The trouble with how the media reports crime against women


8:50 am - June 6th 2013

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by Jonathan J Lindsell

Trigger warnings: rape, sexual assault, child abuse.

“Man fucks woman; subject verb object.”

That’s how Catharine MacKinnon, American feminist legal professor, characterised Western gender relations and savaged pornography. Women are objectified statues, men are aggressive actors.

But if you look at the media’s treatment of gender-related crimes in the past few months, you’ll see something different:

“Victim was assaulted; Object verb.”

That’s how sexual crimes are reported. ‘X children were abused’, ‘Y women are raped in India each day’. Discussion overwhelmingly uses the passive voice and focuses on the victim to the perpetrator’s exclusion, unless the aggressor is notable – an ethnic minority, a celebrity, a religious figure. Otherwise rape and abuse are described as if they ‘just happen’ like freak weather events.

This absolves the public from considering whether Diane Abbot’s ‘crisis’ is a genuine problem in their immediate community – rape is either a misfortune that happens to unwary women, or a vile crime committed by people so different from the reader that their motivations are wholly alien.

Society has a standard narrative for how rape ‘just happens’ – usually a young, attractive girl, alone at night, wearing inappropriate clothing, who indulged in excess, attacked by a stranger (by tf support everette) . Passive reporting feeds this trope by focusing on victims and minimising the rapist’s role. He just ‘happened’ to be tempted when all necessary factors were in place.

The narrative is dangerous. In the eyes of the public and of juries, it discredits stories which don’t fit. Abused male or trans*people are ignored. Likewise accusations from women who are unattractive, sensible, or lived with their assailant face ridicule. The myth thrives despite SlutWalk’s efforts to dispel the idea that women’s clothing or actions constitute ‘asking for rape’ and UK government statistics showing that 90% of serious sexual assault victims know their attacker.

Whereas most sex-crime coverage investigates what personal failures caused a horrific ‘accident’ to happen to the (culpable) female victim, there’s a flip-side. When the perpetrator is different, comfortably distant from the largely white male middle-class world of today’s writers, then it’s fine to pick them apart.

This is especially evident in recent stories: Dehli bus rape, Oxford abuse ring, Catholic Church scandals and Operation Yewtree. In each case, the perpetrators are either foreign, non-Christian, or live highly atypically. Priests are celibate and secretive; celebrities extremely extrovert.

Although there was still gratuitous victim-blaming in these cases, the media switched focus to the ‘abusive cultures’ and their immorality.

This was highlighted in Joseph Parker’s piece, It’s time to face up to the problem of sexual abuse in the white community. Parker was satirising the media, I’m not. By deploying the passive tense in ‘normal’ sex crimes and demonising minorities in sensational cases, we blind ourselves to that fact that, statistically, we almost certainly know such people ourselves.

Supporting victims is important, but so is acknowledging and exploring how violent misogynist attitudes flare in all communities, and run deeper than we’d admit. Rape culture exists, and until we start to think about the rapists, it will continue. That’s unacceptable.


Jonathan Lindsell is a freelance writer who has written for Bluffers online, Trinity College Oxford’ Broadsheet and the Leamington Courier. As a research fellow at Civitas thinktank he also writes a weekly blog there.

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Reader comments


1. John Reid

The word victim isn’t a object

As for your view

X children were abused, when crimes are reported to police, it is only when the alleged perpetrator is found guilty, do such crime become recognised as a crime, an alleged victim may claim they’ve been abusedvyo, but a jury can find the alleged perpetrator innocent as, the person who was the alleged victim no longer becomes the victim, when the crime is thrown out, the former alleged victim could have been mistaken or not in present of the full information of the facts, but certainly not a victim,

Discussion overwhelmingly uses the passive voice and focuses on the victim to the perpetrator’s exclusion, unless the aggressor is notable – an ethnic minority, a celebrity, a religious figure.

Unfortunately rape is a fairly common crime and most rapes will not be widely reported in the media.

Unless there is an “angle” related to the the perpetrator (ethnicity, age, celebrity) or the victim (ethnicity, age, celebrity) or the circumstances or location or level of violence used, rapes, in themselves, are simply not sufficiently newsworthy .

But it’s stupid to argue that misogyny or the patriarchy are to blame for this as all other crime, including financial crime is reported according to exactly the same criteria.

“Man stole money” Subject/verb/object

“Money stolen” Object/verb

Do you see my point?

Thought not!!!

3. Shatterface

That’s how sexual crimes (object) are reported (verb)

Can we have some discussion of Hindi grammar (subject-object-verb, as I understand it) or Urdu (same, I think) so we can see how rapes are reported in India where they are much more common?

How about Arabic? Is there a significant difference in rapes committed by native English speakers, those who speak English as a second language and those who speak no English at all? Don’t Irish, Hebrew and most creoles use subject-verb-object? Where rapes more or less common among speakers of Latin where word order doesn’t matter so much?

