Political Inqueery: Depart the Representative


David Wu in a tiger suitAmid the debt ceiling debacle, Norway shooting, and fears about Europe’s next default, a news story broke about Oregon Representative David Wu allegedly sexually assaulting a young woman. I’m calling it simply a news story because as we’ll see, the reporting frames it strangely: “an unwanted sexual encounter,” a “sex scandal,” an “aggressive sexual encounter.” Major journalism outlets like CBS, the Washington Post, and CNN all used similar language, and I began to wonder: Why aren’t they calling it rape?

On The Daily Show last night, Jon Stewart mocked Wu as a harmless crank. (Look, it’s a real picture of him in a tiger costume!) To ask viewers to laugh at a man accused of a sexual assault as a way of condemning him is as close as any mainstream media came to taking the allegations seriously.

It took only a few days for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to shift from talking about an ethics investigation into his behavior to jockeying new candidates from her Democratic party into the primary for what will be his vacated seat. Mr. Wu was expected to have a tough election in 2012, mainly due to what’s been previously described as “erratic” behavior—Halloween costumes notwithstanding.

Why do we call this a “sex scandal”? I thought most folks on the progressive left were of the understanding that sex without consent isn’t sex anymore. My issues with consent as a concept aside, I can’t see why the media—which boasts some dedication to being objective and uninfluenced by politicians—would sidestep around using terms like rape or sexual assault. Maybe it’s shell-shocked after Weinergate, or there is some hesitation on the part of the media, after the dropped allegations against Al Gore last summer and the collapse of the case against Dominique Strauss-Kahn, to run hard after these stories.

If that’s the case, the media need to recommit to accuracy in reporting on stories about violence against women and people on the margins, because obfuscating these criminal moments as misunderstandings between two people, or as “sex scandals,” makes it more difficult for survivors to endure the justice system’s process, confuses the public about what is and isn’t sexual assault, and legitimizes aggressive, macho ideas about sex and power over women. 

Moreover, not all media reporting stays away from language that acknowledges the criminality of these acts. Headlines didn’t decree that former NFL star Lawrence Taylor was embroiled in a sex scandal, they said he’d been accused of rape. Kobe Bryant, still playing in the NBA, didn’t fend off headlines that had been involved in an “unwanted sexual encounter.” The press is fully capable of choosing words that reflect the circumstances as they understand them at the time—the history of journalism itself is rife with evidence that its process of confirming accounts and using reliable sources frees reporters to make the best word choices and let them stand behind what they’ve written. Avoiding naming the laws that are pertinent in these cases (after Rep. Weiner’s resignation it came out that some of the pictures he’d sent to women weren’t wanted by them) smacks of an overabundance of fear of litigation, and a wariness to commit to the story. Since it also may change people’s understanding of what constitutes rape and sexual assault, I think we need to push back against these moments, and demand that dismissing rape as aggressive sex needs to end. 

Unless we think William Kennedy Smith should take up a job as a newspaper writer.

Previously: Mourning in a Busy Internet World, Why the GOP Will Fracture


by Everett Maroon
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Everett Maroon is a memoirist, essayist, and fiction writer originally from New Jersey and now living in Walla Walla, Washington. His blog is transplantportation.com and he tweets at @EverettMaroon.

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9 Comments Have Been Posted


As per how it was first reported....its not called a rape because it wasnt rape. It was reported he hit on the young woman. There was never mention of him actually touching her. If there is more to the story then enlighten your readers with that aspect and why it should be called rape. You are not forming an opinion on fact but allowing readers to assume, like you did, that Wu committed rape. It also would be better for your argument to define what you deem rape to be.

News coverage...

Hi Anonymous,

The news coverage I've read/heard has stated that the young woman accused Wu of "aggressive and unwanted sexual behavior," which certainly goes beyond what the media are calling a "sex scandal" and could very well include rape. Everett is saying (in my interpretation) that the media should be investigating this story—and using words like alleged rape and/or sexual assault—instead of shying away from it or lumping it into the same category as other political sex scandals. More here on the case, if you're interested: http://www.oregonlive.com/politics/index.ssf/2011/07/rep_david_wu_accuse...

Here, the Washington Post

Here, the Washington Post called it "an unwanted sexual encounter." http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/rep-david-wus-path-to-resignation...

The original report from The Oregonian: http://www.oregonlive.com/politics/index.ssf/2011/07/rep_david_wu_accuse...

Yes, Mr. Wu claims the encounter with the recent high school graduate was consensual. This isn't surprising.

I stand by my criticism that the media should not call this a sex scandal per se. What John Edwards, Govenor Schwarzenegger, and Larry Craig did are much more in line with being scandalized by morally specious sexual behavior. But I don't think I need to post a definition of rape to the Bitch readership, though if you want my operating definition, it's this: the unlawful compelling of an individual through physical force or duress to have sexual intercourse. I also would define sexual assault as encompassing this definition, but also to include the compelling of an individual through physical force or duress to perform any number of other intimate acts other than intercourse itself.

I can't believe that just because an accused perpetrator insists his behavior was consensual, that the press should limit its reporting to his interpretation of the fact. That seems wholly anti-feminist to me. Isn't it enough that we talk about accusations and alleged conduct?

An "unwanted sexual

<p>An "unwanted sexual encounter" <em>is rape. </em>The definition is not subjective.</p>


The definition of "rape" is not subjective, but the definition of "unwanted sexual encounter" surely is. He might have danced around with his pants off asking if she wanted to get nasty. That's certainly an unwanted sexual encounter, and it certainly isn't rape. Let's not pretend we know what happened here, and let's not call something rape when we don't know whether it was rape or not. I'm not defending this cretin, of course.


Unwanted sexual behavior is not necessarily rape. Without an allegation of penetration, calling it rape would be ridiculous. As for sexual assault, if there were allegations of physical contact, then maybe sexual assault would be accurate. But sexual behavior doesn't necessarily mean contact occurred.

Headlines didn't decree that

<p><em><span style="font-family: georgia, 'times new roman', serif; font-size: 14px; line-height: 18px;">Headlines didn't decree that former NFL star Lawrence Taylor was embroiled in a sex scandal, they said he'd been accused of rape. Kobe Bryant, still playing in the NBA, didn't fend off headlines that had been involved in an "unwanted sexual encounter."</span></em></p>
<p><span style="font-size: 14px; line-height: 18px;">There's kind of an obvious detail here, that detail being that both Taylor and Bryant are black. In contrast to the stereotype of the black male rapist, Asian males are usually stereotyped as sexually unthreatening.&nbsp;</span></p>

Indeed. He's so unpowerful we

Indeed. He's so unpowerful we can even move him in a tiger costume. Yes, that's part of my point.

That was supposed to be mock.

That was supposed to be mock. iPad typo, sorry.

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