Amid 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.