Opinion: A Deconstruction of Response to Rape in American Media

Lately, I’ve noticed a phenomenon buzzing around social media and various circles of the internet (or even conversations overheard in real life in which I’ve been hesitant to engage) involving people who express complaints about rape in the media being mocked or derided for their sentiments on this touchy subject. It goes without saying that rape is something which makes everyone uncomfortable for one reason or another when brought up in conversation. Some people feel they are being implicitly accused; others are reminded of distressing events in their past; others simply don’t like talking about unpleasant topics. Regardless, it is important to occasionally discuss topics such as rape if we want to understand our society or to work towards the continuous goal bettering our world.

Here is an example of an exchange I have witnessed multiple times in various forms:

Sam: “Does the sequel to this book have a lot of rape in it? I enjoyed the first one, but the rape scenes really bothered me and I’d like to avoid it in the future.”

Alex: “People whine so much about rape. There’s lots of violence in this book, too but that doesn’t bother you at all? You need to get your priorities straight.”

Pat: “If you can’t handle rape, you should just stick to reading books written for teenagers. You clearly aren’t ready for adult literature.”

I’m not going to question anyone’s taste in movies or media in this piece. What I do want to do is take a look at the way rape and the people who respond to rape in our culture are viewed and the potential implications – good or bad – that has. It is often uncomfortable for people to examine their own motivations or biases, so no judgment is passed on the character of you or anyone else reading here.

The imitated conversation above shows a critical response to one person’s sensitivity to a portrayal of rape in the media. Rape (in America) is a crime which is usually looked upon as one of the more vile crimes possible to commit: along with murder and kidnapping, sexual assault is a Class A felony which carries a mandatory minimum sentence. It exists as a violation of autonomy and human rights which even Alex and Pat would likely agree is very wrong. So what would cause a negative response to a person like Sam in discomfort regarding such an act?

Both Alex and Pat above use phrases which imply a childish attitude or an over-reaction to an event. This leads to the question of whether discomfort with rape is indeed a “foolish” sentiment to have. The effects of rape on those who have experienced it include those which are emotional and psychological, such as: difficulty sleeping, feeling detached, impaired memory of the assault, mentally reliving the assault, increased anxiety, avoidance of places associated with the rape, and avoidance of social life. When these symptoms continue past the first few months after the event, they meet the criteria for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, which may occur in people who have experienced a traumatic event of any sort, including witnessing a crime or being involved in a violent situation. Although PTSD is not necessarily well-understood by the general public, it is receiving more awareness as a result of campaigns supporting members of troops returning from active duty. It is important to remember that all sorts of events may lead to PTSD – including car accidents, bullying, or natural disasters – and that a person’s suffering is not limited to those events which seem “worse” than others. If we can accept that PTSD is a real disorder with profound effects, it is disingenuous to imply that a person is childish for feeling distress at the mention of a violent event, such as rape.

The second criticism which is raised is that other violent events are “worse”- therefore a focus on rape is irrational. It would be impossible to argue that violent murders are not a bad thing. However, the things that make people tick do not always fall on a carefully delineated spectrum of best to worst. In addition, media representation itself is far more likely to show violent killing than sexual violence, so is it so unrealistic that individuals have more discomfort with the later? It is, after all, individuals who write and produce this media before it is consumed by the public.

Statistics show 1 in 6 women will be sexually assaulted. The murder rate in the United States is 4.7 per 100,000 people. That’s a 0.0047% chance of being murdered if you live in the U.S., or a 16.67% chance of sexual assault if you are a woman in the U.S. Clearly, sexual assault continues to be a major problem in our culture. This does not mean that murder is not a problem, but rather that it most certainly is worthwhile to address rape and work to decrease the risk for people across the country. Moreover, this means that out of any given population watching a television show or reading a book, nearly 17% of the women have experienced or will experience sexual assault in their life. Significantly fewer readers or show viewers will have been personally affected by murder. As a comparison: any disease which carries a higher incidence in the population will generally have more research devoted to a cure than a disease with a low incidence, even if the second disease is more harmful to the individual.

Furthermore, rape prevention courses are often made available to women and there are very few women who do not take precautions against assault when leaving the home (eg, carrying pepper spray, sticking with a trusted friend, or downloading emergency apps to their phones.) With the threat of sexual assault both real and prevalent, a constant psychological awareness of vulnerability is often fostered, even if is not apparent in day to day conversation. A moderate fear that is cultivated as an issue of personal protection is hardly irrational.

In addition, it is difficult to make the argument that violence is more taboo than sex. Depictions of physical violence appear from a young age: anvils dropping in cartoons, evil witches falling to their death from cliffs, or young wizards killing dark sorcerers. Many people are aware that Disney, for example, cleans up the twisted fairy tales which inspired their movies before release to children; however Prince Phillip killing Maleficent remains in the story, while the detail that he impregnates a comatose Sleeping Beauty is replaced by her being woken by “true love’s first kiss.” Prime time television may include gun shoot outs with cops and robbers while (female) nipples must be censored. These are the values handed down from one generation to the next. When those in charge of censorship regularly purge media of sex while leaving in death and brutality, criticism of the priorities of the consumer of that media is untenable.

Why is it that victims of physical assault with PTSD are encouraged to cope with their traumas while victims of sexual assault are criticized for attempting to cope with theirs? Would it be seen as acceptable for Sam to take issue with the violence in the book, but not the rape? It is not possible to answer the second question for Alex and Pat. The answer to the first question, however, may lie in what is called victim blaming. Victim blaming is when a person is judged as being responsible, at least in part, for the crime committed against them. This is made possible by attitudes toward rape and sexuality which exist, stating that victims may have “invited” sexual assault by not acting demurely, or by not resisting violently “enough,” or even by stating that the resistance offered was only “token resistance” to appear modest while secretly wanting to engage in sex. These beliefs both trivialize and contribute to denial of widespread rape.

When rape contributes to psychological distress of millions of people, ignoring and delegitimizing stress as a result of exposure to depictions of assault is perilous. In order to preserve creative freedom and spur societal discussions, I do not believe that rape should be censored from media. I do believe, however, that it is important to handle such issues with tact and respect, rather than sensationalism, and also that it is time for everyone to examine their biases regarding rape in America.

It is my personal opinion that Alex and Pat are likely not bad people, although the response they showed to Sam was misguided. How much more beneficial would it be to foster awareness of a pandemic problem instead of criticizing people for the issues with which they choose to concern themselves? No person can care equally about every problem in the world – some have to concern themselves with hunger in Africa, others with gang violence in cities, others with diabetes in America. This does not mean that some good cannot be done by taking the time to self-examine for attitudes which contribute to normalization of rape and provide survivors with support, thereby providing potential victims in the future with a chance for a less hostile culture.

I am going to be asking my friends who say things akin to Alex and Pat’s comments to reconsider how they view the effects of rape on the humans around them. What will you do?

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