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WTF of the Day: How Reporting on Rape Can Actually Perpetuate Rape Culture

We know that reporting on sexual violence can increase awareness of the violence so many of us face. But a  recent report written by Joanna Jolly and released by Harvard’s Shorenstein Center demonstrates that it’s not just whether media reports on sexual violence that matters — it’s how.

Jolly examines the Indian English language news media’s reporting on the December 2012 Delhi rape of Jyoti Singh Pandey, which sparked protests across India and the world. Her findings are not only relevent to the Indian context, but give us a useful framework for analyzing how the American media’s attitudes toward violence, race, and gender shapes its own reporting on sexual assault. And we can take this a step further to understand how Western preconceptions about gender in the Global South shapes American coverage of sexual assault in India specifically.

First, Jolly reports, English media reporters paid sustained attention to Jyoti Singh Pandey’s case because, as a young woman raped while out seeing an English-language film in an upscale mall, Singh had all the trappings of the paper’s wealthy and caste-elite readership. In actuality, Singh was a young woman from a working class family who managed to achieve education. Yet had she not been perceived by the English media as coming from the same demographic as their readership, Jolly argues, her story— like countless others— might have gone unnoticed.

The Indian media was also receptive to Singh’s case because, as a stranger rape, it fit a narrative with which they were familiar. As in the United States, most rapes in India are committed by those known to the victim: Family member, husband, or friend. Yet also as in the United States, reporting tends to focus on stranger rapes — those which, according to a journalist Neha Dixit, whom Jolly quotes, least challenge the patriarchal underpinnings of rape culture by locating sexual violence “out there” in the street and not “in here,” in the family and community. What happened to Singh was horrific and deserved coverage; by fitting into a socially recognizable script, however, media neglected to do justice to the deep social factors underlying the brutal assault and countless others like it.

Jolly analyzes several other trends in the reporting, including media emphasis on the rape’s graphic and sensational details and the media portrayal of the rape, and rape in general, as a crime of lust. Both of these tendencies, Jolly argues, obscure the realities of power, privilege, and hierarchy that underlie sexual violence.

Of course, the dynamics Jolly highlights are far from restricted to the Indian media. Research reveals similar biases in American reporting on rape — including biases specific to Western media reports on sexual violence in the Third World. In the United States too, reporting on rape focuses on the most sensational of cases, and tends to distance the problem of sexual assault from the daily, systemic realities of patriarchy, racism, and class oppression.

Just as focusing on stranger rape allows us to ignore the pervasiveness of sexual violence within families and intimate relationships, so too does a focus on sexual violence in seemingly distant, “underdeveloped” elsewheres allow us to ignore the reality of sexual violence in the United States. And just as reporting on sexual violence, in both India and the United States, draws on sexist assumptions about rape — that it is a crime of lust; that it is primarily committed by strangers; that it is unconnected from other kinds of oppression — so too does American reporting on rape in India draw on centuries of assumptions about gender, race, and otherness. These assumptions stem from a British colonial regime, and a global white-supremacist regime, that depended ideologically both on the feminization of Indian men, and on the portrayal of Indian and other brown and black men as sexually rapacious threats to both white and brown women.

By relying on these stereotypes, we ignore the global reach of gender violence, and the global interconnectness of myriad forms of violence under Western-dominated regimes of economic and military exploitation. Kavita Krishnan, an Indian communist feminist who was a leading voice in the December 2012 protests, offers this fantastic analysis not only of the racist scripts that often dominate Western coverage of sexual violence in India, but of the way global capitalism and economic inequality couple with misogyny and other forms of oppression to produce sexual violence.

Both Jolly’s work and the work of Indian leftists and feminists like Krishnan remind us that when we talk about violence across diverse contexts, we need to speak with specificity and without essentialism. They also remind us that media does not simply have “biases” which mar our otherwise objective vision of reality. Rather, writers, reporters, editors, and — yes— feminist columnists are humans immersed in culturally-specific ideologies of gender and power that shape our perception of reality.

It’s another reminder that when we analyze language as part of a comprehensive vision of social justice, we aren’t talking about superficial political correctness: We are speaking to foundational assumptions about human worth.

Cover photo: Nilanjana Roy, Wikimedia Commons

Reina Gattuso is passionate about empowering conversations around queerness, sexual ethics, and social movements with equal parts rhapsody and sass. Her writing has appeared at Time, Bitch, attn:, and The Washington Post. She is currently pursuing a masters degree in Indian cinema, theater, and visual art at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.

Reina Gattuso writes about her sex life for the good of human kind.

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