Couldn’t you equally plausibly argue that a sentence constructions maximising the role of the perpetrator minimises the suffering of the victim? ‘Man found guilty of rape’ excludes the victim entirely: it’s like he or she doesn’t exist.

If you have any stats correlating violence with women against grammatical constructions I’d be interested in seeing them.

As it is, this looks like guesswork.

4. Shatterface

Oh, and what about Japanese which has an adversative passive voice which emphasises the suffering of the victim?

5. Shatterface

But it’s stupid to argue that misogyny or the patriarchy are to blame for this as all other crime, including financial crime is reported according to exactly the same criteria.

Ditto benefit fraud: ‘Benefit fraud costs tax payers billions’ is passive; ‘Benefit claimants defraud tax payers of billions’ is not.

The equivalent would be reporting ‘Millions of women raped per year’ as ‘Men rape millions of women per year’ (‘Rapists rape millions of women per year would be a tautology).

The purpose would be to smear all claimants or all men with the crimes of a minority.

6. John Reid

Shatter face, has rather proved this article irrelevant

7. Charlieman

The Guardian journalist is Joseph Harker, not Parker.


I’m not convinced by the OP and suspect that the author may be jumbling copper circumlocution (which turns up in news reports) with blame. But I don’t think that the OP is totally wrong. Apologies for length of post.

When a rape or assault occurs, the alleged perpetrator* may be unknown or there may be legal/investigatory reasons why little information is reported. As a consequence, the only ways to write about the event are in the passive voice or in vague terms (“unknown person, believed to be male”). News headlines have to be brief; there is a social convention that rape perpetrators and victims/survivors are male unless clearly stated.

After a guilty conviction or when there is powerful identifying evidence, it is reasonable to expect news reports to contain pertinent information about the perpetrator. If it can be fairly written that “Four white men rape Walsall woman”, that’s how it should be done.


When there is a guilty conviction (or the post-mortem equivalent for Savile), news reporting can be expected to go wrong. The police investigation/witness statements/court proceedings/news story/editorial rewrite narrative can morph into something different to what actually happened. The case taken to court by the CPS will represent a fragment of the police investigation, and news reports (especially those during a trial) may be constrained about providing background information.

Big stories emphasise unusual circumstances. That emphasis may lead to new police reports about similar events, which is good. Emphasis may distract from investigation of dissimilar reported events.

The OP is correct to note that: “Abused male or trans*people are ignored.” If we take the Oxford street grooming case as an example, vulnerable young women were identified by abusers operating in a particular environment. From that, we should conclude there are different environments in which vulnerable young men might be abused.

Donald Rumsfeld is wrong on many things but he was spot on with one:
“There are known knowns; there are things we know that we know.
There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know.
But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don’t know.”


An “institutional review” inevitably follows from many court cases. But I have written too much already.

* Alleged perpetrator is shortened hereafter to perpetrator to keep things short.

8. Charlieman

@1. John Reid: “…it is only when the alleged perpetrator is found guilty, do such crime become recognised as a crime…”

Not quite. Crime is a vernacular expression in the UK*. If your mobile phone is stolen (or perhaps misplaced), you can report your loss to the police and receive a crime reference number, the magic answer when dealing with an insurance company. Crime is often defined by the victim/survivor.

CPS and courts deal with Offences, events that might breach a law. Police officers deal with Crime, which might be Offences.

The Crime Survey for England and Wales counts victim reports of Crime.

* There is an utterly useless legal definition for England and Wales.

“That’s how Catharine MacKinnon, American feminist legal professor, characterised Western gender relations and savaged pornography. Women are objectified statues, men are aggressive actors.”

I stopped reading here, knowing that it’s obviously bollocks if you’re quoting such an obvious crank as MacKinnon.

10. Charlieman

@9. Chris: “I stopped reading here, knowing that it’s obviously bollocks if you’re quoting such an obvious crank as MacKinnon.”

By ceasing to read there, you make an exclamation. The post quotes an academic (I’ve never heard of her) who you don’t really like. You don’t like her but don’t explain your dislike.

If quoting somebody that you don’t like is problematic to you, how do you handle people who challenge your thoughts?

11. Shatterface

Man fucks woman; subject verb object

Or woman sucks man: subject verb object.

Waddya know, blow job movies are feminist.

12. So Much For Subtlety

11. Shatterface

Waddya know, blow job movies are feminist.

Shatterface, I have probably not said this before and I am unlikely to say this again, but you’re my hero right now.

13. Richard Carey

I urge readers to click the link to that crazy academic. It’s classic stuff.

Mmmm. Man writes article about how media coverage of rape is all wrong.

Suggests no alternative.

Doesn’t use the opportunity of being-in-the-media to highlight the issues that the media should be covering: rape culture, misogyny, police incompetence.

Load of other men comment on it.

Ten comments in and we’re onto “hilarious” jokes about porn.

#revolutionfail

15. Robin Levett

@Op:

I’m sorry, but this is just wrong-headed in excelsis.

