• Carolyn – Advocacy and Communications Specialist

  • P3 - Contributing Authors

How Not to Write an Article About Sexual Assault (Inspiration Courtesy of Rolling Stone, Who Shows Us How It’s Done)

stop-victim-blaming1Last year, a girl named Audrie Pott, a fifteen year old Saratoga High School student, took her own life in the wake of a sexual assault by three boys that involved not only the assault itself at a party, but also photographs taken of her body, unconscious, after the boys had written degrading messages all over it.  This was a local tragedy that assumed national proportions, particularly coming as it did after several other similar cases had already hit the news.  The first was the Steubenville, Ohio rape of a  high school girl, incapacitated by alcohol, who was publicly and repeatedly sexually assaulted by her peers, several of whom documented the acts in social media. The victim was transported, undressed, photographed, and sexually assaulted. She was also penetrated vaginally by other students’ fingers, an act defined as rape under Ohio law.  The second was the suicide of Rehtaeh Parsons in Hallifax, Canada–the victim of an alleged gang rape and online bullying campaign that lasted months.

When I fell across a five-page article “Sexting, Shame and Suicide” in the September 26th 2013 issue of Rolling Stone about Audrie Pott, I was at first really excited to read it—I felt certain that an acclaimed magazine like Rolling Stone would present a thoughtful article talking about what had been done to Audrie, about sexism, rape culture… any number of related topics.  I thought, “What a horrible tragedy—but at least maybe some small good can come of the fact that it will help to ignite a national conversation about changing culture away from one that enables assaults like this to happen.”

Boy, was I wrong.

I knew I had to write a blog post about the article.  I’ve sat and stewed about it.  I wanted to make the perfect post.  I couldn’t.  So, finally, I am just writing my reactions and if I come off as angry and appalled, that’s because I am.  In fact, I am appalled enough that here and there I may use “language.”  You are forewarned.  Also, there is “language” used in the Rolling Stone article I am quoting as well.  Doubly-forewarned.

Also, one of the challenges inherent in this blog post is that to really UNDERSTAND what I am posting about, you have to read the Rolling Stone article. And it is on the long side.  But I know you can do it!  Here is another link to it:

http://www.rollingstone.com/culture/news/sexting-shame-and-suicide-20130917

Okay. Now, I am proceeding forward on the assumption you’ve read the article.  (You did, right?  Good…)  Because what I am going to do now is just call out sections of the article that set me back on my heels, made my eyes widen, and my blood pressure go up…and try to talk about WHY they caused those reactions.  Ready?  Here we go!

We will kick off with their introduction of Audrie, who they describe as:

A curvaceous sophomore at Saratoga High School, dressed in the cool-girl’s uniform of a low-cut top and supershort skirt, she looked the same as always, but inside she was quivering with humiliation.

If this were a male victim, would we phrase it, “A well-hung sophomore at Saratoga High School, dressed in the stud-guy’s uniform of rear-hugging jeans that showed his package, he looked the same as always, but inside he was quivering with humiliation”? Also, while we’re at it, “quivering with humiliation” is such a dime-store romance sort of phrase. “On the outside, she was cool and remote, but on the inside, she was quivering…”  Really?

Things keep going downhill from here.  Yes, this article seems to be trying to talk about a party sub-culture in schools and how it can be destructive, but what it really ends up doing is sexualizing a teen-aged girl in such a way that the conclusion seems to be, “Yes, she was sexually attacked, ridiculed and tormented, but considering how she acted and dressed, really what can you expect?”

 So, after starting with describing her sexual assets and dress, the article moves on to portraying her as a budding lush:

The summer before her death, Audrie had started to change, moving away from the kids she’d hung out with since middle school. She had started to drink a little and had dated a slightly older guy. When she drank, the self-consciousness that had afflicted her since junior high melted away. She loosened up. Sometimes, she loosened up a lot.

And we all know what happens to loose women.  Right?  So she drank and may have been with an older guy.  Which apparently makes it okay for her to be sexually assaulted by three unrelated young men and have derogatory things written on her body and photos of it passed around to public ridicule.

 Now the article decides to describe some of Audrie’s friends, and it can’t resist commenting on their physical virtues as well:

 Sara – 15, pretty, slim and blond – and Audrie had become close that summer and were exploring a new realm of boys, bottles and small parties, preferably at parent-free houses, that the Saratoga kids call “kickbacks.”

And we need to know that Sara is slim, pretty and blond…why? Interesting to note that nowhere in this article are there physical descriptions (or descriptions of any kind) concerning the boys.  Granted, they are minors and get some legal protection because of that, but it does still bring up the point of, “Why go describing all the girls in the first place?”

 Now we move on to the party at which Audrie was assaulted by the three young men.

