in some ways, but it’s also a big way to step away from the societal pressure to accept language at face value and subtext only internally. Breaking away from internalizing the victim blaming takes conscious effort.

Online petitions may be limited in their effectiveness, but a massive groundswell in response to victim blame may make the Times think twice about their language choices and editorial process. No news story makes to print without being raked by more than one set of eyes, and yet this dreck made it to the page anyway. Tell the Times it was wrong. You can also write to The New York Times and The Houston Chronicle and let them know that their coverage contributes to the rape culture.

For more on the media coverage of this story, see this blog post at Shakesville, which further parses out the victim blaming language in the Times article, and this post at Jezebel, which covers media coverage in both papers. The New York Times has, by now, responded to the anger at their coverage but has not taken responsibility for the quotes and views they gave ink to. The Houston Chronicle has published a response defending their coverage, also passing the blame onto residents quoted in the article, and failing to note either the fact that the quotes were selected from many, were not framed in a context to make it clear that the quotes represented an opinion that fails to line up with the law or morality, or the language that had nothing to do with quotation at all. There has been no real apology for this disgusting coverage.

Edit: In case it’s not clear enough when I discuss the pressure to dress in a sexy way, I do not mean that the way in which the girl was dressed or the way in which any girl dresses has anything to do with the fact that a person would choose to assault her. I wanted merely to point out the double bind inherent in pointing to the clothing “more appropriate for someone in her twenties” and the social pressure to dress as a person in her twenties, which extends to women of all ages.

Posted in Feminism, Justice
19 comments on “A turn for the worse (NOT KNITTING CONTENT)
  1. Wow. Just wow.

    Language most certainly matters, and for heaven’s sake, how could you call that anything but rape??

    And while I do think that parents need to be more careful to shield their daughters from this “be sexy and grown-up” thing that seems, at least to me, to be more common than it was when I grew up (or maybe I was just sheltered?), I really fail to understand how anyone can say that someone who dresses inappropriately somehow deserves to be raped. And I don’t see how someone’s poor dress habits absolve a rapist of guilt.

    • Kristen says:

      That really got to me, too. In both articles, most discussion of the rapists was about how it hurts the community and how it will hurt the “boys” who did this. The guilt of the victimizer seems to be put below the blame of the victim.

      • In my experience with my uncle who abused me, the same thing happened. There was so much talk in my extended family about how all this was so hard for him, and disgustingly little talk about what he’d done to little girls who had no idea how to deal with this kind of thing.

        It’s truly mind-boggling. My then 8-year old cousin has suffered because of this through no fault of her own, and THAT is what we should all be upset about, not the sufferings of the person who inflicted the damage.

  2. Jen McCabe says:

    Thank you for posting this. I am 36 now but I remember being a “tween” and how awkward and gawky and confused I was, like it was yesterday. I also remember how cruel my peers could be to someone who didn’t “fit in”. The community’s response to this is nothing short of disgusting, I can only hope (and pray) that the people that feel negatively toward this child will reconsider their stance.

    This story reminds me of a crime that occurred locally (Boston-area suburbs), where a woman was assaulted while jogging. The fact that she was alone, at night, on a jogging path, was emphasized more than the description of the assailant.

    Very sad for our daughters today…

  3. Ashley says:

    PREACH.

  4. Jessica says:

    Great blog post, Kristen. I am incoherent with rage at this coverage. As well, I’ve noticed that the word “rape” has virtually disappeared from newspaper articles describing, well, rapes. Because, you know, newspapers daren’t imply that someone who forces someone else to have sex with him might be a rapist.

  5. Cate says:

    This coverage has made me SO angry. I assumed that the gang rape of an ELEVEN YEAR OLD GIRL would be so horrifying to people that she would be spared the usual victim blaming, but I almost feel like it’s been worse than most rape coverage. It boggles my mind that people are asking where the victim’s mother was instead of wondering why these men raped her. It’s absolutely appalling.

  6. pam says:

    YES. Thanks so much for this, Kristen! What a smart, spot-on connection between these two stories.

    I’ve been watching the Times and Chronicle stuff, but I have so much fatigue with the ahistorical, depoliticized complaint that “girls these days are too sexy too young!” that I didn’t even follow all my friends’ links to that toys story. It’s super refreshing to read a thoughtful treatment of young adolescent sexuality that puts it into a structural context. “You’re not sexy enough, slut” — classic Double Bind.

  7. kaitlin says:

    When I was 13, I was sexually assaulted by a stranger who told me he couldn’t help himself because I was “just so sexy.”

    I was wearing dirty jeans and a black sweatshirt with a picture of Hello Kitty giving the middle finger.

