Heather D. Flowe, PhD
Below the line: what comments on media articles about rape tell us
Last December I wrote an article for The Independent on representations of rape and sexual violence in film and television.
It was, I thought, a balanced review of an industry that is gradually moving towards more nuanced storytelling while being incumbered by a legacy of problematic, homogenous descriptions of rape. So many of those on-screen stories have veered towards a more extreme combination of violent assault (often murder) and rape and overlooked the more common events. It is perhaps why the ‘everyday’ nature of sexual assault depicted in the brilliant I May Destroy You struck a nerve for so many women.
Really, it was a plea for more of those stories and a nod towards progress. The representations we see matter greatly, and more balanced reflections in the mainstream can help to address the misconceptions about rape that persist both on the street and in the criminal justice system.
I was given a warning to expect some comments ‘below the line’ on such an article. Yet it took no time at all to be labelled a ‘male-bashing toxic feminist’ in the now-deleted first post. A 21st Century badge of honour for any woman, if ever there was.
This is not uncommon. Trawl through the comment section on almost any media website or social media post about rape or sexual assault, particularly (but not exclusively) those penned by women, and you will find those all-too-familiar responses. Many are more threatening and disturbing in their nature.
Should we be surprised by this, though?
Of course, individuals need to be held accountable for their comments, yes, but they are parroting the myths that they read in the headlines.
On the 11 February this year, the Daily Mail ran the headline “Married Polish butcher, 26, is found guilty of raping and murdering drunk 21-year-old student Libby Squire…”
The victim being drunk was irrelevant. This has been happening for ages, and such headlines fail to shock anymore.
It may not have been a malicious attempt to influence the reader into those well-worn lines of ‘she shouldn’t have been drinking that much,’ or ‘she shouldn’t have been walking home alone’. Maybe it is just a telling reminder of how casually the mainstream media defer to the language of victim-blaming after many decades of doing so. Headlines of “drunken” victims abound. But such is my faith (or lack of) in certain institutions now, I cannot disregard the possibility that said headline writer knew precisely what they were doing and the conversations it would spark in the comment section.
Clicks mean money, after all. Comments and shares mean money. These are the same places that give air to ‘non-woke’ voices bemoaning how men are under attack or mourning that you can ‘no longer talk to women without fear of being accused of something’.
There are many more examples from many other outlets, and it is far from only being a ‘right-wing tabloid’ problem.
And it is damaging. We know that media reports can influence perceptions – I blogged about how it impacts eyewitness memory reporting earlier this year.
This all serves to create a world in which it is normal to blame the victim of a sexual assault for their actions as much as it is the perpetrator. It might not always be overt either, it is often something more insidious, something that bubbles away and grows with every article. Think about how some media have consistently pushed xenophobic vitriol for decades and how that has informed their audience’s viewpoint on immigration and refugees. It is rarely a one-off article that moves the dial. It is death by a thousand cuts.
It moves people towards a place that they would feel empowered to log into their account, scroll down an article (which they clearly did not read in full), and comment on it. That requires affirmative action, to comment. The author clearly feels as though it needs saying. They feel as though their perspective is normal. Because in many ways, it probably, worryingly, is.
What can be done about this? Do the independent bodies such as OFCOM and IPSO need to take stronger (any) action on this? Yes.
Do social media sites need to be more proactive in banning accounts that post misogynistic or harmful messages? Yes, but we have known that for a long time.
It also cries out for intervention from the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport – if they can draw themselves away from the important issue of flag-flying on government buildings.
They could change things and send a strong message about the importance of responsible reporting, it would and should be within their remit to do so. I shall not hold my breath, though. Because at the heart of this is a grander problem, the unholy marriage between press and politics.
And money is a strong motivator for institutions not to change.