By Jeannette Pai-Espinosa
Texas gang rape of 11-year-old girl media coverage fuels double standard that there are “bad” and “good” girls, but “boys will be boys”
Media coverage of the gang rape of an 11-year-old girl in Cleveland, Texas by a group of at least 18 men and boys reinforces the stereotype that girls and women who are raped must have “asked for it,” even if they are children. Apparently, not much has changed since The National Crittenton Foundation was founded in 1883 when we used terms like “wayward, fallen, lost and depraved” to describe girls and women who we deemed “bad girls.” But the coverage and comments about this 11-year old girl prove that these sentiments are alive and well, though the words may have changed. Couple this with efforts in the US House of Representatives to “redefine rape” and it all adds up to the fact that many people in our country still equate rape with sex and not with lack of consent and power.
Of course, once pressure is applied and protests grow louder there is back pedaling, and more thoughtful media coverage can emerge such as that of The New York Times’ Reader Representative Arthur Brisbane who responded to numerous angry readers who pointed out that the publication’s story blamed the victim and lacked balance. The sad statement is that in 2011 we still need to have this conversation, debate, outcry and outrage in order to ensure that more reasoned perspectives are heard.
Truth is, the sexualization of girls and women in the media and in advertising reinforces the deeply embedded sexism that still runs strong in the United States. This sexism continues to support a view of girls and women being valued primarily as sex objects, apparently regardless of age. It continues to fuel the double standard that there are “bad” and “good” girls but “boys will be boys.” And as everyone knows once you are labeled a “bad girl,” that’s it – you can never again be anything else, regardless of the circumstances. Not only did the media coverage include messages indicating the girl dressed inappropriately for her age, (which again is 11) while they were at it, the media also blamed her mother. So here we have a bad girl raised by a bad mother: you get the drift.
Most frightening, is that this situation is a reflection of attitudes that each day across the country weaken the fabric of our society. It is our collective indifference to the epidemic of violence against girls and women in this country. We see it in other countries and are outraged, but at home we look away.
Here are some facts for girls in the Unites States: one in three girls is sexually abused and approximately one in three adolescent girls is a victim of physical, emotional or verbal abuse from a dating partner. Last but not least: among all female rape victims in the United States, 61 percent are under the age of 18. I think this fact speaks for itself. In the end, this means that about 30 percent of girls, teens, and women are living their lives trying to heal from the residual trauma created by the violence.
Recently, I met a teen woman who was raped by more than 30 different boys and men, including her father and other male relatives. She turned to drugs and alcohol to ease her pain and started committing crimes. It seemed hopeless for her. Then, in 2010, she entered a residential facility where she received trauma-informed services including substance abuse recovery support, psychological counseling, anger management courses, and life skills help. In less than one year, a young woman with no self-esteem who blamed herself for the violence and abuse committed against her, has emerged strong and powerful.
As dark and hopeless as the stories may seem, we can make a difference by supporting the survivors of violence with the services and programs they need to heal and thrive. But first, as a nation we need to recognize that the roots of this epidemic of violence are in the sexism with which we all live every day and we must see it, name it, and dismantle it. You can support the courageous survivors of violence by volunteering your time, contributing financially, advocating for funding of programs and services, and speaking out when situations like the one in Cleveland, Texas occur. But now let's make sure that this 11-year-old girl receives the support and treatment she deserves.
Jeannette Pai-Espinosa is President of The National Crittenton Foundation. She has more than thirty years of experience in advocacy, strategic and intercultural communication, public policy, and program development. She leads The Foundation in providing national advocacy, public will building communication and capacity building support to the 27 members of the Crittenton family of agencies providing services in 31 states and the District of Columbia.
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