Less than two weeks ago, I used a pen to fix a cover story in The Washington Post on Jared Fogle. I crossed out the word “underage sex” and wrote in “statutory rape” in the headline, and then changed a few more words in the story: “having sex with” and “sexual encounters with” became “raping” and “rapes of” underage girls. Then I took a picture and posted the image to Twitter and Facebook.
The image went viral. Using the most conservative estimates that don’t account for people copying and pasting on their own, the image has been shared well over 40,000 times. I want to talk about why that image resonated so strongly and make some suggestions about where to go from here.
People are sick and tired of rape culture. Rape culture is the way media, law, language, sexism, and social norms interact to create a world where sexual assault is commonplace. It manifested in the Post story by wrapping Fogle’s sexual misconduct with minors in the language of consensual sex.
We can, and should, talk about why this happened. It happened, in part, because of the inadequacy of the charges against Fogle: “Distributing and receiving child pornography, and conspiring to do so, as well as repeatedly traveling to engage in commercial sex acts with underage minors.” Here’s the problem: Legal language and technicalities can obstruct telling it like it is and pursuing justice to the point where it becomes an open question whether the law is designed to protect victims of sexual crimes or powerful, popular men like Jared Fogle and Bill Cosby.
In plain language and the lived experiences of victims of sexual assault, if a person is unable to consent to sex – it’s rape, and that includes the circumstance of an adult preying upon minors below the age of consent. The exchange of money does not override other factors that make a person unable to consent to sex. Fogle engaged in criminal sexual conduct with minors – and while journalists can say that, they can’t say he raped them unless or until the law says he did.
The general population is pretty unaware that one of the largest concerns about reporting on rape within newsrooms is making sure you don’t get sued. So, The Washington Post couldn’t have said that Fogle raped those girls or young women, even though tens of thousands of people agree with me and wish they could have. Part of our ire should rightfully be focused on the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of Indiana that offered Fogle the plea deal that allowed him to avoid rape charges.
That said, The Washington Post must be held accountable to an open accounting of its editorial standards surrounding sexual crimes, and revising them to avoid the appearance of victim-blaming. The article in question is hardly the first time the newspaper has reported criminal sexual conduct in the language of consensual sex, or published outrageous things about rape victims – last year, columnist George Will suggested victimhood is “a coveted status that confers privileges” on campus. Tell that to Willa Murphy, who was told to leave Georgetown after she was raped and her academic performance suffered a setback.
The headline on Fogle could have spotlighted that a plea deal meant he avoided rape charges. The text of the story could have referenced the charges explicitly by name, and then paraphrased them later as “sexual misconduct” rather than “sexual encounters.” Language really matters.
We do not use the language of consensual practices to describe other crimes. We don’t read stories about people sharing their wallets with the criminals who robbed them, or offering their lives to the murderers who killed them. We should not do the same with criminal sexual conduct – no matter the other circumstances of the victim’s life, and no matter the celebrity of the person facing charges.
While less relevant to the Fogle story, there is an important, additional step The Washington Post can and should take in its reporting moving forward. It should not call victims “accusers” and/or present the facts of their personal lives, but instead place the emphasis on charges and the people facing them. “Accuse” carries a hostile connotation that reflects upon the person doing it. It is time to use the language of crime to report all crimes, including sexual crimes.
Editorial standards need to change. It’s also pretty clear the application of law does, too. Judging by the shares of the image I created recently, people of all political persuasions on the Internet are leading the way.