Rape isn’t sex

Rape isn’t sex.

That shouldn’t need saying, should it? But I find myself saying it too frequently, and almost always in the context of a grievance with online news media.

The trouble with the success of news stories being based on amount of page views means that headlines have to be eye-catching. It’s not new – before media went digital the same was said about paper sales – but it regularly creates ethical problems.

It’s not uncommon to be misled by a headline and discover halfway through the article, that the aforementioned “baby woe/life crisis/relationship turmoil” is either speculative or nowhere near as bad as the headline shouted. It’s gross, but it’s somewhat accepted in tabloids, life and style news, and whenever a political sex scandal crops up.

Disturbingly, however, these salacious headlines are becoming all too common in the reporting of sexual violence and rape.

Today, I saw one of the worst I have ever seen.

sex ordeal2

This is abhorrent on so many levels:

  • Rape isn’t sex.
  • This woman was not “in” an “all night sex” anything. She was the victim of rape.
  • Putting “ordeal” after “all night sex” makes it sound like an accident; a cosmo-worthy horror story about forgetting your handcuff keys.
  • The conservative UN measure of sexual violence for women with disabilities estimates over half of disabled women experience sexual violence in their lifetimes. This is a global, pervasive and very serious problem. This assault is a continuity of this pattern. Not an “all night sex” anything.
  • The perpetrator was convicted of rape. Media outlets are often very cautious of labeling perpetrators until convictions are in place [this, by the way, should give rise to “alleged rapist/offender”, not “sex attack”, “peeping tom”, “groper” or “flasher”]. Legally, there was no doubt as to whether Malcolm Telford Henry raped his victim. It was rape and it can be called that without fear of any recourse.

There are only two options for why the Taranaki Daily News and Stuff chose this headline. Either this is a more palatable headline than actually saying “rape” (which there is no precedent for), or a headline blasting “all night sex” has more guaranteed clicks then one without it.

Given this story was one of the top read on Stuff, and is the ‘Editor’s Pick’ for the Taranaki Daily News, I’d say it’s the latter. And that is unacceptable.

The Taranaki Daily News responded to my calls for an apology and a change of headline with the following. Stuff has yet to respond at all.

tdn1 tdn2

While other New Zealand news sites are also guilty of similar insensitivities, they don’t have quite the history as the collective Stuff sites do on dressing up the violence of rape as something scandalous for clicks.

Stuff, and the local media it hosts, is collectively the most read news website in New Zealand. They have an obligation to respect the victims they write about and to (at the very least) not perpetuate to rape culture by furthering the idea that rape is sex, sexy or salacious.

Stuff and the Taranaki Daily News need to take the headline down, they need to apologise, and they need to publicly commit to doing better by survivors and their loved ones.

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