    Grown men who want to hurt little girls will hurt little girls regardless of what they are wearing or how they behave.

  8. Chris says:

    I agree with this post entirely, but the author completely gets her first point on sentence construction backwards, and nearly lost me as a reader.

    The sentence that begins “She was having . . .” is in the passive voice. So rather than “more than [suggesting] that the person with the agency is the victim”, the passive construction actually means that complete opposite: the subject “she” is the recipient of the action and not the performer. Indeed, that is one of the more sensitive uses I’ve seen for passive voice construction.

    Nevertheless her alternative sentence in the active voice is million times better and could only be improved by getting rid of the needless auxiliary verb “were” and put the “young men” squarely next to their crime “rape”.

    • Suzanne says:

      If you want to get preachy about grammar, make sure that your objections make sense. This sentence does not use the passive voice. Instead, it uses the imperfect tense, which requires the use of “to be” as an auxiliary verb with the present participle (-ing) to imply ongoing action. For instance, “Joe was riding a bicycle with his friends” does not imply that the bicycle rode Joe, nor does it mean that his friends rode on Joe. Instead, it means that Joe rode his bicycle alongside his friends for some extended period of time.

      Thus, the sentence that Kristen highlighted does implicate the victim as the instigator of the event. In fact, it exaggerates her culpability by indicating that not only did the victim have sex with multiple young men, but that she had sex with multiple young men for an extended period of time.

      It’s shameful that the papers covering this event have attempted to shunt blame for their biased portrait of the victim onto those they interviewed. Don’t give them further excuses with a faulty assessment of the grammar they used.

      For your edification, passive construction for the past tense combines the past participle (-ed) with an auxiliary verb in the past tense of “to be.” Note the difference between “Jane was running over here” and “Jane was run over here.”

  9. Lori says:

    i am lost and without words but luckily i have enough rage and fury to get up off the damn couch. i’ve been increasingly furious about the political stuff going on against women too, and care a LOT about the way these things are talked about. i insist on the word rape when it’s appropriate, and making the rapist the subject of the sentence.

    i’m so angry and upset i can’t even say anything beyond what you said, but i’m out here too, agreeing with you.

  10. Bronwyn says:

    Thank you for this! Absolutely appalling. And I agree with Lori about the women in politics coverage as well. It’s awful. Thank you. And I’ll be signing that petition for sure.

    On a similar note, one of my classes this term is on media coverage of x events and it’s really made it obvious how much wording matters and can shape opinion.

  11. Laura Beth says:

    Excellent post. The world needs more of this kind of writing and analysis!

    Chris, “having sex” is an active verb construction. Even “to receive” can be an active verb. In the sentence “The girl was having sex with men,” the girl is the subject and having sex is what she was doing. La Kninja is correct in her grammatical analysis.

    /linguistics and grammar nerd

  12. Sue says:

    It boggles my mind that 30 men could look down at that little girl (no matter how she was dressed or what she said) and think it was okay to do what they did. Even beyond her age or gender, she is a human being. What sort of monsters are being bred in this world? I cry for this poor child, and for the community that could produce such men as these. The brutality of this crime is beyond words. To report it as they did not only mocks that little girl but victimizes her yet again.

  13. Thank you for posting this. I’m grateful for your highlighting this story, because I certainly would not have come across it if not.
    Your writing is high quality, wonderful, and I agree whole-heartedly with everything you say.
    I’m disgusted (but not surprised) by the way this incident has been reported.
    Incidentally, it was just International Women’s Day. A show on CBC radio celebrated and discussed this day, highlighting an opinion article featured in a Toronto newspaper that IWD is a sham, and women in the West have equality, and nothing left to fight for.
    I wonder what planet she’s living on? (yes, the author of the opinion piece is a female, and I’d link it here if I could find it).

  14. Rose says:

    Thank you so much for this. I agree WHOLE HEARTEDLY.

  15. AC says:

    The Daily Show has had some great segments in the past couple of weeks, not about this story specifically, but about the rise in misogynistic politics (example: trying to redefine ‘rape’ to not include date rape). It made me feel a little better to hear them absolutely tear apart the ridiculousness of it all–at least some people have the smarts to realize the absurdity.

  16. Amar Shah says:

    Thank you so much for this post. It’s so rare to hear or read such a dose of commonsense truth in a noxious atmosphere pervaded by disgusting and often horrifying threats to women and girls. It makes me sad and angry to hear so many people treat violence against women as amusement or entertainment, and sometimes I am afraid for my daughter who will be born in February. Men need to stand up and tell each other that rape, sexual assault, and violence against women are all WRONG, NOT funny, and NEVER justifiable.

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