Reporting on rape

Posted in Oh hell no by Nancy on June 3, 2010

I was flabbergasted to read this rape story on the front page of the Rotorua Daily Post, with a huge 4-deck headline proclaiming:


I am horrified by the way this story has been reported. Read it here.

The RDP seems to want me to think that the truly horrific and scandalous part of this rape story is the fact that the attacker liked to wear women’s clothes/had a sexual preference for bondage.

I would argue that the horrific part of this story is the rape, no matter what the sexual preferences of the attacker.

The intro read:

A Rotorua man with a fetish for dressing up in women’s clothing and being tied up and locked in a wardrobe is on trial for allegedly raping a woman who regularly tied him up.

As in the headline, the first facts we read are “fetish for dressing up in women’s clothing and being tied up and locked in a wardrobe”. The word “raping” only appears near the end of the sentence, which is again book-ended with “regularly tied him up”. From this we already see that the news angle is not the rape, but the attacker’s sexual inclinations.

After the cursory stating of name/location/age/charge/plea/court (Gordon Murray White, Rotorua, 42, rape, not guilty, Rotorua District Court) the first we read about the case is as follows:

In openings yesterday Crown Prosecutor Chris Macklin told the jury Waite got pleasure out of cross-dressing and being tied up with stockings.

Then we hear an explanation about how the victim lived alone before we read:

In the weeks before the alleged rape, Waite had revealed his fetish to the woman, visiting with a plastic bag full of women’s clothing he would dress in and then get her to tie him up and lock him in a wardrobe.

“It was a bit of a game … He would give her money to let him out,” Mr Macklin said.

Then we read about the events leading up to the rape, in which Waite hid in her wardrobe and jumped out wearing “just a woman’s g-string”. We then read:

“He forced her on to the bed and said to her if she has sex with him he will pay for her divorce,” he said.

The woman said no but he didn’t listen.

“The key issue for you today is one of consent,” he told the jury.

Crown Prosecutor Macklin is absolutely on point. The key issue is of consent. Not what sex games the attacker liked to play. The voyeuristic way the RDP has reported this would have us believe that this story is about “cross-dressing” rather than the actual crime of rape. Details of Waite’s sexual  inclinations are given with morbid glee and the key facts of the actual rape are nestled somewhere between the details of the sex play and the “quirkiness” of the situation.

The way this story was presented not only suggests that the real issue is the sexual deviance of the attacker, it implies that men  who get kicks out of dressing up in women’s clothing are more deviant than rapists. This is damaging for two reasons. (1) It perpetuates a misguided notion that people who choose to engage in consensual “kink” or bondage are “bad” and “deviant”. (2) It trivialises rape and ranks its worthiness as news below the “juicy details” of “deviant” bedroom activities.

It is clear, as “cross-dresser” is the first word you read in the headline, that this story only made it as the front-page lead because of the “interesting” characteristics of the attacker. If the rape had occurred in a “normal” way it would have been relegated elsewhere in the newspaper (or perhaps accompanied by some police spokesperson saying women should learn to look after themselves).

It’s sad that a horrifying crime such as rape only gets special coverage if it’s a “novelty” kind of rape. Because, as we so often sadly observe in our newspapers, rape alone is not a crime worthy of the front page. A man who likes to wear women’s clothes, however, is.

Waite has since been convicted of rape and has one relevant historical conviction of exposing himself to young girls. He deserves to be named, shamed and punished for his sick, abusive and criminal behaviour. However, the trivial details of his fetishes are not relevant and merely distract us from his true crime of rape. The The RDP has since published statements from him.  And the victim? Your guess is as good as mine.


Is Chimbalanga a ‘gay man’? Getting it right

Posted in Fuck yeah! by Nancy on May 30, 2010

A fantastic update on the Malawi couple story:

Malawi president Bingu wa Mutharika announced on Saturday the pardon of the jailed gay couple who were sentenced to 14 years earlier this month.

The decision was made at a press briefing at the state house after Mutharika met with visiting UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Saturday.

“I’ve pardoned the two on humanitarian grounds but what they did is criminal and against our culture,” Mutharika told journalist.

HOWEVER, I have a problem with how this couple have been described by the news media.

Here are some clues on why we should rethink the “gay” label for this couple:

1. “[Tiwonge] Chimbalanga, 20 (on the right in the photo), who dresses as a woman, spoke defiantly of his love for the man he plans to marry.”

2. “Dressed in a blouse and describing himself as a woman, [Chimbalanga] said that they became engaged after “my darling, Steven, proposed love to me and we agreed to get married”. Unlike Mr Monjeza, he refused to accept that he had broken any law. “Which laws? I am a woman, I can do what a woman can do,” he said.”

