Thursday, March 28, 2013

Coverage of rape needs context

In light of the the cases that connect sports to rape culture, progressive sportswriter Dave Zirin proposed in his recent article that professional leagues such as the NFL, MLB, NHL and NBA  should address the prevailing violence against women. Zirin proposed that the leagues should educate athletes in order to "reshape a jock culture that treats women like they are the spoils of athletic supremacy."

Considering the recent media coverage around the Steubenville case that focused on how the young men's careers would be ruined as a result of the ruling rather than pointing to the issue of how violence against women is normalized in our culture, Zirin is right to call for education.

Education, indeed, needs to happen in multiple spheres. Professional male sports is certainly one, an important one as Zirin contends, because "no other institution reaches more men and no other institution plays a greater role in teaching boys how to define their own manhood and masculinity."

In a culture that teaches women how not to be raped rather than teaching men not to rape, it is essential to turn the conversation around.

But cultural ideologies around rape need some context to be effectively disputed. 

A chart provided by RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) indicates that less than 10% of rapes get prosecuted. RAINN also reported that on college campuses less then 5% of rapes or attempted rapes get reported.

Universities, especially larger universities, tend to have resource centers students can turn to for support. Institutions also implement policies and regulations that enable students to report crimes while remaining confidential. But the policies and resource centers can only do so much when women continue to be blamed for a) being sexually assaulted, b) reporting the crime, c) the implications on the rapists' lives. We have seen that from the media coverage of Steubenville and we have seen that from the media coverage of the UNC student who stated that her reporting of an alleged sexual assault was mishandled by the university.

I agree with Zirin that we need to be attentive to how sports and rape culture intersect. And I agree with Zirin when he writes that "it's time for sports to pick a side and take their share of accountability for the toxicity in our culture that normalizes rape." But, normalization of rape occurs outside of the athletic context as well and, thus, it should be addressed as a larger social issue.

So while Zirin's idea to educate professional athletes, and thereby also raise awareness about rape culture, would be beneficial, it cannot occur in isolation from other layers of society. Reversing the discourse through the education of boys is essential, but it takes time.

There are things that can be done now. And I believe the media can play an important role in making things better now by providing the "big picture" statistics, by recognizing the patterns we see over and over again when it comes to coverage of rape cases.

What the media can do is to situate these incidents within a larger context to explain that these cases are not about one boy's or two boys' lives--and their "promising careers" as CNN put it. These incidents are about a huge problem that affects thousands of people who become victims of sexual assault.

Sexual assault receives coverage when it becomes an issue tied to athletes, but sexual assault is not a sports issue. We need to work on reversing the blaming the victim rhetoric and on demystifying the male athlete, but we also need to recognize that the stories we hear about in the media are only a small small percentage of the sexual assaults that actually occur.

The media can help here: To report what continues to be unreported.

-- Dunja Antunovic

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