 Eventually, 11 kids showed up, many of them to sip vodka and Gatorade cocktails. They all belonged to their class’s popular clique, the girls dressed as provocatively as possible, even by the loose standards of California high schools.

Here we are with the description of “loose” again.  What is interesting is how sexualized the prose is.  Loose can be “informal” but “loose” is also a term meaning a woman who sleeps around.  And again, we all know what happens to loose women.

The mixer of choice was Gatorade, or downed straight. Audrie drank hardest of all.

Which clearly means that whatever happened next, she brought it on herself because she chose to drink. Because if you drink and are female, you have no right to determine what happens to your body, and no right to be treated to basic respect.  Right?

Audrie was already stumbling and incoherent, taking shots and making out with different boys on the living-room couch.

Adding to the whole “slut-shaming” tone of this article.  This article reads like a cautionary tale  “See girls, if you dress like a slut and drink a lot, the inevitable conclusion will be that several teenaged boys will sexually assault you, draw degradingly on your body, the school as a whole will shame you, and you will have no choice but to end your pathetic, over-sexualized little life and later, a magazine will write about you and highlight everything about you it thinks is inappropriate.  Because really, you brought it on yourself.”

 Now the article talks about the actual assault:

Police interviews with the partyers pieced together what allegedly happened next. One of the boys Audrie made out with was so drunk he started crying and screaming. He threw up in the kitchen sink – into which someone had already tossed Audrie’s iPhone. Audrie was too blitzed to notice.

As far as I can tell, this detail about the iPhone only made it into the article for the “yuck” factor and to point out again that Audrie was really drunk.  (Although, she’s not the one who yakked on her phone so… the relevance sort of escapes me.  Moving on…)

Then three boys she’d known since middle school – Bill, Joe and Ron – and one of their friends, Mary, helped her upstairs into a bedroom (the names of these four have been changed because of the boys’ status in a juvenile case). Mary appears to have left the room when the boys started pulling off Audrie’s clothes and drawing on her with Sharpies. In interviews with police later, they admitted, to varying degrees, coloring half of her face black, then pulling down her bra, taking off her shorts and drawing scribbles, lines and circles on her breasts and nipples. Bill wrote “anal” above her ass with an arrow pointing down.

You know what is really interesting here is that this is the first time that “Bill”, “Joe” and “Ron” have shown up in the story and we’re about a third in.  Up until now, we’ve heard a lot about the way that Audrie dressed, the way she drank, the way she was making out with others.  We’ve not heard a thing about what they were wearing, drinking, or how they were acting.  By making this article all about Audrie and her possible foibles, it puts the burden of what happened that night squarely on her, when they are the ones who committed the assaulting and battery, (child) pornography and other crimes.

At some point, Mary returned to find Audrie in her underwear and put a blanket over her, then left the room again. With Audrie still sprawled out on the bed and unresponsive, the boys allegedly fingered her and took pictures on their phones.

So now we have the actual sexual assault. Classy, right?  Never in this article is the question addressed directly of what the boys thought they were doing, whether they thought it was right or wrong, or how we socialize boys that leads to situations like this seeming “okay” in their point of view.  No, we keep hammering on Audrie and clothing choices, appearance, and party-going ways instead. 

 Now we’re at the next day:

Back in her room, Audrie wasn’t so nonchalant. She was engaged in a frantic attempt to discover what had happened to her body.

By putting this in the passive form, it seems like something that magically “happened” to her body.  It would read differently and more accurately if it said, “She was engaged in a frantic attempt to discover who had assaulted and defaced her body.”

Audrie wrote that the “whole school knows. . . . Do you know how people view me now? I fucked up and I can’t do anything to fix it. . . . One of my best friends hates me. And I now have a reputation I can never get rid of.”

Writing to another boy on Facebook, she said, “My life is over. . . . I ruined my life and I don’t even remember how.”

The tragedy here is that her big “fuck-up” here was underage drinking—which everybody at the party was doing, apparently, and allegedly making out with various people, which one can also presume others at the party did.  She said her life was over—horribly prophetic—and that she ruined her life.  Guess what?

 SHE WASN’T THE ONE WHO RUINED HER LIFE.

Three boys ruined her life by thinking that it would be funny to sexually assault her when she was unable to defend herself, to scrawl graffiti on her like she was a bathroom wall, and to take photographs and share them around.  It is doubly shameful that a prestigious magazine like Rolling Stone then decided to–by implication–lay the blame on her after her death by centering an entire extensive article about her life and death on how her behavior and appearance apparently invited this behavior in others.  Wrong.  Wrong.  WRONG.

 Okay, take a deep breath.

