Shadows of women

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.

Washington, DC

Alexandra Brodsky was a senior editor at During her four years at the site, she wrote about gender violence, reproductive justice, and education equity and ran the site's book review column. She is now a Skadden Fellow at the National Women's Law Center and also serves as the Board Chair of Know Your IX, a national student-led movement to end gender violence, which she co-founded and previously co-directed. Alexandra has written for publications including the New York Times, the Atlantic, the Guardian, and the Nation, and she is the co-editor of The Feminist Utopia Project: 57 Visions of a Wildly Better Future. She has spoken about violence against women and reproductive justice at campuses across the country and on MSNBC, ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, FOX, ESPN, and NPR.

Alexandra Brodsky was a senior editor at

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