Rape Culture, Above the Fold

Last year, I discussed the role of sexism in journalism and the fact that women working in journalism need to contend with sexism in the workplace, on interviews, in the field. In addition to the obstacles that can present themselves to journalists, like reluctant sources, obstructionist governments, and editorial budgets, women also need to deal with a constant string of sexist commentary and actions. Sexism continues to play a role in who gets bylines and plum reporting gigs, who gets the best seat on the press bus, who is allowed to speak and when.

There’s also a culture of silence about it, where women are routinely reminded that they shouldn’t say anything about the sexism they encounter, as journalists. Where women who do speak out may find themselves shifted to a different desk, getting fewer commissions, labeled with the dreaded ‘pain in the ass to work with’ and hung out to dry in a quiet corner.

And recently, a string of media coverage on sexual assault among women in journalism is another reminder of the dangers for female journalists; this CPJ report is particularly stark. The Lara Logan case was perhaps the most striking, not least because she spoke so openly about her assault. Mac McClelland at Mother Jones has also discussed concerns about sexual assault and wrote a piece about attending a self defense class in preparation for a reporting trip to Africa as part of her larger discussion about sexism and sexual assault and women journalists.

Sexual assault is a reality for women working in journalism. Some people might use this as an argument that women shouldn’t be journalists, because it’s always easier to blame the victim than it is to address the roots of the problem. Women journalists are targets for sexual assault because people think they are acceptable targets. One of the reasons for that is the sexism in journalism and the lack of support that women get from colleagues and their employers; it may not be obvious all the time, but the undercurrents are always there. They are there when women are told to dismiss sexual harassment in the course of getting a story, when networks and publications refuse to back up their journalists when they decline to engage with sexist pigs (as coworkers or interview subjects).

The reason that rape culture in general is so persistent is because women are, as a class, devalued. Because, culturally, sexism is alive and strong and it sets up women as acceptable targets for rape because the consequences of rape are often minimal. Because women are considered objects for entertainment and amusement, rather than human beings. Because we persist in blaming women for being victims, for insisting that violence against women is the fault of the women. Because we claim that some rapes aren’t real, are less valid, and we do so on the basis of sexism, again; women are weak, women are unable to stand up for themselves.

For women in journalism, the undercurrent of sexism is always there and they’re often told to ignore it. Just focus on the story. Or manipulate it to your advantage (because women, you know, they are always about the feminine wiles and exploiting situations whenever possible). Definitely don’t complain, because if you do, you might get taken off the story and reassigned to the gardening desk. If you’re bothered that stories about women end up in the ‘life and style’ section you would do well to keep it to yourself, because no one wants to hear about it. The sexism is just an occupational hazard, you see, it is part of the job.

And there comes to be a blur, between what is casual sexism, and what is sexual harassment, and what is assault. When you are routinely told by everyone around you that you are overreacting to instances of sexism, it’s easy to think that you are overreacting to the interview subject who grabbed your ass. To the coworker who leers at your breasts. To the fixer who suggests that you might get better service if you’re willing to offer some service in return. It becomes harder and harder to assert your boundaries because you are told to have no boundaries.

In the field, in dangerous situations, if something bad happens to you, somebody will tell you it was your fault. I can guarantee you that Lara Logan has been told, probably multiple times, that she shouldn’t have been where she was, shouldn’t have done this, shouldn’t have worn that, should have done this a different way. She’s also enjoyed support, of course, from colleagues, from supervisors; journalism is not a monolith, not all journalists at all levels of the hierarchy tolerate sexism, and in fact some actively work against it and speak out when they see it, encourage women journalists who may be less comfortable asserting themselves because of their subordinate positions to hold their ground and refuse to accept sexist behaviour. Just as there are people in this rape culture infused society who insist that rape culture is not ok and want to empower women to resist it.

But when the overwhelming messages you receive from society are that, as a woman, you shouldn’t pursue a career, especially not one that puts you in dangerous situations, that if you do end up in danger and something bad happens, you deserve it, you do tend to internalise that. And you internalise it even more when you work in an industry where people may suggest that you need to tolerate sexism if you want any hope of professional advancement. Where you must accept the constant casual litany of torments people reserve for people who look like you, act like you, dress like you.