BY VALERIE WIESKAMP
Discussions of media ethics in the #MeToo movement should begin with an understanding of how #MeToo operates within the larger movement to address sexual violence, which I define as including harassment, rape, stalking, and unwanted touch. Since the 1970s, feminists have aimed to position sexual violence as an issue of power and control and to demonstrate that the problem is not a consequence of “bad apples” with deviant sexual urges, but rather a problem of our cultural norms regarding gender and sexuality.1 Exploring the problem in this way is important because it enables sexual violence interventions to move beyond simply finding and punishing perpetrators or cautioning women to police their own behaviors and attire to avoid rape. As I have argued elsewhere, focus on the sociocultural factors behind sexual violence enable conversations about how to change those social norms that exacerbate the problem.2
The #MeToo movement has proliferated stories of sexual assault and harassment via both new and traditional media. The sheer number of stories shared demonstrates that ours is a “rape culture” and also helps those affected by sexual violence feel less isolated. This sets the stage for potentially productive conversations about the cultural causes of sexual violence.
Yet, despite a few notable exceptions, not enough news stories are reporting on the sociocultural factors that lead some men to commit sexual violence.3 This is not for want of available information.
Indeed, decades of research indicate the cultural norms and beliefs that lead to sexual violence.4 Research testing feminist sociocultural theories of rape began in 1980.5 A meta-analysis of such research indicates a strong consensus that there exists a connection between hyper-masculine ideals and sexual violence.6 “Standards of masculinity that emphasize dominance, assertiveness, aggressiveness, independence, self-sufficiency, and willingness to take risks and that reject characteristics such as compassion, understanding, and sensitivity have been found to be correlated with rape propensity.”7 Adherence to conservative gender roles is another predictor of attitudes that support violence against women.8 This includes “views that women should not do men’s work nor men do women’s work, that a man is the head of the household, and that women should take a passive role in courtship.”9 Scholars have also examined which specific social and organizational circumstances invite rape.10 Social risk factors found within university settings (especially fraternities) include “greater gender segregation, an ethic of male sexual conquest and getting sex, displays of masculinity through heterosexual sexual performance, high alcohol consumption, heterosexism and homophobia, [and] use of pornography.”11 There is ample research from multiple disciplinary and methodological approaches that concur that rape is a consequence of particular cultural attitudes. Why are the experts who research sexual violence not being cited more often by the news media?
Instead of delving into these cultural roots of sexual violence, too many news articles focus on individual perpetrators. By focusing on the crimes of famous men with large numbers of accusers, like Harvey Weinstein or Bill Cosby, the news media miss an opportunity to lead national conversations on the sociocultural roots of sexual violence. Emphasis on sensational cases detracts attention from the #MeToo movement’s goal of pointing out that sexual violence is an “everyday” occurrence for women. Emphasis on high-profile individual perpetrators fits too easily with the narrative that sexual violence is a consequence of “bad apples,” rather than a systemic cultural problem.
When the “bad apple” myth is widely held and circulated, public discourse too easily falls into attempts to exonerate the accused based on their general character. This was all too evident during the Kavanaugh hearings. In Senator Lindsey Graham’s explosive defense of Judge Kavanaugh, as just one example, he said: “[Kavanaugh’s] integrity is absolutely unquestioned…. He’s entirely ethical, is a really decent person. He is warm, friendly, unassuming. He’s the nicest person.”12 Research indicates that the propensity to rape bears no correlation whatsoever to whether or not someone is “warm” and “friendly.” Research indicates that the “Renate Alumnius” comment in Kavanaugh’s high school yearbook, which boasts of a supposed sexual conquest, is a better window into his guilt or innocence than whether or not he is the “nicest person.” In short, research on the sociocultural connections to sexual violence makes defenses like Graham’s difficult to accept.
Given the media’s role in guiding public opinion, it is an ethical imperative that more news sources bring the rich body of research on gendered violence into their reporting. Each article or news report written about sexual violence that does not discuss and reference research on the sociocultural roots of the problem is a missed opportunity to change the national conversation and encourage discussions of cultural interventions that could help prevent gendered violence.
1. Susan Brownmiller, Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape (New York: Ballantine Books, 1975).
2. Valerie Nicole Wieskamp, “‘I’m Going Out There and I’m Telling This Story’: Victimhood and Empowerment in Narratives of Military Sexual Violence” Western Journal of Communication (2018) Advance online publication https://www.tandfonline.com/eprint/pPJTHVtFkwa4kWzC7W4a/full (accessed October 12, 2018)
3. As a notable exception, see Maggie Koerth-Baker, “Science Says Toxic Masculinity—More Than Alcohol—Leads To Sexual Assault” Five Thirty Eight, September 26, 2018, https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/science-says-toxic-masculinity-more-than-alcohol-leads-to-sexual-assault/ (accessed October 12, 2018)
4. For just a few of the many examples see: Erin A. Casey, N. Tatiana Masters, Blair Beadnell, Marilyn J. Hoppe, Diane M. Morrison, and Elizabeth A. Wells, “Predicting Sexual assault Perpetration Among Heterosexually Active Young Men” Violence Against Women 23, no. 1 (2017): 3–27; Laura L. O’Toole, Jessica R. Schiffman, and Margie L. Kiter Edwards Gender Violence: Interdisciplinary Perspectives, Second Edition (New York: New York University Press, 2007); and Rachel M. Smith, Dominic J. Parrott, Kevin M. Swartout, and Andra Teten Tharp, “Deconstructing Hegemonic Masculinity: The Roles of Antifemininity, Subordination to Women, and Sexual Dominance in Men’s Perpetration of Sexual Aggression” Psychology of Men & Masculinity 16, no. 2 (2015): 160–169.
5. Martha R. Burt, “Cultural Myths and Supports for Rape” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 38, no. 2 (1980): 217–230. Burt’s research on the positive correlations between culture and sexual violence has been cited over 3,000 times.
6. Sarah K. Murnen, Carrie Wright, and Gretchen Kaluzny, “If ‘Boys Will Be Boys,’ Then Girls Will Be Victims? A Meta-Analytic Review of the Research That Relates Masculine Ideology to Sexual Aggression,” Sex Roles 46 (2002): 359–75.
7. Madeline Morris, “In War and Peace: Rape, War, and Military Culture” in War’s Dirty Secret: Rape Prostitution and Other Crimes Against Women, ed. Anne Llewellyn Barstow (Cleveland, OH: The Pilgrim Press, 2000), 181.
8. Michael Flood and Bob Pease “Factors Influencing Attitudes to Violence Against Women” Trauma, Violence, & Abuse 10, no. 2 (2009): 125–142.
9. Morris, “Force of Arms,” 703.
10. Martie P.Thompson, Jeffrey Brooks Kingree, Heidi Zinzow, and Kevin Swartout “Time-Varying Risk Factors and Sexual Aggression Perpetration among Male College Students” Journal of Adolescent Health 57, no. 6 (2015): 641.
11. Flood and Pease, “Factors Influencing Attitudes,” 133.
12. Lindsey Graham, “Transcript of Graham's Remarks on Kavanaugh Nomination” September 27, 2018 Retrieved from https://www.lgraham.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/2018/9/transcript-of-graham-s-remarks-on-kavanaugh-nomination (accessed October 12, 2018).