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How the Media Avoids Rape, Belittles Victims, and Empowers Injustice

Posted by Zoe Zimski on

Rape can no longer be swept under the rug. Rape can no longer be forgotten. Rape can no longer be ignored. It is a worldwide epidemic that we as a society must not only strive to end, but also a public must learn about in order to prevent. While rape education and awareness are touchy, personal, and emotional subjects, it is important that a collective effort is made to challenge rape culture rather than ignore it altogether, especially by influential sources like the media. When the media censors rape, they are stripping away the significance of such an important global issue, and making it less likely to find a permanent, inclusive solution.

campus rape

In a 2013 Evening Standards article, HM Chief, Inspector of Prisons Nick Hardwick states how two staff members at an immigration center in Clapham “[engaged] in sexual activity with a detainee” (Hardwick). In the article, the word rape never comes up. Words and phrases to substitute rape such as “inappropriate sexual behavior from guards,” “gender-based violence,” and the crowd favorite, “sexual activity.” Everything about this article is much too casual. In addition to the journalist’s failure to mention the word rape once, it actually took me longer than it should have to realize that what was being discussed was rape. “We were concerned to find that two staff had engaged in sexual activity with a female detainee, something that can never be less than abusive given the vulnerability of the detained population, and these staff had rightly been dismissed” (Hardwick). For a moment there, one could almost be convinced that this sexual activity was consensual. They are only hinting at the fact that this “sexual activity” was abusive. The guards were “dismissed” as if they stole office supplies, or fell asleep on the job, not because they forced a sexual act on a woman against her will.

A word that is used in the article much too freely is the word “vulnerable.” They make it a point to note that these immigrant detainees are extremely “vulnerable,” “emotional” and “distressed.” Yes, it is safe to say that when a woman is raped, in the moment, she is vulnerable, emotional and distressed. Though vulnerability is not a reason to be raped; anyone can get raped no matter how “vulnerable” they are. Claiming that these women were vulnerable is almost justifying these men’s atrocious actions. It is as if this article is making the statement: “it is not their fault, these women were vulnerable, and boys will be boys!” The irresponsibility in this journalism is a perfect example of why society has normalized rape culture.

Censoring the concept of rape in the media dilutes and normalizes the idea of rape altogether. Shannon Ridgeway of Everyday Feminism states, “perhaps some people truly don’t understand what rape culture is” (Ridgeway). Some people choose to believe that the phrase rape culture just promotes the idea that rape happens much more than it actually does, or to target men and make them look worse than they are. But as described by Caroline Heldman and Baillee Brown of Ms. Magazine, “rape culture describes a society in which rape is common and normalized by societal attitudes and practices. In the U.S., rape is tacitly condoned through denial of the rape epidemic,” meaning when journalists choose to omit the word rape from their stories, they perpetuate rape culture and normalization (C. Heldman, B. Brown).

A common theme in the mainstream news media is expressing some sort of sympathy, and concern for the rapist, and assigning fault to the victim. In 2013, CNN reporter Poppy Harlow covered a story about a sixteen-year-old girl who was extremely intoxicated and raped by two high school football players who then shared photos of the rape on social media. Harlow goes on to say, “it was incredibly difficult, even for an outsider like me, to watch what happened as these two young men that had such promising futures, star football players, very good students, literally watched as they believed their lives fell apart” (Madden). This well-respected reporter had the audacity share sympathy for these rapists, while simultaneously disregarding the humiliation, shame, and pain that this young woman must have experienced. It is unacceptable that we live in a society where men can feel consistently safe, while women often feel quite a different sense of unpredictability. When the media chooses to trivialize rape, and attempt to justify the rapist’s actions, they create a platform where we as a society begin to disregard victims and belittle their experiences.

We are all aware of the allegations towards popular television star Bill Cosby. Over forty women have spoken out about how Cosby sedated them with drugs and then proceeded to rape them. While Cosby has allegedly admitted to buying Quaaludes for the sole purpose of giving them to women for sex, the media still tiptoes around the situation, rarely using the word rape to describe the depth of his crimes. Popular news sources such as The Associated Press and USA Today title their articles; “Cosby said he got Drugs to give Women for Sex” (Culp-Ressler). With so much media circulation, it is hard to imagine that these important news sources are refraining from using the word “rape,” and replacing it with the word “sex.” Tara Culp-Ressler of Think Progress makes the statement that “rape is about power, and not about sexual pleasure, using “sex” as shorthand misrepresents the potential crime” (Culp-Pressler). Sex is consensual, and rape is not. Using the word sex to describe a rape is giving the crime a softer connotation, taking away from the significance from the crime, and further reinforcing rape culture.

