There has been a ton of outrage in the feminist blogosphere over the past 48 hours due to an article published in Tuesday’s New York Times. That article detailed the horrific gang rape of an eleven year old girl in Cleveland, Texas. Apparently, eighteen (yes, 18) boys and young men lured this girl into an abandoned home and repeatedly sexually assaulted her, threatening her with violence if she did not comply. The situation only came to light when a classmate of the survivor’s found a video of some of the acts and informed a teacher.
So, you may ask, what’s the problem with the New York Times reporting about this crime? Nothing. In fact, sadly, we have to report about these things because people need to know that they’re out there and happening every single day. It’s a sad reality that we have to live with.
The outrage came over the following part of the article:
Residents in the neighborhood where the abandoned trailer stands — known as the Quarters — said the victim had been visiting various friends there for months. They said she dressed older than her age, wearing makeup and fashions more appropriate to a woman in her 20s. She would hang out with teenage boys at a playground, some said.
“Where was her mother? What was her mother thinking?” said Ms. Harrison, one of a handful of neighbors who would speak on the record. “How can you have an 11-year-old child missing down in the Quarters?”
People were outraged that these statements were included in the article. And rightfully so. This is exactly the kind of victim-blaming that we, as a society, have used to cover up the criminal acts of others (particularly white, heterosexual, financially privileged males). The logic (if you can call it that) reads something like this: Wasn’t she really just asking for it?
It’s the kind of thing that survivors of violent acts, especially those involving sexual assault, have had to endure for years. In fact, this type of victim blaming was used heavily in the Jim Crow South in order to dismiss sexual assault claims of Black women.
But maybe, the anger at the New York Times is slightly misplaced. In this instance, they are reporting the reactions of the people in the community. Now, whether those actions and reactions are right or wrong, the simple act of reporting them does not always a co-conspirator make. So maybe, including those comments don’t make the whole case.
But what angered many commentators isn’t just that the reactions were reported, it’s that the entirety of the article seems to perpetuate the rape culture that allows things like this to happen in the first place. There seems to be more humanizing information given about the alleged perpetrators than there is about the victim, which calls into question the author’s intent in creating a backstory for them and not her. The article repeatedly refers to the repeated rapes as “sexual acts,” which serves to decriminalize them to some extent. And if those comments were truly made, and I have no doubt that they were, were they truly representative of the mood in the community to warrant inclusion to this extent?
Therein lies the problem. Sure, the New York Times may have gotten it wrong to some degree, but how much of this is just reporting about the horrific crime and the community’s inability to react in an appropriate manner about it? It would help if the reporter were a bit clearer, but remember: a reporter’s job is not to editorialize. So where do we draw the line of fault on this one?
In the end, this is just another instance of our culture’s inability to get it right when it comes to victims of rape. And the real sad part is that this will almost undoubtedly happen again and again.