Southern Methodist University’s newspaper, The Daily Campus, recently published an op-ed column by a senior student essentially saying that some women could save themselves from being raped if they didn’t get so drunk.
“Although it sounds harsh to place any blame on the victims of these incidents, if the media continues to place all the blame on the perpetrator, young college women will never learn that there is a way to help prevent these kinds of acts,” wrote SMU journalism major Kirby Wiley. “The best way for women to prevent these assaults from happening to them is to never drink so much that they cannot control themselves or remember what happened the next day.”
The piece in “the independent voice of Southern Methodist University since 1915” caused an instant uproar. CNN, The Dallas Morning News and the Dallas Observer picked up on the op-ed, and an online petition was created by the SMU Women’s Interest Network and SMU Spectrum, a campus LGBT organization, protesting the column as an example of “blame the victim” journalism.
Online comments were filled with blistering outrage: “Holy crap this is awful. The only one responsible for rape is the rapist,” wrote one reader. “You know what prevents rape? Rapists not raping,” said another.
The most stinging rebuke came in a letter sent to SMU President Gerald Turner from Jennifer Genson, who was raped during her senior year of high school and went on to graduate from SMU in 2007. She said Wiley and the student paper’s editors had not only misplaced the responsibility for rape, but denied women basic human respect. In the letter, which Genson shared with the Dallas Observer, she wrote, “By allowing this misogynistic, vitriolic, blame-shifting hate speech to be propagated under the guise of journalism—with or without its classification as ‘opinion’—you have stripped your students of that respect.”
Wiley defended her work to CNN, suggesting that, in fact, the media is at fault when it comes to coverage of sexual assaults, that journalists have somehow fallen down on the job and allowed an improper imbalance to creep into stories of such attacks against women.
“The purpose of my column,” Wiley told CNN, “was to call the media’s attention to an often overlooked side of sexual assault and rape cases on and around college campuses—the all too common intoxication of victims. I feel the facts of a woman being too intoxicated should also be included in reports, not to place blame or any additional stress on the victim, but rather to inform other women of this factor that studies have shown increases the risk of sexual assaults.”
Daily Campus editors were quick to stand up for their contributor, telling The Dallas Morning News that Wiley was entitled to her opinion, and that as long as the piece contained no “huge errors and lies,” editors had no “reason to censor a voice from being on that page.”
But response to the piece clearly suggests that explanation has done little to heal a divide over journalistic responsibility on campus. “The Daily Campus at SMU has published numerous sexist and misogynistic articles so far this school year,” according to the online petition engendered by Wiley’s op-ed. “The Daily Campus at SMU must stop publishing articles contributing to rape culture.”
Wiley seemed a bit shell-shocked by the storm of negative feedback, and that might point to the episode’s real lesson: that she and her editors hadn’t thought the issue through, and hadn’t submitted Wiley’s expression to an appropriately rigorous sensitivity test.
The column cites a Sarah Lawrence College study (actually, the statistics are sourced to New York State Coalition Against Sexual Assault) that found at least half of all sexual assaults on college students are associated with alcohol use. Wiley’s piece also references a well-publicized case in which four Vanderbilt University football players allegedly raped an intoxicated woman. But the column fails miserably to present not just a persuasive argument, but an argument attuned to the victim-blaming language that too often informs, and deforms, discussions of rape prevention.
A slightly contrite Wiley did finally tell The Dallas Morning News, “I would have definitely reworded things because I don’t believe in blaming the victim at all.”
That’s as it should be, but that’s not how people read what she wrote. And because she failed to make her case with precision and sensitivity to the complexities of her highly charged topic, the young journalists at the almost century-old student paper learned a simple and powerful lesson: Words really do matter.