 By about page three, things get momentarily a little less heinous in the reporting department.  The article takes some time to talk about some other high profile recent cases of teen gang rapes/sexual abuse and suicides, the discusses sexual assault statistics.  Then the article reports:

Rape stats may be no higher than in years past, but the numbers are as shocking as ever. Every two minutes, a sexual assault happens in the U.S., and nearly 50 percent of the victims are under the age of 18, according to Katherine Hull, a spokeswoman for the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network: “The demographic of high school- and college-age women is at highest risk for sexual assault.” More than half of the incidents go unreported, advocates say […]

Yeah.  And maybe one of the reasons more than half the incidents go unreported is that when the incident IS reported, the victim can look forward to reactions similar to the writing in this article—“Oh, look how much she was drinking.  Oh, look how tight her clothing is and how short her skirt was.  Oh, look at her dreadful judgment and all the things she did wrong…”

The dreadful judgment that really matters—the decisions by her attackers to molest, rape or assault her—take second fiddle to the self-righteous tongue clucking of people who shake their heads over young girls these days and their behavior.

 Now, do I think that we need to have a talk about under-age drinking?  Sure.  A talk about clothing standards… er, possibly.  But should those discussions essentially TAKE THE PLACE OF talking about how a human being (in this case three of them) decided to sexually assault, scribble on the body of, take photographs of and share around said photographs of another human being whose only crime was to be participating in a party?  I don’t think so.

 Then the article takes on way that the photos of Audrie’s assault were shared around.  It says:

“It’s a perfect storm of technology and hormones,” says lawyer Lori Andrews, director of the Institute for Science, Law and Technology in Chicago. “Teen sexting is all a way of magnifying girls’ fantasies of being a star of their own movies, and boys locked in a room bragging about sexual conquest.”

Um… okay, whatever, Lori.  Maybe.  But in this case, AUDRIE’S PHOTOS WERE SENT WITHOUT HER KNOWLEDGE OR APPROVAL.  A “fantasy of being a star in her own movies” doesn’t even come into play here, so why the heck was this quotation even included?  It implies again that somehow Audrie was this sexed-up little budding-alcoholic tart who secretly would have loved to have nude photos of her passed around, when in fact, having photos of her passed around (after a sexual assault) contributed to her SUICIDE.

 So, now Rolling Stone earnestly attempts to discuss What To Do About All This:

Prosecutors all over the nation are facing the same social and legal quandary: How do you protect young women from not just sexual assault but the magnification of those assaults via the Internet? How much punishment can they mete out to boys, who in many cases are only a year or two removed from childhood, who seem to think they are committing pranks with phones and passed-out girls, and for whom the ultimate charge – rape – means the end of their lives before they start? Finally, how do you instill in impulse-driven teens of both sexes the knowledge that whatever they record on their phones and send can reach the entire world and stay public forever?

Okay, some real concerns are raised—valid ones.  No problem with that.  Except… waaaait…

 How do you protect young women from not just sexual assault but the magnification of those assaults via the Internet?

Here’s a nice place to start—just a thought.  Maybe we could protect young women from a culture that automatically links any sexual assault they suffer to what THEY drank, what THEY wore, what THEIR reputation was, rather than linking the assault to what their ATTACKER did?  And maybe we could protect them from big-name magazines who victim-blame them in their articles, thus “magnifying those assaults via the Internet”?

 How much punishment can they mete out to boys, who in many cases are only a year or two removed from childhood, who seem to think they are committing pranks with phones and passed-out girls, and for whom the ultimate charge – rape – means the end of their lives before they start?

Huh… interestingly enough, I’d say that maybe if the media and the culture PUT THE BLAME WHERE IT BELONGS… on the decisions of the attackers… that would (again) be a good start.  Is there more to this situation than just that?  Sure.  Am I saying that is the only element of a solution?  Of course not.  But the fact that an article out of a major magazine, theoretically trying to get to the bottom of a crime story, makes the whole emphasis about the foibles of the victim rather than about the crimes of the attackers sorta makes my point for me.

Okay, I’m basically disgusted enough by this article now to be nearing the end of my unusually long blog post.  I’d like to leave you with the thought that we are now only on page 3 of this 5 page article and right after talking about statistics and fretting about Why All This Is Happening, Rolling Stone leaps right back into the article with a discussion of Audrie Pott’s breast size.

No.  Really.

By the time she was 13, she’d sprouted 34DD breasts.

Yeah.  Because we really needed to know the exact size of a minor’s breasts after she is dead.

Then it finally talks a bit about the 3 boys who allegedly committed the assault and other crimes.  We’ve had three pages now, primarily discussing Audrie’s looks and behavior.  What do we get on the boys?

 According to Audrie’s friends, one of the three boys eventually arrested for the assault, Joe, was a leader of the teasing pack in middle school and especially sadistic. “He would pick one person to make fun of for a few weeks, then move on to another,” Amanda says. Bill had a reputation as a troublemaker, while Ron was more of a “sweet” guy.

