Recent reporting in The New York Times about the brutally violent sexual assault of an eleven-year old child brings many issues to light. And while some have cried bias, charging that the Times has “blamed the victim” in their coverage, there is a much bigger issue at work.
The old chestnut of blaming the victim is really another way to say protecting the perpetrator, and this issue, which goes far beyond any newspaper coverage is the one I find most concerning. In reading, or watching media, about rape and sexual assault we are accustomed to hearing lots of data. Stats like: every six minutes a woman is raped, every thirty four minutes a woman is killed, three or four women a day are murdered by their partners. Most cases of sexual assault and molestation go unreported. This is a staple of educating the public about a serious issue.
And this data always focuses on the victim, the numbers of victims. We can all live in fear of this thing called rape, this threat of violence that looms above us, these seemingly individual and unrelated acts that happen all day long. And we live with the knowledge that when we speak to a woman there is a 1 in 4 chance she has been sexually assaulted—that this is in her past and may have somehow formed her character or colored her experiences in the world.
But what if the data focused on the perpetrator? What if the numbers were turned so that we knew what percentage of men are rapists? How many people we talk with and deal with in our daily lives have sexually assaulted a person? What percentage of men are we walking among who have physically attacked their partners? How many among us, sitting at their desks or across from us on the subway, working in the trades or behind counters or in entertainment? How many people do we bump into, in the crush of picking up our children from day care, or at a cocktail party? How many of them are rapists?
In reporting about the gang rape of this 11-year-old Texas girl The Times tells us via quotes from townspeople that the girl “dressed older than her age, wearing makeup” and that she hung around with teenage boys on the playground. And while this reveals quite alarmingly the attitudes of the locals, the reporter did not apparently look for townspeople to give specifics about the boys who raped this girl, and then documented their crimes. We know one of the rapists is a middle schooler, some of them are athletes, some of them are grown men. But their habits, their manner of dress, their families are in no way called into question. No one is quoted as wondering what their parents were thinking to let them gang rape, or photograph, and film a child who is suffering.
How can this be? Do we believe it’s normal for men to rape, but simply something we never say out loud? Given just the data on victims and the fact that only 39 percent of rapes are reported—we can easily extrapolate that a large number of people we interact with are rapists. The same guy isn’t assaulting hundreds of thousands of women every year.
We are conscious of the friends or partners we’ve known who’ve been raped—but we rarely allow ourselves to take in the fact that we know and interact with rapists on a daily basis, that given the statistics, many of us may have acquaintances, friends and relatives who have raped someone in their lifetime.
And yet rape and sexual assault are still treated as though they are individual, unrelated acts of violence against individual victims. Somehow, the perpetrators of the crimes and the culture they inhabit are left out of the discussion. It's like believing cigarettes are unrelated to cancer and poverty is simply a large group of folks just down on their luck. You can't fix a problem if you don't want figure out what's causing it.
The Times, and other media outlets could go a long way towards changing this trend by simply asking the questions in cases like these—what are these boys like? What do they do? Who do they associate with? Who are their role models? How are their family lives? What’s the culture like in their hometown? How do they treat girls and women? What are their fathers like?
Seeing rapists is essential for us to understand and fight against the culture of rape. We need to recognize the fact that there are more than just hundreds of thousands of victims out there. We need to understand that there are hundreds of thousands of perpetrators.
And we need to do whatever it takes to change that. Now is the time.