Exploring news coverage and media discussion of sexual violence

By Grace Mitchell-Kilpatrick, Gale Ambassador at the University of Exeter

What constitutes ‘feminism’ and to class oneself as a feminist is highly contentious and politicised. It is, however, a concept which does not fall solely in the private or public sphere, and for that reason it is necessary to consider what the cause defends. I thought it would be interesting to use Gale Primary Sources to aid an investigation into the issue of rape and sexual violence, an issue which feminist sentiment advocates to eliminate.

‘Rape culture’ describes a society in which the dominant social norms justify and perpetuate the normalisation of sexual violence, arising from attitudes to gender and sexuality. Whilst men suffer equally from the trauma of rape, this crime is heavily female weighted. According to a report from the White House Council on Women and Girls, found in Gale’s Archives of Sexuality and Gender, one in five women have been raped in their lifetime and 98% of the perpetrators are male, hence the gendered lens to analysis of this issue in terms of legislation, the police and societal perceptions.

This century has seen a major overhaul of sexual offences legislation in England and Wales where previously it was based on legislation passed in 1976. You can read the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 1976 in Gale’s Archives of Sexuality & Gender. This archive also includes articles by Jody Raphael which offer insight into the archaic narratives of sexual violence which have helped normative civic standards to dictate concern for society rather than the victim. For example, the Bible developed concepts of female guilt and images of women as sources of sexual temptation and distraction, whilst in early Roman law, rape was based on damages to a father, husband or brother because women were considered the passive property of their male protectors; the rapist’s act was deemed an attack on her male relatives rather than the women herself. Indeed, ‘damage of property’ resulted in corresponding sanctions – paying a fine to the father or legal ‘victim’ of the crime, overlooking the rape itself and the impact it would have had on the woman. Echoes of this rhetoric can be found in Ronald Butt’s article, “Why we live in a rape culture,” in The Times in 1982. Early legal standards surrounding rape were constructed ‘by men and for men’ as historically women were considered second class; undeserving of rights equal to those of their male counterparts.

Butt, Ronald. "Why we live in a rape culture." Times, 28 Jan. 1982, p. 12. The Times Digital Archive,
Butt, Ronald. “Why we live in a rape culture.” Times, 28 Jan. 1982, p. 12. The Times Digital Archive, http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/8bLtd8

Contemporary legislation in the UK today is the culmination of piecemeal amendments. This has led to ambiguity, particularly around what constitutes consent;  legal reforms on which were outlined in this article by Gibb and Ford in The Times in 2002. This is significant because, despite legislative amendments, recognition of rape as a criminal act and the culpability of the defendant rests heavily on proving a lack of consent, thus the burden of proof leaves the onus on the victim. In The Independent in 2007, Sarah Churchwell reiterated that this was still an issue under the 2003 Sexual Offences Act due to ambiguous terminology which continues to “sympathise with the defendant and slander the victim”.

"The law on rape." Times, 29 Sept. 2012, p. [5][S3]. The Times Digital Archive,
“The law on rape.” Times, 29 Sept. 2012, p. [5][S3]. The Times Digital Archive, http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/8bQcKX.
The past overwhelmingly frames current legal parameters and is based on entrenched ideologies of male superiority. Women are portrayed as dependent and inferior, perpetuated in societal inequalities – for example, that ‘men will be men’ is often used as a validation for rape. Holly Baxter argues that predominantly societal misperceptions and assumptions cloud judgement of victims; myths often cloud judgment of the victim’s credibility. The first places blame with the victim, based on the perception they are always young, careless and beautiful or they ‘invite rape’ by provoking men or being intoxicated. For example, 29% of participants in a 2011 study agreed that women wearing tight tops or short skirts are inviting rape. These myths are being perpetuated by different classes of women which further bolsters the inherency of the patriarchal system.

Baxter, Holly. "Let me tell you all the ways that Britain has a ‘rape culture’." Independent, 6 Nov. 2015, p. 39. The Independent Digital Archive,
Baxter, Holly. “Let me tell you all the ways that Britain has a ‘rape culture’.” Independent, 6 Nov. 2015, p. 39. The Independent Digital Archive, http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/8bdJn0.

