Last month, the New York Times published an article about Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston and the controversy surrounding his award (Bogdanich 2014). Winston was accused of raping a freshman woman at Florida State University, and despite the accusation and the implications that go along with it, Winston was still awarded the premier honor in college football that not only recognizes athleticism, but character as well. After an overview of the case and a description of the poor response time from university and police officials, the article depicts the scene where the victim and her rapist met. Winston is referred to as “Mr. Winston”, while the young girl is described as “Mr. Winston’s accuser,” a 19-year-old girl, who could not legally buy alcohol, but was at the bar anyways, implying the young woman did something wrong because she was underage. Winston is described as, “A redshirt freshman quarterback, 6 feet 4 inches and 235 pounds, Mr. Winston had been a prize recruit, well-known in football circles but not yet a widely recognizable name.” She, on the other-hand, isn’t offered the same kind of praise, despite accusing “Mr. Winston” of rape. The young victim is merely described as a caricature of a college-aged drinker who got into trouble, or worse got what she deserved, because she was at the bar.
Winston winning the Heisman, despite his obvious character flaws implied in the accusation (whether they are warranted or not), is not the point of this blog post. This is not an isolated event. There are some very serious similarities between Winston’s case to others throughout the United States. Namely, the Steubenville case, as the young victim was also drunk when two “football stars” in the Ohio town raped her. Ma’lik Richmond and Trent Mays, the convicted rapists, were glorified while the victim, whose innocence is affirmed by the outcome of the case, was tarred and feathered all over the Internet. The Steubenville rape case opened our eyes to the power of social media, as victim blaming was rampant throughout the Twittersphere, despite that the young men incriminated themselves by posting videos of their actions and crimes on the web. Social media in the Steubenville case served as a tool for justice, but also as a venue to blame the victim.
Throughout a content analysis of news articles surrounding the Steubenville rape case, I noticed that journalists were careful not to directly blame the young victim for her rape. They never said she deserved it or was asking for it, however, they set up a perfect way for the world to blame her on social media. Like in the article about Winston and his victim, Ma’lik Richmond and Trent Mays were described as promising football starters, while the victim was described as a drunken 16-year-old from Weirton, West Virginia. The victim doesn’t even have the honor of being described as from Steubenville. She, like the victim at Florida State University, was made a caricature of a drunken girl who was “asking for it.” While the media never said that the victim from Steubenville was a slut or drank too much, they implied it, creating space for the social media sphere to grasp onto it.
Rape myth is the stereotypical and often false belief that societies perpetuate about rape, rape victims, and rapists (Brownmiller 1975; Perry 2001). Rape myths are things like “she was drinking too much,” or “she was asking for it” (Brownmiller 1975; Perry 2001). Rape myth and rape myth acceptance is sustained through descriptions of victims in the news and throughout victim blaming on social media. What journalists describe about victims makes it simple for readers to assume that victims were “asking for it,” therefore, making their rape somehow less “legitimate,” (an especially egregious rape myth in itself). Rape myth and widespread rape myth acceptance permits the responsibility of the crime to be with victims through discourse that allows victim blaming and makes it worse through the use of social media.
Readers want a good story. In cases of sexual assault and rape, the media has given it to them. Journalism plays up what readers want, drama and gossip where someone gets what they deserve, while also attempting to maintain an ethic that also remains neutral and unbiased. However, is it really unbiased when journalists describe rapists as stars with promising futures, while describing victims as drunken women at a party or a bar? Imagine what that implies among the general public. Journalism needs to create a discursive language to be used that won’t reinforce rape myth or victim blaming. Online media, and its followers, focus more on what young women are wearing and drinking when they are assaulted, rather than on the attack or her attacker, the accused rapist. The suspected rapists on the other hand are glorified with vivid descriptions of their athleticism (or better yet, they are given Heisman trophies), while the victims are described in ways that make them a caricature of drunk people. This perpetuates rape myth and it needs to stop if we want to stop victim blame, as well.
Bogdanich, Walt. 2014. “A Star Player Accused, and a Flawed Rape Investigation.” NewYork Times, April 16. Web.
Brownmiller, Susan. 1975. Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Perry, Barbara. 2001. “Doing Gender and Doing Gender Inappropriately: Violence Against Women, Gay Men, and Lesbians.” Pg 417-440. Sex, Gender, and Sexuality: The New Basics. Ferber, Abby, Kimberly Holcomb, and Tre Wentling. New York: Oxford University Press.
Amelie Rives is an Americorps VISTA and a recent graduate of Roanoke College, a small, liberal arts college in Salem, Virginia. Her research interests include gendered violence, masculinity, feminism, and so much more!