So why is the media continually refraining from using the word rape to describe Cosby’s actions? Huizhong Wu makes a fair point that much of it is strictly legal: “Media outlets can be sued for defamation for printing something about someone that harms the reputation of that person and it is untrue.” While this is a fair point, the least that the media could do is use the phrase “nonconsensual sex,” as opposed to just “sex.” Sil Lai Abrams, founder of media advocacy group Truth in Reality, makes the point, “There is an opportunity for education here.” Due to the statute of limitations, Cosby has never been convicted in court and continues his entertainment career (Wu). Though we still find ourselves ignoring allegations from over forty women and Cosby’s admittance that he had the intentions of using Quaaludes for sexual purposes. Though we will never be one hundred percent sure if the “beloved” Bill Cosby is guilty, we cannot ignore the brave women who spoke out against him, making it safe to assume that Bill Cosby is indeed a serial rapist. Therefore, it is a journalist’s responsibility to recognize and share the seriousness of this situation by replacing the word “sex” with “rape.”

When I first got to Syracuse University, one of the numbers that the administration told me to add in my phone was the Department of Public Safety’s number. I was meant to call them when I ever felt as though I was in danger, did not want to walk home alone, or if I was ever raped or sexually assaulted. At first thought, this did not mean anything to me. But as I write this paper, the question arises: why would I not call the police? Not to diminish from the value of DPS, but rape is not only a public safety matter, but also a legal matter. That being said, it does not take a genius to know that rapes on college campuses are extremely common, and even more frequently swept under the rug. According to Ms. Magazine, one in five women will face sexual assault or rape during their time in college. With the high amount of binge drinking and raging hormones swarming college campuses, these statistics seem extremely logical.

Even though reported rape numbers remain low, it seems as if colleges try extra hard to keep campus rapes under wraps. The primary reasons why colleges choose to keep rape cases so private, according to Ms. Magazine, is to refrain from avoid recourse and protect the schools reputation. While there are relative benefits to having campus rapes be exclusively an in school issue, such as having the ability to handle them on a case-by-case basis as well as protect the identity of the victim, seems less important bringing a rapist to justice. (C. Heldman, B. Brown). The bottom line is that when institutions such as the media or colleges choose not to properly report rapes, they are choosing to dismiss rape altogether. When colleges punish rapists by simply putting them on probation or expulsion, they are implying that what they did is not illegal, and not as bad as it actually is. Not only is rape censored in the media, but by refusing to not stand up against rape culture, college campuses are evidently practicing denial of the rape epidemic (C. Heldman, B. Brown).

At my school, Syracuse, a movement called Girl Code was created. It was started by three of my peers who openly spoke out to the media about being raped in college. All of them had similar stories, one, in particular, exclaims that she was out with her friends and came face to face with a boy whom she was talking to on Facebook. She was already tipsy, though after taking a drink from him she was “blackout drunk.” She woke up completely naked in a strange bed with this same boy, with obvious signs of abuse on her body, and the intuition that she had been raped (Unruh). “I don’t share my story because I think it’s the brave thing to do, I share my story because it is the necessary thing to do.” This is the quote that is displayed in bold on their website. These young women speaking out about their rapes is not only extremely brave, but it brings up the taboo concept of rape and forced Syracuse university to execute a strong sanction for sexual violence on campus.

In the end, rape is a true epidemic, and it seems as though there is a very long road to a solution. We must recognize rape for the grotesque, hateful crime it is, and attempt to educate, our friends, family peers, and selves on the consequences of such an immoral act. It is important for media to display rape cases for what they actually are without censoring or trivializing the reports, and bring dignity and value back to the lives of thousands of women and men who have been raped.

This article was written by Zoe Zimski, a socially conscious fashion designer studying at Syracuse. 


  1. Hardwick, Nick. "Staff Sacked over Sex with Detainee." Evening Standard. 29 Oct. 2013. Web. 4 Oct. 2015.
  1. Brown, Baillee, and Caroline Heldman. "Why Colleges Won't (Really) Address Rape Culture." Ms Magazine Blog. 8 Oct. 2014. Web. 4 Oct. 2015.
  1. Ridgway, Shannon. "25 Everyday Examples of Rape Culture." Everyday Feminism. 10 Mar. 2014. Web. 4 Oct. 2015.
  1. Madden, Kate. "Campus Times » Rape Culture: The Media’s Role in Normalizing Assault." Campus Times RSS. 16 May 2014. Web. 4 Oct. 2015.
  1. Culp-Ressler, Tara. "The Media Still Won’t Use ‘Bill Cosby’ And ‘Rape’ In A Headline." ThinkProgress RSS. 7 July 2015. Web. 4 Oct. 2015.
  1. Wu, Huizhong. "Why the Media Won't Use 'rape' and Bill Cosby in the Same Headline." Mashable. 7 July 2015. Web. 4 Oct. 2015.
  1. Unruh, Heather. "Breaking the Silence: Campus Rape Epidemic." 4 Mar. 2014. Web. 4 Oct. 2015.

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