On Thursday, in response to an unfortunately-headlined crime story, I wrote a blog post at WIMN's Voices titled, "Seriously, editors, how have you not gotten this yet? "Rape" is not "sex":
I am seriously tired of writing articles, op-eds and blog posts -- and arguing with reporters, editors, and cable news hosts -- about the journalistic responsibility to not describe non-consensual, criminal sexual assault as "rape" or "sexual assualt," not simply "having sex."
You'd think this wouldn't be a tough distinction, especially in cases where the allegations involve gang rape, or unconscious victims. Yet time and time again, we see headlines like this week's Journal & Courier's"2 accused of sex with unconscious woman."
How many times do I have to write the same critique in response to what seems like a never ending stream of stories that make the same egregious linguistic mistake?
As the E.D. of Women In Media & News, I understand why these problems persist, and I'm dedicated to continuing to call outlets on their bias . But wouldn't it be nice if newsrooms could muster up some semantic common sense, not to mention knowledge of accurate terminology for crime reporting, or even simply human decency to make such critiques unnecessary?
And yet, here I go again:
Here's the headline Florida Today gave to an incredibly disturbing A.P. story about a group of young men who gang raped, sodomized and beat a woman, tortured her 12-year-old son by pouring cleaning liquids into his eyes, and then forced the child to join them in raping his own mother: "Woman forced to have sex with son."
Oh, holy hell. If it's not bad enough that they used the phrase "have sex with" to describe the sexual assault on the mother and on the boy, who was also a victim, here -- the headline didn't even bother to mention the gang rape.
What, should I be happy that they threw the word "forced" in there?
Snark aside, the reference to force slightly mitigates the headline, but not by much. And as for the son, where's the headline that explains that he was also sexually assaulted in this incident?
Many outlets' headers did mention the gang rape, but reverted to the neutral "have sex with" in reference to the son being forced to assault his mom. (For example, a quick search shows the A.P.'s piece got quite a bit of pickup in local and regional outlets, often with this headline: "2 teens accused of raping woman, forcing her to have sex with son.")
At least a couple of outlets did title their reportage more respsonsibly, such as the Herald Tribune's "Two teens held in gang rape of mother, torture of son."
Like I wrote last week, this shouldn't be a tough distinction for editors. But, since there seems to be some sort of collective headline writers' and editors' mental block on the subjecy, here's the basic rule:
When a story is about any human being being forced to have sex against her or his will -- the proper terminology is "rape" or "sexual assault" -- not "having sex." It's a criminal act. It's a violent attack. It's inappropriate to use the same language to describe it as you would use to describe consensual nookie.
Seriously, how is it that this rule hasn't made it into the style guides?
This post originally appeared at WIMN's Voices: A Group Blog on Women and the Media , a project of Women In Media & News, the national women's media analysis, education and advocacy group. To bring Jennifer L. Pozner to speak to your campus or community group, or to send her blog tips, email info [at] wimnonline [dot] org. To subscribe to WIMN's free media alert list, see the Action Center.