In a story that is horrifying both because of its content and the media coverage that has followed in its aftermath, 18 young men and teenage boys, some as young as middle-schoolers, were arrested in the town of Cleveland, Texas, for gang-raping an 11-year-old girl last November. The police learned about the assault last November, when one of the girl’s elementary-school classmates told her teacher that she had seen a cellphone video of the attack.
According to an affidavit, which cited photos and videos as proof, the girl was offered a ride by a 19-year-old man, who took her to his house, forced her to disrobe, and along with several other men, sexually assaulted her. She was then taken to an abandoned mobile home, where the rest of the assaults occurred. Several of the attackers documented the event on their phones.
All of this is now just hitting the news. New York Times reporter James McKinley Jr.’s approach, which focuses on the way that the East Texas community has reacted to the assaults, is problematic, insensitive, and victim-blaming. It paints the attackers as well-meaning “boys” who were “drawn into” the horrible violence, and describes the victim as dressing “older than her age, wearing makeup and fashions more appropriate to a woman in her 20s.” Although the alleged attackers are only now being arrested, and a trial has yet to commence, the coverage seems to indict the victim as if not more severely than the men who repeatedly raped an 11-year-old girl, while taking videos on their cellphones.
As Shakespeare’s Sister points out, by the fourth paragraph of the NYT article we know a significant number of details about the attackers; the victim has yet to figure in the story aside from her gender and age. McKinley quotes a woman who is dismayed at the idea that “these boys have to live with this the rest of their lives.” Of course, the trauma of being raped by almost twenty men is made to seem negligable by comparison.
To make matters worse, the description of the victim plainly implies that she was a deviant figure. She had been “visiting friends” in the neighborhood near the abandoned trailer in the months before her assault, and sometimes hung out with teenage boys near a playground. According to the woman quoted above, this means that the assault was the girl’s mother’s fault.
“Where was her mother? What was her mother thinking?” she said. “How can you have an 11-year-old child missing down in the Quarters?”
McKinley then launches into a description of the town’s economic depression, and describes the trailer’s bleak interior. Instead of the story of a violent crime perpetrated by adults and minors against another minor, this angle encourages us to feel sorry for the small town that has been “shaken to its core.” The attackers are equally victims, and the victim is for the most part absent. The word “rape” is only used a few times in the article, the fact that the girl could not have consented is mentioned nowhere, and the tragedy is not that an 11-year-old girl was subjected to unspeakable violence, but that the “town” (represented through the one person quoted) doesn’t know how to react.
The Houston Chronicle‘s coverage is equally bad. Describing the victim’s Facebook postings, Cindy Horswell writes,
“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. Yet her vulnerability pokes through the tough veneer as she tells of “being hurt many times,” where she “settled for less” and “let people take advantage” and “walk all over” her. She vows to learn from her mistakes.”
As Margaret Hartmann writes on Jezebel, “Publishing information like that would be wrong if the victim was an adult, and it’s totally reprehensible in the case of a victim who “comes across like a little girl,” because that’s exactly what she is.” The idea that this girl needs to “learn from her mistakes” is absurdly offensive. It baldly implies that because of her actions, she was raped.
There’s one acceptable response to all of this coverage, and it’s outrage. As Liz Henry passionately writes, “The media is reporting on how she dresses, what the town thinks of how she dresses, where she hangs out, whether she cusses on her Facebook page… ALL COMPLETELY NOT RELEVANT to her being kidnapped and brutally gang raped.”
This is a story about a child who was kidnapped by an adult and forced to have sexual intercourse with a large number of men. The act was recorded and somehow made its way back to her elementary-school classmates. These are the events that McKinley, Horswell and other reporters should be writing about – not about the town’s economic decline, and certainly not what the neighbors think about the victim or her mother.
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Photo from the U.S. Military.