Monday, November 21, 2011

The New York Times: Confusing Sex and Rape

Arthur S. Brisbane of The New York Times takes an interesting look at how the media and even those related to criminal investigations and lawmaking use terms for sex and rape interchangeably.  The column is worth reading.  It appears the problem, at least in Pennsylvania, starts with the legislature.
In Pennsylvania, anal rape or oral rape has a rather sanitized label of involuntary deviate sexual intercourse.  The law needs to be changed especially when dealing with a child.  A 10-year-old boy cannot consent to intercourse deviate or otherwise.  The legislature should amend the title and definition of the law so that it reflects what it really is—deviate rape.  
Brisbane wrote within the context of the Penn State sex scandal and cover-up:
(R)eporting on allegations of sex crimes poses a challenge not only to get the story right but to deliver it in language that puts the facts in the proper light.
Some readers, responding to The New York Time’s first reports on the case, strongly objected to wording in the articles that, in their view, either underplayed the details or wrongly applied the language of consensual sex to the narrative.
The objections focused on the most severe of the accusations against Mr. Sandusky, a former Penn State assistant coach. According to the grand jury report, he subjected a boy estimated to be 10 years old to “anal intercourse” in locker room showers at the university in 2002.
Brisbane noted that “four days into The Time’s news coverage, the newspaper introduced the term “rape” into some of its descriptions of the 2002 incident.”Joe Sexton, the sports editor, told me the paper had “no reluctance to use ‘rape’ ” and was not trying “to somehow shy away from the graphic nature of the allegations.” He said the charges included a variety of acts, so the paper had used “sexual assault” to cover the range. Further, he said, the paper’s reporting on Penn State officials’ accounts of their actions required careful wording, as none of them besides the graduate assistant had acknowledged that rape was involved.
It is common for newspapers to use terms like “sexual assault” and “sexual abuse” and “have sex” when reporting on sex crimes. Perhaps, though, it’s time that The Times and other news organizations take another look at the language they use. Victims’ advocates echo what the readers told me in their e-mails: language in news media reports — and, for that matter, in the court system itself — consistently underplays the brutality of sex crimes and misapplies terms that imply consent.
Brisbane's New York Times column continues:
“We constantly talk about victims having sex with their perpetrator,” said Claudia J. Bayliff, project attorney for the National Judicial Education Program and a longtime advocate for victims of sex crimes. “We talk about children performing oral sex on their perpetrator, which suggests a consensual act and a volitional act. We use ‘fondled,’ ‘had sex with,’ ‘performed oral sex on’ — all those kinds of terms.”
Wendy Murphy, an adjunct professor at the New England School of Law, runs a program there whose mission is to persuade court systems to use language that strips out vagueness and the implication of consent. She told me she has worked with journalists and finds they are largely untrained on the subject.
Newspapers, she said, shy away from publishing the explicit details that really tell the story. “People are eating their cornflakes,” she said. “They don’t want to read ‘the penis was forced into the child’s mouth.’ ”
But, she added, “my argument back is always, come on, if there is one thing newspapers have always said it is: ‘We are sorry to offend but we are going to tell the truth. We are not going to soft-pedal it for you.’ ”
This is not an easy fix, and the Sandusky case illustrates why. It is complex, with 40 charges involved, and the details of the allegations are extremely unsavory. How can a reporter characterize the facts accurately and without compounding the victimization?
Marci Hamilton, a professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University and an advocate for victims of clergy sex crimes, suggested that news organizations should be both general and specific. “I don’t think the terms ‘sexually abuse’ or ‘molestation’ are inappropriate,” she said. “The problem is when they are the only terms used. In this case, you have eight victims with stories told about them. Each is quite different. A journalist who doesn’t make it clear the spectrum of inappropriate behavior is letting us down.”
Using a broad term like “sexually assault” or “sexually abuse” is reasonable, in other words, but only if the specifics are not spared. In my view, and that of several victims’ advocates I spoke with, the term “rape” is appropriate in describing the most severe allegations in the Sandusky case. But there is a problem there, as well.
“Rape” is a word in flux. The Times stylebook says to use it to mean “forced intercourse, or intercourse with a child below the age of consent.” In many cases, though, the justice system doesn’t use the word. In the Sandusky case, the charges do not include the word “rape” because he was charged under the statute covering “Involuntary Deviate Sexual Intercourse.”
Ms. Murphy, of the New England School of Law, said that in surveying the 50 states, she found “something like 40 different terms to describe the act of rape of a child.”
To read more: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/20/opinion/sunday/confusing-sex-and-rape.html?_r=2&sq=brisbane&st=cse&scp=9&pagewanted=print

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