Is the Internet changing how the media covers sexual assault?

BY S.E. SMITH

It’s a case that seems like a carnival of the absurd: a man drugs and rapes his wife for three years, until she finds out and goes to police to file a complaint. He’s tried, and the jury convicts him of six Class B felonies (rape and “criminal deviate conduct”); the prosecution asks for 40 years in prison, and the judge sentences him to twenty years: 12 suspended, and the remaining eight to be served under home supervision.

The story has electrified the Internet, which has exploded with outrage, stirring up a complicated and fascinating dance between digital spaces and traditional media. For the first time, I’m seeing marital rape treated as a serious issue in publications like the Los Angeles Times, which has a decidedly negative cast in its coverage of the case (which it’s been following closely). Is the Internet actually changing the way the media thinks and talks about rape, particularly in so-called “grey rape” situations?

Historically, there’s been a long tradition of regarding marital rape as suspect, with the marriage contract viewed as a contract for sex, as well. In some conservative communities, elders and authorities actively reject the concept of marital rape, making no room for it in their cultural frameworks. Indeed, Virginia legislator Richard Black thinks it should be legal, and has fought aggressively for the right to sexually abuse your spouse.

In other communities, it’s a joking, uncomfortable matter—how could spouses not want to have sex with each other? How could one partner overpower another? (For rape is often framed in terms of a physical assault, as opposed to a complex assertion of power and control that may be more psychological than physical.)

That’s been starting to change, though, thanks to the advocacy work of groups like RAINN, which has played a vital role in raising awareness, providing counseling and resources, and participating in policy work to change the laws on marital rape. As of 1993, marital rape was illegal in every state, including Indiana, where David Wise just got a free pass for abusing his wife and taking videos of her while doing it (which is how she discovered that the rapes were occurring) from a lenient judge—one who, by the way, is up for re-election and is projected to win.  

It’s not just advocacy organizations, though. Victims of marital rape are also speaking out, coming out from under the shroud of silence and shame that has clung to rape victims. For victims of marital rape, talking about rape can be particularly complex, as society views marriage as consent, and may reject their stories and lived experiences. It’s difficult to overcome prejudice to be frank about spousal rape and abuse, and cases like this make it even harder—now, the whole world is watching as a judge effectively said that a marital rape didn’t matter, even though it didn’t just happen once, but multiple times over the course of years.

In fact, the judge suggested that the victim should forgive her husband, arguing that her husband clearly needed help and that she should be more understanding of his circumstances. The victim was horrified and angered at the thought that not only would her husband go largely unpunished, but that he’d enjoy rights to their home (indeed, under home supervision he’d be effectively confined there), turning her very residence into an unsafe space.

Without the fast-moving digital landscape, this is where this case might have died. Another instance in an already shaky justice system of a rapist walking free while his victim was left to pick up the pieces, and another case where other rapists learned that their crimes would go unpunished if they picked the “right” victims, like, say, their wives.

Yet, thanks to the rise of a highly active and aggressive anti-rape culture online, that’s not how this case is turning out, and the explosive verdict may blow back in the face of judge Kurt Eisgruber.

Online feminism has been heavily criticized, but it’s hard to argue that it also acts as an immense and formidable tool for change. When the efforts of feminist organizers, those working in solidarity with them, and other women’s rights activists are coordinated to spearhead campaigns, results happen. Those results are often impressively swift and significant, illustrating the power of social media, of the hashtag, of coordinated email campaigns. Where once women’s centers set up phone banks and set to until they got justice, now they spread messages at lightning speed across the Internet.

That’s having a very real effect on the media, which has radically changed the way it approaches a number of issues in the last decade in direct response to pressure from online organizers. That includes coverage of marital rape, historically a highly taboo issue that newspapers would shy away from covering in the first place—and would cover only in the most vague, polite of terms when they couldn’t avoid running a story on it.

Now, publications like the L.A. Times are using words like “rape” to describe this case, instead of hiding behind euphemisms. For supposedly neutral journalistic institutions, they’re also using language that definitely rings condemnatory when describing the judge’s decisions in the case. The Indianapolis Star, for example, has run a scorching series on the case, including interviews with the victim, who has been willing to speak very openly with the media about her situation as she searches for justice.

Media critics have found much material to work with in recent years in terms of coverage of sexual assault, abuse within marriages, and women’s rights—and a look at the coverage of this horrific situation seems to suggest that editors are taking heed. They’re choosing their words with more care, focusing on the important details of the case rather than questioning the victim’s characteristics as though she’s someone to blame, and reporting the story as a serious crime, not the source of awkward discomfort. If you want someone to thank, you can start with online activism.

S.E. Smith is a writer, agitator, and commentator based in Northern California. Ou focuses on social issues, particularly gender, prison reform, disability rights, environmental justice, queerness, class, and the intersections thereof, and has a special interest in rural subjects.

Photo via ssalonso/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)