THE BLOG

'What Was He Wearing?' Why the Media Needs to Ask the Right Questions About Rape and Violence

03/09/2015 11:31 am ET | Updated May 09, 2015
Zeljko Bozic via Getty Images

Let us step back and observe the New York Times comb through the dating and relationship habits of a Stanford University student who has accused her former boyfriend of rape. Let us also observe The Daily Beast investigate Facebook messages between a Columbia University woman and the student on her campus she has publicly accused of rape.

Why is it that when it comes to violence against women, the conversation always turns to questions about why she stayed or continued to say "I love you" or why she did what she did. It's the same old story of focusing all the attention on the victim and if she has the "credibility" to accuse.

Unfortunately, these are the types of feature stories that have recently been emerging on powerful media platforms in response to campus rape accusations.

At best, this is a sorely missed opportunity. At worst, the media may be perpetuating the norms that cause the violence it's covering.

An intense media narrative about campus sexual assault could be a powerful tool for culture change, to prevent the shamefully high percentage of young women raped while at college. But not just any media narrative will do. Rather than keeping the spotlight on factors that perpetuate violence year after year, the media conversation has veered into the same victim-shaming ditch we have been trying to climb out of for generations.

Such misdirected conversations coupled with old, toxic norms about gender and violence have continued to perpetuate a conversation about rape that does little to stop the epidemic. Rolling Stone's initial walk-back of its coverage of an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia last fall fed the very stereotypes that have halted real progress for decades. As long as we continue to need to tell sensationalist, victim-focused stories to propel a conversation about violence against women, our progress will be sporadic.

The real opportunity is to examine the cultural cues that keep violence deeply imbedded in our nation's traditions so that we can make violence against women unacceptable. Sorority members at the University of Virginia exemplified this well when they recently protested a request by national sorority leadership that they stay sequestered from parties to ensure their safety. The students asked why not address the underlying factors that make campus parties unsafe, rather than make women once again responsible for whether or not she is raped? It's a common sense reaction, but was received with great confusion by the national leadership. This flare up is a classic example of the blinders we often put on about rape.

Violence against women is learned, not innate or inevitable. It's everyone's problem and everyone's responsibility to solve, and we urgently need to insist on keeping our focus on challenging the culture of violence that perpetuates values almost none of us want to embrace. Men and boys can be leaders of change and partners in ending violence against women.

Imagine what might happen if we point the magnifying glass in another direction, toward the root causes of violence: gender inequality and toxic gender norms that encourage men to behave violently to "perform masculinity," and encourage women to tolerate abusive relationships in order to "perform femininity" (not to mention the economic reasons many women have to stay due to broader socioeconomic inequality.)

Campus life is only one arena where violence is rampant. Sexual assault among young women not living on a campus is still largely in the shadows. Women are facing so much abuse online that they're leaving these spaces in droves (but even that excellent piece in the Washington Post did not explore why men harass so collectively and viciously, and how that can be stopped.

What if we heard more stories about men taking responsibility for their hurtful actions in the media? Or helped audiences see the deeply entrenched ways that the culture of violence lives among us? What if we collectively focused our efforts on encouraging interruptions to daily acts of violence, including street and online harassment? What if we worked directly with fraternities to ensure their new pledges embrace cultural norms that reject gender bias and violence, from sexist jokes to rape? When women and men, bystanders and communities, stand up against violence, we make spaces safe for women and families everywhere.

As long as we're asking why she stayed or what was she wearing, we will never ask why he committed this crime and what in our culture enabled him. The answers to those questions are the only ones that will solve this problem once and for all.