Everyday Victim Blaming

challenging institutional disbelief around domestic & sexual violence and abuse

What do we mean by saying ‘a brutal rape’?

If you search 'brutal rape news' on Google you'll find page after page of recent news stories (if you are going to do this, even the titles are very graphic, and the litany of results one after another is pretty horrifying). I'm just wondering what it is that provokes journalists to use this adjective as a qualifier, and if it's necessarily helpful. If you're speaking as the victim, use whatever term you want - but the tendency for outside observers to use it gives me pause.

When I searched 'brutal definition' I got: savagely violent, unpleasant or harsh, and 'direct without making any attempt to disguise unpleasantness'. I think the last example is actually how I usually use the word, and the only time I remember using it to describe anything related to sexual violence was the morning after giving a statement to the police. I think I said "no matter how much I expected it, that was still absolutely brutal".

The implication in a journalistic context, though, seems to be the first definition, and I don't think it's usually in relation to the sexual violence being 'savage'. There seems to be an implicit categorisation of how 'violent' (physically violent) an assault was, and given that lots of these news stories are based on the limited information given by the police, it doesn't seem to be based on the victim's statement or words. A lot of the reports which give very little detail but are described as 'brutal' are assaults perpetrated in a public place, which if I were a cynic I would suspect to be a convenient substitute for the knowledge that the perpetrator/s are unknown to the victim (this information often has to be omitted because of victim anonymity). Firstly, this isn't exactly a foolproof match. And even if we were to accept that sexual violence should be graded in severity according to the additional physical violence (no), or that this should be clearly correlated to myths and stereotypes (no), it's worth remembering that assaults by intimate partners (which are more likely to be carried out in the home) are associated with the highest aggregate levels of physical violence.

So my first reading is that journalists are implicitly categorising rape according to some fairly irrelevant information, and reflecting that in the language they use to report. Three guesses at which cases would be reported as "Woman 'raped' by man" and which as "Man, 30, who brutally raped...". There's no prize for getting that one right.

I think there's absolutely nothing wrong with recognising the extreme violence associated with rape, even if the use of 'savage' probably makes some implications about the perpetrator which we might wish to avoid (men who rape are abhorred by society! oh wait...). And there's definitely nothing wrong with women speaking about additional physical violence and the pain, fear and distress it causes - we can't let those women down by avoiding the subject - there are no small mercies here. But why can't we allow victims to decide which adjectives are put in front of 'rape' in a headline or even an awareness raising tweet, and which reports call the rape itself into question with quotation marks? If I were particularly cynical I would wonder whether, like assaults in a public place, rapes which are reported in the public domain are increasingly seen as public property - we can describe for the victim, speak for her, and advocate for her without her consent. It would be nice if we would stop.

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One thought on “What do we mean by saying ‘a brutal rape’?

  • Hecuba says:

    Malestream media which is controlled and owned by men knows that having the sensationalist headline ‘brutal rape’ will increase numbers of males accessing their website/viewing their newspapers. Malestream media always sensationalises male sexual violence against women because it is male ‘sexual entertainment.’

    We never read ‘male victim was stripped of his clothes and raped’ because this would dehumanise the male victim and provide voyeurism for the male readers but women and girls of course have no rights of autonomy or ownership of their bodies since females only exist to be exploited by males.

    An excellent book which although published a few years ago on the subject of malestream media sensationalising and eroticising male sexual violence against women, read Virgin or Whore: How The Press Covers Sex Crimes by Helen Benedict.