Case characteristics act as triggers for disbelief by the police, despite the fact they are largely unsupported by pre-existing evidence both on the sociology of rape and on psychological responses to trauma. I used the Publication Year filter in Gale Primary Sources to filter my search on rape law and rape culture so that I could analyse contemporary source from the noughties:

My results in the Gale Primary Sources interface, with the Publication Year tool on the left.
My results in the Gale Primary Sources interface, with the Publication Year tool on the left.

The report from the White House Council on Women and Girls in Gale’s Archives of Sexuality and Gender indicates the police also play a role in exacerbating rape culture. Street-level bureaucrats have the power to make decisions. Concern lies with the levels of ‘no-crime’ at the policy implementation stage, and at the point of service delivery. Decisions rest entirely with the investigating officer’s judgement which is often impaired by contextual and irrelevant details. Thus, cases are dropped by the officers, or victims are scrutinised so much that they drop the case. Slight recent improvements in conviction rates conceal inherent issues within the criminal justice system of a bureaucratic ‘target drive’ which requires better legislative implementation to reduce the rejection of allegations because of efficiency or victim-blaming. Moreover, removal of cross-examination between the police and judiciary is relatively recent, implying that predispositions regarding the victims’ unrelated actions would negatively impede on the judgement of jurors. Unwilling judges and a biased police force highlights a lack of justice in the system and instils support for a rape culture whereby stereotypes of a ‘typical victim’ associate the victim with at least some level of guilt.

Bannerman, Lucy. "Judges reject rape law reform plans." Times, 23 Jan. 2007, p. 2. The Times Digital Archive,
Bannerman, Lucy. “Judges reject rape law reform plans.” Times, 23 Jan. 2007, p. 2. The Times Digital Archive, http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/8bQfh7

The media perpetuate this unconscious bias through objectification and embellishment of facts regarding victims. Robin Thicke provides a prime example of normalising female objectification in his music video for the single ‘Blurred Lines’, which included female nudity and degrading lyrics. This theme consistently appear in and colour the tone assumed by the media. For example, according to an article in The Independent Digital Archive, Premier League footballer Adam Johnson pleaded guilty to grooming a fifteen-year-old girl. The media initially placed emphasis in headlines that he was ‘accused’ and even once guilty, described him as ‘one of England’s brightest young stars’, ignoring his tarnished reputation and legitimising his actions, thus perpetuating a rape culture. Another article from the Independent hones in on his girlfriend’s emotions, which bypasses the gravity of the crime perpetrated against the legal victim.

Higgens, Dave. "We have split, girlfriend tells Johnson trial."
Higgens, Dave. “We have split, girlfriend tells Johnson trial.” Independent, 26 Feb. 2016, p. 19. The Independent Digital Archive, http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/8bcUP7

Gillian Harris, a correspondent at The Timeswrote in 2002 of Lindsay Armstrong, a victim compelled to hold up her underwear three times in court as part of evidence hearing. Two weeks later she committed suicide, whilst the rapist received only a 4-year sentence. This mirrors a case in Cork, Ireland which took place just last year, when a 27-year-old man was acquitted after jurors were told his alleged 17-year-old victim was “wearing a thong with a lace front”. Shockingly, as late as 2018, these exogenous factors are still being taken into consideration in a victim’s judgement despite being outside the legislative remit, making the process bias and skewed.

Having studied historic and contemporary rape culture, using a range of Gale’s Primary Source archives, I conclude that, contrary to Ellie Levenson’s argument in The Independent, feminism should not be left behind with the last generation. Without exposing the gravity of the rape culture and sexual crime, long-term reform cannot be achieved. To dismantle rape culture will require the undoing of more than just the normalisation and tolerance of sexual assault and rape. It will require addressing gender stereotypes in a patriarchal society and relieving both genders from the pressures of their socialisation. Ultimately, there is a need to clarify the blurred lines in rape culture – and eliminate them.

Blog post image citation: Wikicommons (2018) Single cover for Blurred Lines by Robin Thicke featuring T.I. and Pharrell., Available at: https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?search=robin+thicke+blurred+lines&title=Special%3ASearch&go=Go#/media/File:Blurred_Lines_%E2%80%93_Robin_Thicke_single_cover.png

About the Author

I am a fourth-year student at the University of Exeter. I studied BSc Politics and International Relations with proficiency in data analysis at undergraduate level. As a Masters student studying Conflict, Development and Security, my interests lie in conflict zones but I am also an advocate of sustainability and feminism. Besides studying, when I’m not snowed under with work, I like to run and binge watch Netflix.