The perils of representing rape

Last week, Rehtaeh Parsons died from injuries sustained when she hanged herself in her bathroom. A year and a half earlier she had been gang-raped, images from the assault had been circulated, and she’d been ceaselessly harassed. A few days later the police arrested three teens for raping and then distributing photos of Audrie Pott, who had since killed herself.

These stories received significant media attention, as they should have. Newspapers tried to reconstruct the chain of events of the individual cases while columnists diagnosed the underlying societal problems that lead to such tragedies. I wrote a piece urging Feministing readers to combat rape culture in Parsons’ memory.

I had a lurking worry as I wrote, though, which has mushroomed into a full-blown fear as I’ve read more and more of the coverage of these stories and feedback from readers: I’m afraid we’re latching onto a narrative at the exclusion of others.

Thanks to the testimonies of brave survivors and anti-violence activists, we as a public have begun to lose our clear, singular idea of what rape looks like. I don’t mean that rape is “gray” or ambiguous: what I mean is that true stories have disrupted our notion that all rapists are strangers jumping out of bushes in allies with knives. This is a necessary disruption, but also a scary one. Complexity is frustrating; we want an image to associate with the word “rape” but instead we need an endless montage. Gruesome trend pieces bring in page hits because we like over-arching narratives. And I’m concerned that some of the coverage of the recent suicides is an attempt to create a new one.

Shadows of women

The stories from Parsons’ and Pott’s families–and, though different in arc, from Steubenville–are, without any shred of doubt, absolutely terrible: It feels trivializing even to say this given how self-evidently true it is. They must be reported and discussed. But, while their extreme cases point to a larger systemic misogyny, they don’t represent contemporary rape in America. That’s ok; in fact, that’s necessary. Maya has previously posted about how abortion narratives neither are, nor should, be uniform, and that we can’t expect any individual story to symbolize a multitude of experiences. As we’ve been forced to acknowledge, sexual violence takes many different forms. Parsons’ and Pott’s deaths are no less tragic or important to report and discuss because they cannot stand as complete symbols of a national epidemic.

There is damage done, though, when we hold up these cases as the platonic ideal of rape. Survivors whose stories look different, who haven’t suffered as much in their own conceptions or according to some external oppression Olympics, feel unworthy of empathy and support. They–we, if I’m honest–can feel like the anti-violence movement isn’t meant for people like us: who were assaulted by “only” one person, who weren’t photographed, who are still alive. To anticipate the trolls, I’ll stress that I don’t mean that all rape is equally bad. I mean precisely that that it’s not, but it’s still all worthy of our concern nonetheless.

I don’t have an easy solution to propose. Part of the reason the media covers victims’ suicides and the Steubenville trial but not your friend who was raped last weekend is purely practical: We don’t have access to the day-to-day accounts. For obvious reasons few survivors go public unless the court case is high-profile or the victim is dead (and thus immune to public stigma), so most of the narratives we are left with are particularly sensationalized. More stories would be helpful–the campaign against campus rape has been powered by a multitude of diverse accounts–but demanding survivors come forward for the good of the whole is an ethically murky business.

I can say this, though: As journalists and activists we have a responsibility to discuss cases like Parsons’ and Pott’s as individual tragedies with urgent societal lessons, rather than symbols of a violence that manifests itself in a million different ways. To do so is disrespectful to the women we’ve recently lost and to those still here who need the movement now.

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  1. Posted April 16, 2013 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

    media loves this as its gruesome, there are clear bad guys to point to and best of all the victims were young pretty white girls. Ever see a black girl victim ppl cared about? not so much.

    • Posted April 17, 2013 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

      Those “young pretty white girls” are not your enemy: the people who raped them and harassed them to their deaths are your enemy. Racism and sexism are intimately intertwined. In both cases, people are denied their humanity because of the type of body they occupy. Violence against people with brown-skinned bodies is either ignored or openly condoned (especially when committed by the police). This has to stop. All of it. Pull out one thread, and others begin to unravel. The fight against racism is a fight against rape culture. And the fight against rape culture is a fight against racism. Divided we fall, and the bad guys win easily.

  2. Posted April 16, 2013 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for this piece–I agree with you about the complexities in wanting rape as an issue to garner public attention while worrying that a one-size-fits-all narrative will be the result.

    I hesitate to do anything self-promotion-y in this forum, but I think this really applies so wanted to share it as a resource. I facilitate a project called And It Was Wrong ( the purpose of which is to provide a venue for survivors of self-defined sexual assault (any experience that, looking back on it, does not feel OK) to share their stories and name the experience as wrong.

    This project is far from perfect and by no mean encompasses everything or everyone, but I do hope it can add some new voices to the conversation.

  3. Posted April 17, 2013 at 11:12 am | Permalink

    I think you made a good point. There are a lot of victims that aren’t getting help. People will focus on these cases and not help others that are still alive and not getting justice.

    People also forget the US military victims. There are women and men killing themselves who were victims of military rape and are then dishonorably discharged. Or just women in general that the US military rapes then threatens.

    We need to help everyone! And stop ALL groups from raping. There are stories of gang rapes in the military just like these but people don’t talk about them, and we call these guys hero’s?

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