Language and images matter, because what we feed ourselves through our media shapes our thinking and our society. The way marketers advertise to us also speaks volumes about who we are. So, what does it say about our society when a Texas business owner decides it’s a good idea to feature an image of a woman, bound and gagged, as truck decal, to boost sales?1 And what must it be doing to our minds, feasting on such sickening fare regularly? It’s such a problem that it’s in all our interests to work towards a solution. And it’s not beyond our reach. We can do better to counteract the culture of violence and build a strong culture of nonharming. There are steps we can all take to move our society in a healthier direction.
Products are marketed in certain ways for a reason: that marketing works. But when we see shocking marketing, over and over, it is possible that we could eventually grow comfortably numb to it. For that reason, it may make sense to limit the sorts of images that assault us, at least set the bar higher, so advertisers do not take objectification to such revolting extremes. Seen with compassionate eyes, images of women bound and gagged should be chilling, as they silently imply a dark “next step.” When fair minded men and women see such images in ads, they can vote with their pocketbooks by buying from someone else.
Reporters can also be a part of the solution, taking care in their language choices when sexual violence is reported and discussed. Arthur Brisbane of The New York Times2 points out that the media, perhaps in an effort to protect the reader, avoids certain words in rape cases. In doing so, it does a disservice not only to the victim of sexual assault but to all readers. Talking about victims having sex with perpetrators underplays the violence associated with the crimes. It also suggests consent, which is impossible in the case of children and in any case demeans and inaccurately portrays the situation. Rather than fear the word rape, they should use it, where it is descriptive of a violent crime. Rape is an act of violence, and is very different from an act of love. Consensual sex is impossible in the case of children or adults who are too intoxicated to freely and willingly consent clearheadedly, or where one party says “no” or is in fear of mortal danger. The word rape should definitely offend our ears, but it should also offend us to hear about a person having “sex” with a child; sex didn’t happen, rape did. By not blurring the line between sex and violence in stories, reporters can begin to help the public recognize that difference in real life experience as well.
Awareness-building can be a powerful experience. According to Bay Area Women Against Rape, 1 in 6 women and 1 in 33 men will be a victim of sexual assault in their lifetime. Nine of ten rape victims are women. 15% of sexual assault victims are under the age of 12.3 And one in four college women are raped or suffer attempted rape, and 84% know their assailants. The age group 16-24 has a rate of risk four times higher than other age groups. Rape is recognized as a war crime and a crime against humanity whenever it is widespread and systematic, as during international conflict. What, in our own society, is widespread and systematic, and promotes a rape culture? Just as an exercise, you might challenge a team to take a notepad and jot down your media experience. Rather than simply counting the number of women (or weak men) who are portrayed as helpless victims, gagged and bound and raped or awaiting rescue, which would be very disheartening, why not count the number of times where victims are portrayed sympathetically, where the writers were sensitive to the victim’s perspective, where the rape was not portrayed in a sexually charged way, and where the offender received ample punishment. As an added bonus, you might want to count the number of times the after-effects of such violence are examined. These include a higher likelihood of depression, post-traumatic stress, alcohol and drug use, or suicidal thoughts, in the victim.
Finally, pastors can have an impact, with sermons on self-respect, the value of all persons under God, and even the dangers of alcohol and drugs (suggesting temperance while not allowing them as an excuse for violence). Pastors can also touch on God’s love for those caught in the aftermath. After all, with such numbers, pastors are likely preaching at times to survivors, perpetrators, and parents.
1 Terkel, Amanda. “Texas Business Creates Truck Decal Of Woman Bound And Tied To Bring In New Customers.” The Huffington Post. September 6, 2013, online at huffingtonpost.com/2013/09/06/texas-truck-decal-woman_n_3881700.html?ir=Politics?ncid=fcbklnkushpmg00000010″>http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/09/06/texas-truck-decal-woman_n_3881700.html?ir=Politics?ncid=fcbklnkushpmg00000010 and accessed September 10, 2013.
2Brisbane, Arthur. “Confusing Sex and Rape”, The New York Times Public Editor Opinion pages. November 19, 2011.
3Statistics from Rape, Abuse, Incest National Network, the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization, online at rainn.org /get-information/statistics/sexual-assault-victims/ and accessed November 22, 2011.