Anyone with a soul can hardly stand to hear the story. In Texas, eighteen men ranging from middle schoolers to a 27-year-old, are facing charges of abuse and assault for gangraping and 11-year-old girl.
In December, when a cellphone video of the rape began circulating around her elementary school, a friend of the 11-year-old told a teacher about the footage- alerting school officials and police to the attacks. For the past months, the rapes were covered at the local level, receiving national coverage beginning this week following the formal charges being brought against the perpetrators. While 18 men have been arraigned, prosecutors now say they believe as many as 28 men were involved.
On Tuesday, March 8th, The New York Times published a piece by reporter James McKinley Jr. about the incident. But instead of looking at the rapes as crimes, McKinely uses his words to draw up an anthropological study sympathetic of a town that blames everyone except the men and boys responsible for the brutality in the first place.
While the piece describes the assortment of men being accused a real live humans, the victim is given the label seen on the police report of the crime. Personalizing these men, McKinley writes that:
“Five suspects are students at Cleveland High School, including two members of the basketball team. Another is the 21-year-old son of a school board member.”
The boys are ‘ordinary’ boys, they’re made to sound relatable and they belong to someone. Knowing these things and about the “working-class” town, readers are led to the set up of McKinely asking this question:
“…if the allegations are proved, how could their young men have been drawn into such an act?”
The question is an insulting and dangerous one that assumes that rape is some a social force field instead of a crime. It also lends the benefit of the doubt to the perpetrators, assuming that their lives were too normal for them to ‘take part’ in this heinous crime. And yet, while he crafts a sympathetic narrative around the men, boys and town- the victim, an 11-year-old girl subjected to hours of rape in an filthy, abandoned trailer is left to bear the responsibility for apparently tearing a community apart.
Even more egregious was McKinely’s use of sources to throw doubt on the character of the victim and her parenting. The reporter referenced town residents who imply that the 11-year-old girl was promiscuous:
Residents in the neighborhood where the abandoned trailer stands — known as the Quarters — said the victim had been visiting various friends there for months. They said she dressed older than her age, wearing makeup and fashions more appropriate to a woman in her 20s. She would hang out with teenage boys at a playground, some said.”
Not only is it unacceptable that an editor at The New York Times allowed this piece to run with “some said” as a source, it basically elevates town hearsay to act as a cheap journalistic balancing tool. It serves as a prime example of the rape culture that plagues our entire society.
Whether it is a little girl or a woman in her own right, no victim should be blamed for her own rape. Reading the article, there is no mention that an 11-year-old can give consent to statutory rape. There is mention, again through town hearsay, about the responsibility of girl’s mother to know where she was. But to get into that debate is to miss the larger point- regardless of whether the mother was neglectful or frantically searching, what happened to her child is wrong.
Since the article ran on Tuesday, the New York Times has received enormous backlash from readers and activist groups calling on the paper to issue an apology for the article, which put the blame on the victim for the heinous rapes she suffered through. Allowing the piece to be cast as objective journalism is an insult to all Americans.
For McKinley, the profile of a town battered by societal changes took precedent over the victim violated by boys from that place. While he may view the background of the town as vital to the story he wanted to tell- it is interesting to see how the relatable aspects of a small town governed the story. In the Congo, where rape is used as a weapon of war, reporters have a heightened sense of rape being used as violence and they portray it as such. But when an 11-year-old girl is told that she will be beaten up or raped by 18 different men and boys- we have the nerve to question whether or not she had an actual choice?
McKinley’s social lens frame fails because he does not look at the incident as indicative of but analogous to Cleveland, and the rest of ordinary America. Not for a minute does he consider how disturbing it is that our culture has become so accustomed with rape culture that it does ask how it is that the town’s population could stand by as nearly 30 of it’s young men used sexual violence against a little girl. Nor does he examine why those men then felt entitled enough about their actions to brag.
We live in a country where 1 in 4 women will experience sexual assault in her lifetime and are surrounded by a media culture that does not take rape seriously as a crime. Rather, our society claims rape is an allegation that says more about the victims’ flaws than the perpetrator’s wrongful actions. Journalism faces many pressures to be objective, but it’s ability to show us what’s wrong in our world can often give us the stepping stone to change it.
As women we cannot afford to be mere observers. This little girl has endured one of the traumatizing experiences anyone can face. She had many things taken from her- her childhood, among them. By speaking out against the New York Times’ endorsement of rape culture, we send a message that this girl is a victim not the cause. And we remind her as women with years behind us, that her spirit may be broken, her dignity cannot be taken away.
Tell us your thoughts and join us in signing Change.org’s petition, “Tell the New York Times to Apologize for Blaming a Child for Her Gang Rape.”