“Portraying sexual assault: How the media doesn’t protect victims”

By Victoria Joshua

April 3, 2013

It is a statistical fact that globally, one in three women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime. However, when race and sexual identity are included, sexual violence becomes shaped by stereotypical perceptions and gender violence.

In celebration of April as “Sexual Assault Awareness Month,” Dominican University welcomed Ph.D. Salamisha Tillet to deliver her lecture, “Rape, Popular Culture & Post-Racial America,” in the Priory auditorium on March 25. The essence of her lecture was to raise awareness about the impact of racial and gender stereotypes in sexual violence and conclude with an honest and vigorous dialogue among those in attendance.

Tillet is the co-founder of A Long Walk Home, Inc. and the producer of the award-winning performance, Story of a Rape Survivor (SOARS). She has worked effectively to empower young Chicago girls through Girl/Friends, a sexual assault prevention and sexual health education institute for girls. Much of Tillet’s work is aimed at ending violence against girls and women.

Recently, devastating worldwide occurrences of rape have caught the attention of many in the U.S., prompting several protests throughout the nation. Millions of people from different ethnic backgrounds have gathered to advocate sexual violence. There have been movements such as “V-Day’s 1 Billion Rising,” which advocates women’s rights and sexual abuse. “V-Day’s 1 Billion Rising” invites one billion women and men to rise up and end the violence of women.

“It’s the first time many readers are understanding a long tradition of organizing and feminism and anti-rape activism,” Tillet said. “Young people on college campuses are doing what it takes to advocate sexual violence.”

According to Tillet, race affects sexual assault in several ways.

“Race impacts who we think of as rape victims and rape suspects,” she said. “Race determines who is arrested, what kinds of cases are prosecuted, and what cases get the guilty verdict.”

To Tillet, these kinds of perspectives are generational stereotypes that even affect the media’s response to violent cases.

One example of how race and gender plays a major role in sexual assault cases and the media’s reaction includes the highly publicized Steubenville, Ohio case involving two high school football players who were found guilty of sexually assaulting an intoxicated minor.

Tillet asked the audience to pay special attention to the lack of attentiveness towards the victim and how huge media sources such as CNN and USA Today used phrases like “promising students” and said “the victim was drunk,” statements which seemingly defending the accused.

“This case seems to be only about gender and the ways in which girls are vulnerable,” Tillet said. “The 16-year-old experienced repeated assault, wide spread dissemination of video images and text. That girl’s voice is missing.”

Senior Tytiana Williams was pleased to see Tillet’s honesty during the lecture, believing it may have been the remedy for female students in attendance who are dealing with similar issue.

“I am glad that she came and told her story about being a sexual assault survivor, because so many women in the audience probably needed to hear that,” Williams said. “I think it’s wonderful that she gave us information about advocacy so we can get involved too.”

Tillet also focused on how the media treats the accused when race or racism is possibility.
During the dialogue, one student, who was a victim of sexual assault, described the personal impact that race had on her sexual offenders.

“I’m a rape survivor, and when I was ready to talk about it finally, nothing happened because the people who assaulted me were white, and that was it,” the student explained.
The student stated that when she spoke about the incident to others, they seemed surprised that the offenders were not black, and thus found the need for an arrest unimportant.

One example of a mythical racial stereotype touched upon is the “black male rapist,” which describes the black man as one without self-control over his sexual urges, a sexual threat to white women and a threat to the nation.  The impact of such racial stereotypes can be seen in 2011, where actress and victim of sexual assault Ashley Judd blamed hip-hop as the reason for rape culture in her book, “All that is Bitter is Sweet.”

Tillet stated that this is an issue impacts the nation’s knowledge and opinions of rape. Racism disproportionately hurts the victims of assault.

“If you (referring to Judd) say it’s hip-hop, then you are saying that it’s black men,” Tillet said. “So, if you think that all black men are rapists, then white women have a difficult time coming forward when they are perpetrated by white men, because we just don’t have that language of understanding white male privilege working alongside rape culture.”

Senior Alyse Stolz enjoyed the liberating experience of Tillet’s lecture.

“What I’ll take away from this lecture is that it’s okay to talk about this [race, rape culture],” Stolz said. “The fact that we had a conversation about it makes me feel more comfortable.”

Dominican offers free quality counseling for any students who are victims of assault and issues of violence. During the week of April 15, Dominican will host a clothesline project, giving students the opportunity to decorate shirts to speak up and out against sexual violence. For more information on Sexual Assault Awareness Month, visit the Campus News page.