Teen Sexual Violence: What the Media Is Missing
Last month, teenager Daisy Coleman bravely wrote a piece that detailed how another student from her hometown of Maryville, Missouri raped her and videotaped the assault. Her story echoes a familiar pattern of other high-profile cases involving teenagers, such as the Steubenville, Louisville, and Saratoga cases. While we find it encouraging that the mainstream media has been covering these cases, too much of the coverage has dismissed substantive research in favor of perpetuating various myths about young people and sexual assault.
We need journalists to re-frame the tone and questions that guide their reporting. The majority of the pieces covering teen sexual violence fall into superficial tropes that focus on the role of alcohol, the victim’s clothes, and sexting by “impulse-driven teens.” By fixating on sexting instead of what these teens are truly doing, which is “sexual assaultexting,” the media detracts from the fact that these boys are choosing to sexually assault another person and then shame them through social media.
Additionally, many journalists use language that deflects blame from the rapists and subtly shapes how readers understand teen sexual violence. Journalists tend to use passive phrasing, such as “she was raped,” which is problematic because it does not focus on the person who committed the crime. Too frequently, these cases are referred to as “scandals,” which only serves to sensationalize what happened while simultaneously obscuring that it was actually a crime. Often media coverage relies on terms that imply consent, such as “engaging in” and “sexual activity,” indicating a lack of knowledge about what constitutes rape. Ultimately, the way in which journalists cover teen sexual violence reflects a societal reluctance to label teenage boys as perpetrators.
These narratives support the “boys will be boys” myth that results in blaming the victim and the idea that teenage boys cannot be held truly accountable for their actions. Perhaps this explains why, in the coverage of the Steubenville rape case, reporters from multiple media outlets slanted their focus to be sympathetic to the rapists and blamed the victim. Who can forget CNN reporters expressing how “difficult” it was to hear the perpetrators convicted of rape crying in the courtroom, because their “promising lives” had fallen apart? But what about the life of the girl who they assaulted, who has to live with the rape for the rest of her life? This question is often absent from mainstream media coverage.
What we find so frustrating about this kind of reporting is that it ignores the fact that research has revealed the extent to which rape is a calculated and premeditated crime. Several studies have concluded that young people are able to understand refusals in many different contexts. These cases are not accidents or miscommunications as the mainstream media often suggests: they are a result of boys not respecting a girl’s lack of consent.
Additionally, while journalists often focus on the victim’s consumption of alcohol as causing sexual assault, research shows how perpetrators use alcohol as a tool to facilitate rape. Therefore, when media coverage focuses on the alcohol usage of victims, they are giving rapists the social license to operate because these men know that women who are drinking are seen as less credible when they report sexual assault.
Furthermore, research on college rapists mirrors studies of convicted sex offenders, which reveals that the majority of rapists are serial predators who often begin committing sexual violence as adolescents. Thus the cases we see in the news aren’t accidents or a ‘blip’ on a boy’s otherwise flawless record — they are more often than not the start of a long career as a serial rapist.
Given this research, it is distressing that articles that cover teen sexual violence pay little attention to how we fail to educate teenagers in ways that prevent sexual assault, such as comprehensive health education that focuses on teaching sexual respect and what constitutes sexual consent. Journalists need to work on reframing how we understand sexual violence prevention, because the research clearly shows that the only thing that causes sexual violence is someone choosing to assault another person. There needs to be an emphasis on preventative education which has been proven again and again to be a successful tool in helping to cut sexual assault rates amongst young people.
The tragedy of many of these cases goes far beyond the crime of sexual assault. It is also the dozens of young people who witnessed them and did nothing. We need to teach adolescents to act ethically in these situations. With bystander education, in which individuals are taught how to intervene when they see someone in trouble, these cases could have been prevented. Media coverage should stress the importance of bystander education as a successful way to empower young people to stop rape. Examples of noteworthy programs include the New York State Department of Health’s toolkit for bystander intervention and the University of New Hampshire’s Know Your Power campaign.
Most importantly, what needs to be clear in media coverage of teen sexual violence is that sexting, alcohol, and the Internet do not cause rape. The true issues at hand in these cases are disregard for other people’s bodily autonomy and lack of empathy for sexual assault survivors. Until those working in the media understand this, misconceptions regarding teen sexual assault will continue to be perpetuated to a wider audience.
When journalists ignore the research on sexual violence and toolkits about how to properly cover sexual assault and instead resort to superficial and sensationalist reporting, they are hurting efforts to end teen sexual violence. The media should not only do a better job when covering these stories, but also work to help educate and shape public opinion about what works to stop sexual assault. We owe it to young women like Daisy Coleman to accurately tell their stories and be allies in fighting sexual violence.
Amee Wurzburg and Nadia Dawisha are part of the larger Title IX movement, a college student-based effort that aims to educate and create awareness about sexual assault and harassment.