A Woman’s Words: What are They Worth?

lipno2New Zealand newspaper reporting on rape presents some grave concerns in relation to how women as victims are discussed, objectified, and silenced. The 2016 trial of ‘Northern Districts’ cricketer Scott Kuggeleijn has showed this all too clearly.

Kuggeleijn took to the stand after a woman alleged that he raped her, at her Hamilton flat in May 2015. Comments from The New Zealand Herald and Stuff showed little progress from sexist attitudes towards women, and the abhorrent culture that surrounds rape and sexual violence in this country. Stating that the complainant was dressed “very provocatively” with her “breasts out” and “quite revealing with a short skirt and pink top” (Feek, 2016) only serve to remind us that women, and their appearances, are, in some way to blame for rape (Feek, 2016).

Kuggeleijn’s defence lawyer suggested that the cricketer acted as any other man would when he tried to have sex with a woman after she had earlier said ‘no’: “If I said to you that 100 men who have been in that situation and tried again you would have a forest of hands. There’s nothing horrible about that, it’s just a reflection of life really, and what was Kuggeleijn other than one of these men?” (Akoorie, 2016). If it is true that 100 men may have acted in the same way Kuggeleijn is alleged, we need to address the very serious issue of consent. When a woman says ‘no’, it means no – a discussion of rape cannot be had without considering consent. Consent is not the absence of a ‘no’ but a freely and consciously given, enthusiastic ‘yes’.

The use of victim-blaming language and the trivialisation of rape are clear indicators that rape myths still exist (Magilsen, 2015; Shariff & DeMartini, 2015). Rape myths, which feed into a ‘rape culture’, underpin how sexual violence is perpetrated, and how that behaviour becomes normalised, resulting in its legitimisation not only by the public but also by the media. Including aspects like victim blaming rhetoric and sexist language, the newspaper media not only condone a ‘rape culture’, but are most likely unaware they are doing so. Unfortunately, misleading representations of sexual violence in newspapers affects the sociocultural environment within which rape both occurs and is responded to by members of the criminal justice system.

International research concerning the depiction of rape in the media has highlighted the ways in which news reports sensationalise sexual violence by giving a distorted view of its incidence and nature. Studies have noted that the media disproportionately focus on stranger rape, gang rape, on unusual or bizarre assaults, and on violence perpetrated against young women (Caringella-MacDonald, 1998; Carter, 2002; Heath, Gordon, & LeBailly, 1981; Kitzinger, 2004; Soothill & Walby, 1991). Media accounts of rape tend to trivialise women’s experiences of the attack, or report rapes in a manner that is designed to be titillating or arousing to readers, reiterating the significance of newsworthiness and its ‘mission to entertain’ (Jewkes, 2011: 41). Media images of crime perpetually reinforce social anxieties, as people are simultaneously fascinated and alarmed by representations of crime.

Whilst there is a strong base of sexual violence research in New Zealand and previous attempts have been made to analyse newspaper representations of rape, a literature gap exists on a longitudinal level. My research looks at depictions of male-female rape in eight prominent New Zealand newspapers over a forty-year period between 1975 and 2015. Analysing five complete years of reporting (1975, 1985, 1995, 2005, and 2015), my aim is to explore and identify the different ways that rape – and ultimately women’s representation, objectification and silencing – is discussed within newspaper articles.

The benefits of a longitudinal approach are worth noting. It will provide an important account of changes in two key areas: the changing depiction of women, rape and sexual assault since the 1970s and how the New Zealand media landscape has changed across time with regards to reporting practices and in the context of technological changes. It is also important because this large scale analysis will unpack changes in language, traditional attitudes towards women, and the way that sexual violence – specifically woman as rape victims – is perceived by the New Zealand public across a forty-year period.

Although my work is still in progress it is already indicating new areas that are worthy of mention. The length of reports have changed across time – articles in 1975/1985 were much shorter, factual court reports, whereas articles become longer from 1995 and there is more discussion from practitioners, academics, and politicians around ‘rape culture’. Despite this positive change, I have also noticed an overwhelming number of articles that use the ‘male voice’ as the dominant narrative of the piece. Regardless of the journalist’s gender, it is predominantly men (justice system practitioners or the male perpetrators themselves) speaking to ‘us’ in news reports. The media prioritise the male voice as the dominant narrative. While men retain the controlling voice, speaking out about or for women, it is difficult to see how rape culture might shift.

Ange Barton is an MA thesis student at the Institute of Criminology, Victoria University of Wellington. Ange’s research forms one component of Jan Jordan’s Marsden scholarship, titled ‘Rape, Silencing and Objectification: A socio-cultural analysis of barriers to rape reform’. The Marsden project explores how the ongoing silencing and objectification of women, contributes to the sociocultural environment in which rape both occurs, is responded to by the police, and how they present as barriers to New Zealand rape reform.

References

Akoorie, N. (2016, August 4). Defence claim angers women’s advocates. The New Zealand Herald. Retrieved from: http://m.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=11686833 (November 2, 2016).

Caringella-MacDonald, S. (1998). The Relative Visibility of Rape Cases in National Popular Magazines. Violence Against Women, 4(1), 62–80.

Carter, C. (2002). When The ‘Extraordinary’ Becomes ‘Ordinary’: Everyday news of sexual violence. In Stuart Allan, Gill Branston, & Cynthia Carter (Eds.), News, Gender and Power (pp. 219–232). London: Routledge.

Feek, B. (2016, July 28). Northern Districts cricketer’s rape trial: ‘She was dressed provocatively’. The New Zealand Herald. Retrieved from: http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=11683185 (November 2, 2016).

Heath, L., Gordon, M. T., & LeBailly, R. (1981). What Newspapers Tell Us (And Don’t Tell Us) About Rape. Newspaper Research Journal, 2(4), 48–55.

Jewkes, Y. (2011). Media & Crime (Second Edition). London: Sage Publications Ltd.

Kitzinger, J. (2004). Media Coverage of Sexual Violence Against Women and Children. In Karen Ross & Carolyn M. Byerly (Eds.), Women and Media: International Perspectives (pp. 13–38). Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Magilsen, A. (2015). The reality of rape: Why are we blaming our girls? Unpublished Honour’s thesis, Victoria University of Wellington.

Mather, M. (2016a, July 27). Scott Kuggeleijn denied to friend that he had raped a woman. Stuff. Retrieved from:  http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/crime/82547825/Scott-Kuggeleijn-denied-to-friend-that-he-had-raped-a-woman (November 2, 2016).

Mather, M. (2016b, July 28). Rape-accused: I’m sorry for the harm I caused you. Stuff. Retrieved from:   http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/crime/82562223/Rape-accused-I-m-sorry-for-the-harm-I-caused-you (November 2, 2016).

Shariff, S., & DeMartini, A. (2015). Defining the Legal Lines: eGirls and Intimate Images. In eGirls, eCitizens (pp. 281–306). University of Ottawa Press.

Soothill, K., & Walby, S. (1991). Sex crime in the news. London: Routledge.

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