Talking About It (With The Right Words)
In August of 2006, my best friend Kate woke up, got dressed, and headed to work. She had no way of knowing that by the end of the weekend, she’d be a national news story. She didn’t know while she drove to work singing to the radio that her life would end that morning and her legacy would become a complicated mixture of vilification and canonization. She didn’t know that someone was planning to abduct, rape, and murder her. She just knew that she didn’t want to be at work at nine, but she didn’t have a choice. While the crime committed was not in doubt, what I wasn’t expecting in the aftermath was how she would be treated.
Kate was a normal 21-year-old: She went to work, drank at bars, and loved her friends fiercely. While that’s that woman that I knew, the one presented in the news was a different story.
She was, in some stories, a wonderful girl who was sweet and caring. She worked with little kids, after all. In other places, she was presented as a slutty woman who was barhopping all the time and was nothing more than a low-paid retail worker who sold kid’s clothes and still lived with her parents. As the grief of her murder has cleared over the last decade, I’ve come to realize one of the fundamental issues with victims of crimes against women are treated. The police, the media, and the personal stories wrap the victims up in such levels of sexism that an accurate picture of the victim, and by extension the crime are almost impossible to find.
The dismissal of crimes against women isn’t a big surprise. The statistics have been repeated over and over - the majority of rape cases don’t go to trial (the rate in 2008 was 25%), there is a huge backlog of untested rape kits (at least 175,000 are waiting to be tested), and the vast number of rapes come down to ‘he said, she said.’ Women in domestic violence situations aren’t always believed or the police look for how both parties are somehow at fault. The question of what did the victim do to provoke her attacker is asked over and over. Even in cases where there is video proof of the brutality in the crime - for instance, when Ray Rice beat his fiancé - there is a seeming desire to find a way to blame the victim. While those are the highlighted issues in how law enforcement investigates crimes against women, they language and attitude towards the victims needs to be addressed.
Last year, a 30-year-old woman who had been missing since August was found chained in a storage container in South Carolina. In the press statement, the Sheriff that found her said: “It was all by God’s grace that we found that little girl alive.” While her discovery was a wonderful thing, she isn’t a little girl. She’s a fully grown adult and deserves to be treated as such by the police and the media. Infantilizing women in reporting crimes against them leads to the narrative that women need to be looked after and taken care of. It says that they can’t care for themselves and obviously need to be protected. ‘Little girls’ run off from their parents and that’s how they get abducted. Grown women are taken by force, not coercion. It’s an important distinction which needs to be made to get a full picture of how much violence was used to commit the crime.
The opposite is also true. When young girls are raped or killed and they are treated as though they are adults who tricked the perpetrators into the crime, it relieves the criminal from some of their responsibility. In the aftermath of the Steubenville attack, the victim was blamed because she was acting older than her age. She was talked about as if she was a grown, manipulative woman instead of a teenager. The boys involved just got trapped by her feminine wiles. Either showing the girl to be older than she is or the woman to be younger alter the story and keep the media from giving an accurate portrayal of the circumstances.
There is also the matter of which words are used to describe the mental health of women. Two months before Kate was killed, she was raped outside of a bar. Her rapist then stalked her until she died – he would show up at both her work and where she’d go socially. When she reported it to her work, she was called ‘overly emotional’ or ‘hysterical’ depending on who she spoke to. When I spoke to a police officer I knew asking what, if anything I could do, he said, “You’re just blowing it out of proportion. Be logical. What can he do anyway?” Women have long been seen as being irrational and overly-emotional. It’s a stereotype that makes dismissing women’s fears easy. When the crime is then committed, there’s an attitude of ‘why didn’t they warn us sooner.’
Kate’s workplace asked me why they didn’t know she felt unsafe in their parking lot, where she was abducted. It wasn’t because we didn’t say anything. It’s because we weren’t listened to.
There is an epidemic of crimes against women in America. I’ve had friends spat on, called feminine and racial slurs, groped, and assaulted all in the same week. Yes, weeks like that are extraordinary - but it makes the discussion more, not less, necessary.
A 30-year-old man wouldn’t be described as a ‘little boy’ by police. A 15-year-old white boy wouldn’t be discussed as someone who was an adult and should know what he was doing when he got drunk. (After Ryan Lotchke’s antics, it seems that white men are absolved from ever growing up entirely.) Women and girls are expected to be either more or less grown up depending on what best fits the narrative the press wants.
If we are ever to have a blunt discussion of how we can lessen violence against women in America, we need to be more cognizant of the language used in reporting the crimes. Making grown women into small helpless creatures is just as damaging as treating young teens as grown women. Without accurate portrayals of the crimes, we can’t move towards dealing with the issues behind them.