The rape accusations leveled against Julian Assange have meant the media has lately been discussing what it means to be raped, and – more broadly- how is rape defined? I must admit, I’m having difficulty finding exact information on what Assange has been accused of. I know two women allege he committed some sexual misconduct, but some places I’ve read it wasn’t (legally) rape, while most news sources are nevertheless calling it such. (If anyone has links to better information, I’d appreciate ‘em. Thanks!) Regardless of Assange’s guilt or innocence, though, the news coverage sparked an interesting conversation between a friend and I, about the difficulties of presenting objective coverage around rape accusations.
Specifically, it made me think about the differences between discussing a crime left theft – or even murder – in comparison to discussing rape.
Because when you’re talking about those crimes, there’s (usually) no debate about whether or not a crime occurred, it’s just an issue of who did it. Most news coverage you hear around non-sexual crimes don’t debate that, say, Alice was robbed or Bob was murdered. Every so often there will be a story of arson for insurance money, sure, but those are the exception, not the rule.
Not so with rape.
Rape coverage revolves much more around the ‘what’ than the ‘who.’ Often, particularly in high-coverage cases like this one, the ‘who’ isn’t even in question – these women went to the police knowing who they were accusing, not saying, “I was raped by a stranger in an alley.” That means the way the case (and the accusation) is discussed changes. In a theft case, for example, a newspaper probably wouldn’t print, “Alice, who is claiming to be a victim of theft, is pressing charges.” They’d say, “Alice, who was robbed, is pressing charges.”
And so the language in rape-related cases becomes incredibly charged. There’s a huge difference, emotionally and in terms of how coverage is perceived, in saying “Alice, who is claiming to be a rape victim, is pressing charges,” versus “Alice, who was raped, is pressing charges.” The former calls into question the very events being presented, while the latter places an implication of guilt on the accused.
The more I think about it, the more I’m realizing it’s a lose/lose situation: either coverage calls into question the victim’s experiences, or calls into question the accused’s innocence. The former offends me as a feminist, the later as someone who strongly believes in “Innocent until proven guilty” as a fundamental requirement of a fair criminal justice system.
From what I’ve seen, the media seems around Assange seems to be focusing on “accusations” and not straying into territory where they take a stance on whether or not Assange committed any crimes. (Which, I suppose, inherently means they leave open the possibility that rape didn’t occur, meaning they are sort of taking a stance.) I don’t know what the answer is, though, or what I want the media to be doing. I just now that the deeper into discussions of rape I get, particularly when talking about media portrayal of and reporting on the subject, the murkier things seem.