Of course, the fact that Chimbalanga identifies as a woman and presents herself as a woman is FAR too complicated for cut-and-dry news reporting, and far too  “confusing” to accomodate with a different pronoun. Apart from the label “gay” being much easier to fit into tight headline spaces, a trans person may not have attracted as much sympathy and reporting in the Western media. As in the case of Caster Semenya, news about intersex, third-gender or trans people results in muddied and confused reporting, as these people don’t fit nicely into our neat little narratives.

While its wonderful that this couple’s right to love has sparked sympathy around the world and attracted UN intervention, the framing of this story as a “gay” issue is simplistic and incorrect, as one half of the couple does not identify as a gay man. Chimbalanga seems quite clear on the fact that she is a woman, but this has not been made clear/has been rendered unimportant in these stories.

In the same way gay male and lesbian issues are often lumped together in a big rainbow file, the failure to acknowledge how Chimbalanga views herself shows a refusal by the media to think outside of binary heterosexual/homosexual constructs. Chimbalanga has been blatantly misgendered.

I don’t know if Malawi has a “third gender” (the way India, Samoa and Thailand do that is radically different to Western ideas of transgender), but either way it is absolutely incorrect  to use the label “gay man”. In the same way, if the story was about a man’s relationship with a fa’afafine, I wonder, would the Western media report it as a “gay” story although homosexuals and fa’afafine are completely distinct? I guess so.

Just another fun example of how reporting eliminates identities and how Western media reduces the complexities of gender to black-and-white binary categories.

oops, they did it again

Posted in Oh hell no by Nancy on May 17, 2010

In defence, the mag said:

“Due to an extremely regrettable production error, an inappropriate and indefensible response to a letter has appeared in this week’s issue.

“ZOO editor, Tom Etherington, apologises unreservedly for any offence the response may have caused and has launched an internal enquiry to ensure lessons are learnt.”

As a newspaper sub, I know the sort of attitudes prevalent that would let this sort of stuff get through. I’ve subbed many things I have found offensive to me as a genderqueer person or a person of colour, but those things would not cause others to bat an eye.

Of course, they argue, he is not seriously endorsing this, it’s a ‘joke’. Yes, a joke only the privileged get to enjoy, because they will never have to deal with this:

Once I used to laugh along at domestic violence jokes, and maybe riff off this theme myself – it felt essential to prove I had a non-threatening male-friendly identity (I was certainly not a ‘hysterical feminist’) to gain some sort of access (although limited) to a boys’ club. It is, thankfully, a club I’ve grown out of.

Sadly, over many years it becomes hard to get surprised or shocked by misogynism, racism, sexism, classism or ableism, unless you keep an eye open for it.

It’s great people have complained about this, but more insidious forms of prejudice and discrimination slip through every day and will probably continue to do so as long as journalism remains an intellectually conservative, anti-academic institution that refuses to critique and hold itself accountable (without first causing shitstorms, most often created by lazy, hamfisted reporters).

News reporting will always be reductive. So I call bullshit when they call this a ‘production’ error.

Lazy reporting #1

Posted in Oh hell no by Nancy on May 17, 2010

Today Americans have a new Miss USA, the beautiful Rima Fakih.

My co-worker alerted me to the news. The first headline he saw was “Brunette wins Miss USA“, on the Stuff website. He likes comparing headlines in different publications (I guess it’s a quirk of being a sub-editor), and the headline he saw on the Herald website was: “Arab woman crowned Miss USA.”

He knows racial or gender qualifiers in newspapers are my number one pet peeve, so we went to town with this one.

Sure, it’s a routine and fairly tepid news item – pretty hard to drag out a juicy angle for the headline. A brunette winner? Alright. An Arab woman winner? Now we’re talking. Obviously Stuff took note of this opportunity to embed a meaningless ethnic and gender qualifier into their story. And what’s a story without some good qualifiers? They have since changed their headline to: “Arab-American wins Miss USA“.

These headlines would be fair enough if her ethnicity was brought up anywhere else in the stories, but it isn’t. So they aren’t anything but pointless qualifiers.

But TVNZ went one step further with their headline: Arab Muslim crowned Miss USA 2010.

But it backed it up: “Fakih is the first ever Arab-American to win the title, the first ever Muslim-American Miss USA.”

And provided some context: “The win is being seen as a welcome event especially at a time when Arabs in the US have been stereotyped in a negative light ever since the terror attacks on September 11, 2001.”

But (as usual) Stuff and the Herald missed the opportunity to make their headlines relevant, or show the significance of those qualifiers to the story.  It would be preferable for the stories to mention something like: “With even US-born Arabs subject to harassment and marginalisation, Fakih took the crown of Miss USA.”

Well, better luck next time.

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