Passing over the incorrect parsing (the whole point of the passive is that the subject “is x-ed”), there is no legal alternative pending trial to saying that X was raped/assaulted etc. If Joe Bloggs is accused of rape, to say that “Joe Bloggs raped someone” is both defamatory and invites a prosecution for contempt of court. To say that “An alleged rapist raped someone” is at best a statement of the bleeding obvious.

Once the accused is found guilty, or pleads guilty, that is the way it is reported; eg “Stuart Hall admits to sexual assault of girls”. It is so reported because knowledge that Stuart Hall was being tried for sexual assault of young girls is assumed.

That victim-blaming is a problem is clear; but sentence construction is really not the cause, or even part of the cause.

16. JJLindsell

Firstly, as most have pointed out, my opening lines err. It should be ‘patient’ rather than ‘object’.
Distinctions regarding the legal status of victims and perpetrators don’t pose especially great problems for the media – if they are confident enough to report ‘x person is raped’ then, a priori, they should be equally confident in reporting ‘y person committed rape’. They would probably do well do include ‘alleged’ or ‘accused’ in both cases, but many tend not to.
Shatterface, I’m afraid I haven’t analysed those languages. I agree it’d be fascinating to see how their media report such crimes.
I’d argue your “Men rape millions of women per year” is a bit too far – ‘Millions of men rape (people) per year’ would suffice. See for example http://www.mrc.ac.za/gender/violence_hiv.pdf , a study of South African rapists aided by DfID.
Finally, I don’t agree with MacKinnon, hence my article, but used the well-known quotation to introduce my ideas. Her example, like the headlines I discuss, are indicative of the patriarchal culture I’m discussing – not the sole cause.
Many thanks for all your comments.

If they are confident enough to report ‘x person is raped’ then, a priori, they should be equally confident in reporting ‘y person committed rape’. They would probably do well do include ‘alleged’ or ‘accused’ in both cases, but many tend not to.

Can I refer you to this case McAlpine v Bercow (http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/QB/2013/1342.html) which shows just how misguided that comment of yours quoted above is on almost every axis?

First, “alleged” or “accused” does not get people off the hook of making an allegation of a serious criminal offence, for the reasons Tugendhat J. points out. Secondly the principal of innocence until proven guilty means that naming purported offenders actually gives them a literal “get out of jail free” card, if they can show the media interest has made a fair trial impossible.

Allowing rapists to walk free and requiring newspapers to pay them six figure sums in libel damages seems like rather a heavy price to pay for not using a part of speech you don’t care for, wouldn’t you say?

18. JJLindsell

No.
I’ll take the first example I got from a google news search for ‘rape’, this DM gem: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2335577/Two-Western-women-raped-India-Irish-charity-worker-21-drugged-assaulted-U-S-hitchhiker-30-gang-raped-resort-town-separate-attacks.html

Of course the media needs to respect the law and not undermine the prosecution. That’s fine. The headline (Two Western women raped in India) can be reformulated to the active tense without making *any* Bercow-esque assertions not already contained in the subheading or the text. An equally anonymous “Men in India rape two Western women” is fine.

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.To Much Time To Think.
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20. Robin Levett

@JJLindsell #16:

if they are confident enough to report ‘x person is raped’ then, a priori, they should be equally confident in reporting ‘y person committed rape

I’m sorry, but I can no longer take you seriously. This is wrong on so many levels; the most obvious being that one can be very confident indeed that the victim did not consent to the sex involved, without having the faintest clue about who rapist was.

“Whereas most sex-crime coverage investigates what personal failures caused a horrific ‘accident’ to happen to the (culpable) female victim,”

I’m sorry, but this isn’t true and it hasn’t been true for a long time, if it ever was. It appears you’re basing this on 1970s and 80s feminist writings rather than actual modern day news coverage. I never, ever see news coverage that implies rape victims are to blame for what happened to them and it’s my experience that rapists are viewed with contempt by pretty much everyone.

22. Robin Levett

@JJLindsell #18:

The headline (Two Western women raped in India) can be reformulated to the active tense without making *any* Bercow-esque assertions not already contained in the subheading or the text. An equally anonymous “Men in India rape two Western women” is fine.

And how is that better?

I hate use of the passive voice in professional correspondence; I always used to hammer away at my trainees not to use it – forcing them to think about who did whatever was being talked about.

Use of the passive is however almost mandated in media coverage of crime; if you use the active, you are left with the problem that naming someone is defamatory and risks contempt of court, but using a placeholder (man, rapist, burglar) is no better than using the passive.

And of course you originally presented this as a massive problem with media coverage of a specific set of crimes, not a grammar flame of newspapers in general.

23. John Reid

8 I was referring to the sort of crime where a person physically is the alleged victim and the evidence is them saying so, not a crime of property theft,

I’d also like to call for an end to this “trigger warning” crap I’m beginning to see on some identity politics blogs. If people don’t have the guts to read about disturbing material they shouldn’t be involved in politics, to be frank. No place for cowards on the left.


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