The recent sexual assault allegations brought forth against Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has provided another teachable moment. But just like the Kobe Bryant case, and other cases involving professional athletes, the media missed the mark in putting sexual assault into perspective.
In March, reports surfaced that Roethlisberger allegedly assaulted a woman at a Georgia nightclub. The charges were recently dropped on April 12. This is not the first time Roethlisberger has been accused of sexual assault. In 2008, a waitress at a Lake Tahoe, CA hotel also accused the two-time Super Bowl champion of rape, an allegation Roethlisberger denies. The investigation is ongoing. Now, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that Roethlisberger "made advances" to another woman "during a party at his home in Reynolds Plantation, GA."
Already, most media accounts are treating the Roethlisberger charges into "he said, she said" stories. I can't think of a more trivializing context to frame stories of sexual assault. It's this kind of framing that pigeon-holes the issue in unhelpful ways when we could all learn more about the societal perceptions of sexual assault cases.
Jackson Katz, a Huffington Post blogger and a leading anti-sexist male activist, wrote an important piece about the Kobe Bryant rape trial that largely went unnoticed. It provided meaningful context about the societal perceptions of rape and debunked the myths about the "he said, she said" excuses. As much as I'd like to see Roethlisberger receive fair treatment (and a fair trial, if it ever comes to that), the alleged victims should also be treated the same. Katz wrote the following observation regarding Kobe Bryant, the Los Angeles Lakers' star shooting guard.
Calling the case a "he said-she said" is part of an attempt by Kobe Bryant's defenders to discredit the alleged victim before a jury has even seen or heard the evidence. It also fits a larger pattern where some men - and women - seek to reduce the serious felony charge of sexual assault to a matter of poor communication or an unhappy sexual encounter. This fundamentally misstates the gravity of what is alleged to have happened, which is an egregious violation of one person's bodily integrity by another.
The same applies to Ben Roethlisberger and his alleged victim(s).
It's time for the media to break the cycle of "he said, she said" coverage when it comes to sexual assault cases. Where should they begin? I'll leave it to Katz.
We should try to broaden the conversation to talk about the societal context within which rape is so common. Some questions we should raise whenever we get the chance: why is the rape rate so high in the U.S.? Why do so many men rape women? If over 99% of rape is perpetrated by men - whether the victims are female or male - why is rape considered a "women's issue?" What is going on with American men - whether we're star athletes or just average guys -- that causes so many of us to assault women? Do men who are not rapists contribute to the problem - or to its solution? What role is played by friends, family members, classmates, and teammates?
Now that's a good place to start.