Yeah.  That’s it.  That’s basically as deep as it goes.  Because who cares about the behaviors or motivations or socializations or past history of the alleged perpetrators… because they’re just the people who committed the crime, right?  (Yes, yes, I know… they are juveniles, blah blah.  But seriously, this is all that is said?  This is the extent of the journalistic digging?)

 Attorneys representing the boys have claimed that their clients had nothing to do with Audrie’s suicide and work to portray Audrie as a desperate, troubled young woman.

Ya mean, kind of the way this article does? And, after all… think of the futures of these poor boys.

 It’s a sentiment shared by many parents around town. “These boys are not bad boys!” says the mother of a friend of one of the boys at the party. “They are goofy and silly. If there is a sleepover, one of the boys might put whipped cream on someone’s hand. They are not malicious, mean criminals. This is costing their families thousands and thousands of dollars, and we are not all rich.”

Maybe as a society we should be raising boys whose idea of silly IS whipped cream on someone’s hand and not sexually fingering and assaulting an unconscious girl, writing and scribbling all over her body, and then sharing those images amongst friends.  Because, you know, there IS a difference.  A basic level of human empathy, for one thing.  And that’s something we as a society are not doing a great job of teaching.

In conclusion, some final quotes:

In response to Audrie’s death and the arrests, Saratoga’s teachers opened discussions with students about the case that had fractured the affluent suburban veneer of the high school. “In every single class, somebody raised their hand and said, ‘Well, wasn’t she drunk?’” says Hayes. “And ‘I thought she was drunk.’ And ‘She made out with two boys.’ ‘She was drunk and I’m sure she liked it.’”

It is tragic that the teens in the classes had, as their first thoughts, the ways in which they believed the blame rested with Audrie.  We can shake our heads over that all we like.  But Rolling Stone, by implication, has basically said all the same things by concentrating on what she did, what she wore, what her breast size was, and who she may or may not have made out with.  Congratulations, Rolling Stone.  You have showed all the maturity and empathy of those kids.  Except they’re KIDS.  They learn how to be adults by what we, as a society, teach them by example.

 YOU, Rolling Stone, are a powerful media voice in society.  And you should damn well know better.

I’m glad that non-profits like the Tri-Valley Haven and other domestic violence and rape crisis centers around the State and nation work all the time to do healthy dating relationship and anti-date rape classes in local junior high and high schools.  I am proud that we do bystander intervention trainings and the hard, day-to-day work of trying to change society to make acts like this unacceptable.  Because, quite clearly, things right now are broken.  Become involved.  Be an active bystander.  Let your voice be heard.  Support the people doing the work and let’s make this world a better place for our kids.

Before we lose another.

Leave a comment

10 Comments

  1. Vicki Thompson

     /  September 30, 2013

    Excellent response to the RS article, Carolyn!

    It was infuriating to see the misplaced focus on Audrie’s behavior rather than questioning why the perpetrators chose to assault and humiliate “a desperate, troubled young woman” instead of helping her. Furthermore, the article perpetuates the old myth that attractive, “sexy” women and girls are most likely to be assaulted. The perpetrators targeted her because she was incapacitated, not because of her bra size or other physical features.

    Thank you for putting the focus back where it belongs.

    Reply
  2. Fay

     /  September 30, 2013

    Wow, Carolyn that RS article pissed me off! I am a mother of 2 girls, I get tried of the victims always being blame. I think as a society we need to teach or boys right from wrong.

    Reply
  3. Deanna

     /  October 1, 2013

    Thank you for such a thoughtful blogpost, Carolyn.

    While it’s important to hold perpetrators accountable, it’s equally important to hold media outlets accountable for their contributions to the rape culture in which we live. In many ways, their influence is what begins to shape individuals’ impact (for better or worse) on the movement to end violence against women and girls.

    I hope this makes it to the editors at RS!

    Reply
  4. Cynthia

     /  October 2, 2013

    Thank you, Carolyn, for writing such an intelligent response to an absolutely infuriating article! I am so disappointed in RS, I expected more from a supposedly cutting edge publication. They let girls and women down with their flawed reporting and you nailed it perfectly in your superb blog post.

    Reply
    • I would love it if we saw some sort of follow-up or addendum by them saying, “Er, we sort of took the wrong slant on this one, folks…sorry.”

      Reply
  5. Jean

     /  October 2, 2013

    My blood pressure rose as I read the article. This is so frustrating I don’t even know where to begin. It is a sad commentary on our society that the survivor is blamed for the perpetrators actions. To anyone who has been assaulted, it is NOT your fault! Can everyone say that with me? IT IS NOT YOUR FAULT!

    Reply
  6. What an effective response to the RS article that takes the easy way out by blaming the victim. I appreciate your voice for Audrie and wish that she could have heard that from a large crowd of people supporting her, calling for justice. Hope you find a way to send this to RS.

    Reply

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