Friday, March 18, 2011

The innocence of victims

Some rape victims, it would seem, are more innocent than others. The woman attacked while going for a morning jog, the young mother accosted while walking her baby in a pushchair, the elderly woman menaced in her own home. Should more sympathy be shown to those women than, say, the women attacked after drinking heavily; or eyeing up men in a bar; or after a shift in a striptease bar; or while working as a prostitute?

The answer is they all deserve our sympathy if someone has forced them into having sex. No matter what a woman does to earn her money or how she behaves to try and attract men, she does not deserve to be coerced into carnal activities. The nun and the prostitute have an equal right not to be subjected to sexual violence and an equal right to be treated with sympathy and understanding if they are.

But media reporting will still tend to stereotype victims as either innocent or not. Often a rape victim will simply be described as a "woman". But equally often, she will be defined in some way which invites the reinforcement of these stereotypes.

Take a rape case that came to court in the south of England earlier this year. Ivars Balodis from Northam was convicted of raping a woman in Southampton. The woman was working as a prostitute at the time, so the local newspaper opened its accounts with: "A man accused of raping a Southampton prostitute," and in its follow up: "A man has been warned he faces a lengthy jail sentence after being convicted of the multiple rape of a Southampton sex worker."

I would argue she was a woman first and foremost and what she did to earn money should have been mentioned a little later in the article. Her profession was relevant to this particular case, so I'm not suggested it wasn't mentioned at all, but a woman attacked is a woman attacked, no matter what she did to earn her living. I do, however, applaud the fact that Balodis was convicted of her rape.

By contrast, take the case of Gary Gunstone, recently convicted of raping a woman in Bideford. Numerous press reports, including a local newspaper there started its report along these lines: "A predatory sex attacker, who raped a 30 year old virgin on a town centre pavement as motorists drove past without stopping, has been locked up for the public's protection."

The woman's virginity at the time of the attack was entirely irrelevant, so why mention it so prominently? Undoubtedly, her virginity was also mentioned in court but again, why was that necessary? Even if the victim had slept with several men by the time she was subjected to this attack, would that make Gunstone any less culpable?

Then there was the woman who recently gave evidence in the trial of the so-called Night Stalker rapist, Delroy Grant. She was his oldest alleged victim and was variously described in one report as "proud and private" (quoting from the courtroom), "frail" and "traumatised". There is no mistaking the report's sympathy for her victim status.

A recent MSc dissertation by Michail Bobotis studied the portrayal of rape victims in the UK national press. The reports of two "quality" newspapers and two tabloids between 2005 and 2009 were analysed. Bobotis found that in almost a quarter of the reports (24.4%) the rape victim was portrayed as innocent, naive and undeserving and in just over a sixth of the reports (16%) the victim was portrayed as "provoking, culpable, deserving".

And so the stereotypes of deserving and undeserving rape victims are continually reinforced, thanks to media reporting. But let me say again: NO woman should ever be forced to have sex against her will. That is RAPE. Full stop.

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