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Pia K. Hansen: View of rape cases deserves reassessment

A letter in last week’s paper caught my eye. In the wake of the second-degree rape charge filed against Christopher Jack Reid – along with charges for four other felony burglary crimes all committed on Greek Row at Washington State University – a letter writer took the mainstream media to task for focusing on the perpetrator and not on the sexual assault victim.

Think about that for a moment.

Any other crime victim you can imagine, from a man who’s been stabbed, to a woman who lost her family in a drunken driving accident, to the homeowner with a house torched by an arsonist or the retired couple who lost their savings to a scam artist, we – meaning the mainstream media – are all over the victims.

“How did that make you feel?” we ask.

“When did you realize something was wrong?” we ask.

“What can other people do to not end up in your situation?” we prod.

Yet most often victims of recent sexual crimes go nameless, faceless and story-less in the paper, unless they file a lawsuit against the perpetrator.

We often try reaching sexual assault victims, yet for understandable reasons they don’t want to talk to us. It should go without saying that it can be extremely difficult to “go public” in the wake of such a horrific crime.

Even when a sexual assault victim does talk us, we still don’t name him or her.

Under the guise of protecting the most-often female victim, we shy away from using her name, because any media account of the sex crime could haunt her in the future.

A potential employer could Google her and then find out something she’d rather not talk about.

But seriously, who are we kidding? It’s not like someone – anyone – else couldn’t put the whole story on the Internet. The days are over when sexual assault stories were told only in newspapers.

Some say that naming a sexual assault victim would victimize her again, but that statement conveniently neglects that every time we write another story about the perpetrator the victim is reminded of the assault.

Here’s my point: When a sexual assault victim goes nameless, she ends up not existing in the public consciousness and we – mainstream media – end up propagating the notion that sexual assault survivors have something to be ashamed of and that they shouldn’t be talked about.

A sexual assault victim has nothing to be ashamed of. It cannot be said often enough that sexual assault is a crime and that no one does anything, ever, to deserve it.

It doesn’t matter when, where or how it happens. It doesn’t matter who the perpetrator is or what the victim was doing at the time. Sexual assault is a crime.

Now, I’m not saying that mainstream media should start stalking rape survivors on their way to doctor’s appointments and police interviews, just so we can gratify our audience with explicit details.

You see, not for a split second do I believe violence and gruesomeness sells newspapers.

What leaves perpetrators looking glorified by media is all the ready detail we have about them: their families and friends saying they are good people, high school yearbooks, former employers and neighbors who “never noticed anything wrong.”

We rarely have the chance to tell the victim’s story with the same detail.

I wish we did so there’d be more balance in the sex assault stories we write.

Perhaps it could be empowering for some sexual assault survivors to speak up. And maybe, just maybe, by putting some names and faces on the thousands of women who are raped every year, people would begin to understand that that’s where our sympathy, support and, most importantly, our attention belongs.


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