Victim-blaming in the New York Times’ Cleveland gang rape article.

There is so much that is horrid with regard to this story coming out of small-town East Texas: 18 men and teenage boys have been arrested in the gang rape of an 11-year-old girl in Cleveland, TX.

There’s what Feministing’s Chloe Angyal noted, that those quoted in the article seem strangely concerned with how participating in a gang rape is gonna be a real downer for the rapists (now that they’ve been caught). From the New York Times article:

The case has rocked this East Texas community to its core and left many residents in the working-class neighborhood where the attack took place with unanswered questions. Among them is, if the allegations are proved, how could their young men have been drawn into such an act?

“It’s just destroyed our community,” said Sheila Harrison, 48, a hospital worker who says she knows several of the defendants. “These boys have to live with this the rest of their lives.”

But then there’s the victim blaming. I mean, of course there is victim blaming, because we’re talking about rape here, and nobody gets raped who isn’t asking for it in some way, as we all know:

Residents in the neighborhood where the abandoned trailer stands — known as the Quarters — said the victim had been visiting various friends there for months. They said she dressed older than her age, wearing makeup and fashions more appropriate to a woman in her 20s. She would hang out with teenage boys at a playground, some said.

Here’s what: I’m dismayed (but neither shocked nor surprised) that people have these kinds of thoughts about a young girl who was raped. Scrutinizing clothing and behavior is standard practice for rape victims–yes, even sometimes when those victims are 11 years old, as this child was. But I am downright angry that the Houston bureau chief of the New York Times, whose byline is on this piece: James C. McKinley, Jr., graduate of Cornell University and former editor of New Letters, thought that this information was relevant to print in a national news article.

He may as well have printed that “Residents in the neighborhood had steak for dinner” or “Residents in the neighborhood had a real rough day at the office” or “Residents in the neighborhood wanted Bristol Palin to win Dancing With The Stars” because those things are about as relevant to the article and the case as what an 11-year-old girl was wearing on or about the time she was PROBABLY GANG RAPED BY 18 OR MORE MEN IN AN ABANDONED TRAILER.

Printing victim blaming speculation about how slutty some people perceived an 11-year-old child dressing doesn’t give readers information they need. It doesn’t paint a picture that helps them understand the situation. It perpetuates rape culture and gives those who want one (and those people are many, as evidenced in said article) an excuse to dismiss the behavior of 18 men who have been suspected of, and I’ll say it again, gang-raping an 11-year-old girl. (Worth noting: blaming gang rape victims happens all the time. For example.)

I can’t change the minds of the people in Cleveland, TX and around the country and world who want to say the way an 11-year-old girl dressed got her gang raped. But I can hold James C. McKinley, Jr. responsible for reprinting unnecessary comments that damage rape victims everywhere. That was a shitty, irresponsible thing to do, McKinley, and I think the New York Times should do and should know better.

McKinley’s on Twitter. I’m asking him for an explanation and an apology. You should, too. (You can also Tweet @thepubliceditor and @nytimes.)

(Update: it’s worth noting, as Jezebel has, that the Houston Chronicle‘s coverage was also astoundingly awful in the victim-blaming sphere.)

(MORE UPDATE: Now there’s a Change.org petition for you to sign.)

About andrea grimes

Andrea is a journalist living in Austin, TX. She has a master's degree in anthropology and did her thesis work on gender and stand-up comedy. Seriously. Also, she has a bunch of cats. Three of them. Is three a bunch? Discuss.
This entry was posted in media, news, rape culture, sexual assault. Bookmark the permalink.

44 Responses to Victim-blaming in the New York Times’ Cleveland gang rape article.

  1. Albatross says:

    Thank you for posting this. I am spluttering with rage this morning, and glad to know I am not alone.

  2. Albatross says:

    Oh, and you can e-mail the article’s author directly by clicking his byline on the NYTimes article.

  3. lalaland13 says:

    As a reporter, I get the impression most people in this town wouldn’t go on the record, and he had to have something, so they printed something rather weak and one-sided rather than try to flesh it out more/leave out the bullshit.

    I’ve written articles about rape, and they are never easy to do. I’ve written about trials where the girl talks about how bad it hurt, and the defense turns around and says the girl’s mother was a prostitute, so it must be genetic. If it’s my job to show both sides of the trial, I want to let people know just what the defense is standing on. But the entire damn article shouldn’t all about what people think of the girl, for crying out loud (sadly, in the aforementioned trial, the jury found the guy not guilty).

    Also, personal preference, but I hate “residents are shocked” stories for the most part. They’re overdone.

    • I understand (and have done and also dislike and realize the complications of) reporting on a rape trial where the public record is what the public record is–defense says this, prosecution says this. However, there’s simply no reason here to include any information about what residents think about the way the girl dressed. I mean, the information is just totally irrelevant and appears to have been sought out and included by the reporters, here–not as a counter to what someone else said, or a qualification or explanation that sheds light on another piece of information.

      • lalaland13 says:

        I agree completely, Andrea. Just because you don’t have good information doesn’t mean you can fill a story with bad stuff and irrelevant information. That might be OK if you’re covering the county fair, but not gang-rape.

      • I am imagining a line in a journalism 101 textbook: “Covering gang rape is not like covering the county fair …” Oh, lordy.

  4. Amy says:

    I wish I could say that I was surprised. We all knew the NYT was going downhill, but if this isn’t proof I don’t know what is.

  5. Liz says:

    Incredibly horrible.

    I’m donating $100 to the New Horizon women’s center in Liberty County, TX which serves the area where this took place. There doesn’t seem to be any victim assistance fund set up through the sheriff’s office but I’ll keep calling back to find out if that’s going to happen. Here’s the link: http://www.newhorizonfamilycenter.com/ .

  6. ester says:

    I’ve seen victim blaming before, but never Victim’s Mother blaming:

    ““Where was her mother? What was her mother thinking?” said Ms. Harrison, one of a handful of neighbors who would speak on the record.”

    Maybe working during the day, like most women have to do? And honestly what does the child’s mother have to do with it? For that matter, where were the mothers of the men who thought taking PICTURES AND VIDEO of the rape and sharing it with their friends would be super fun?

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  10. Kamara says:

    Thank you so much for posting this. I was so furious with this article this morning. I’m glad I’m not alone and not the only one that sees that this is clearly victim-blaming…. and IRRELEVANT to the actual story.

  11. I am about to vomit. Thanks for holding these pricks to account.

  12. Pingback: Victim blaming is never acceptable — CALCASA - California Coalition Against Sexual Assault

  13. Mary says:

    And the defense attorney that is representing 3 of the rapists maintains (with a straight face) that this is not a case of someone being enslaved or forced into anything. 11 year olds cannot consent to sex! Yes, children enjoy having sex with up to 28 men while being photographed, videotaped, and threatened with a beating. The part where they called other men up and asked them to join in was conveniently left out as well.

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  16. I sent a flaming letter to the New York Times, to the owner, publisher, and to every editor for whom I could find an email address. The NYT made a statement today saying that McKinley was just documenting the reactions of the townspeople, who apparently are sitting around wondering wtf happened.

    I can’t believe so few of them are willing to remember the girl is 11 years old. What the hell is wrong with them?

  17. Sam says:

    Is not the fact that these terrible people in the community actually hold these beliefs relevant to the story? It makes me as a reader more sympathetic to the girl, and opens my eyes to the shocking cultural reality that victim-blaming in cases of rape still exists in America. This seems like information that anyone trying to bring about change might want to know.

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  19. Sherry says:

    An 11 year old is a child! No matter how she sdesses. or how she acts, she is a child! I will bet some of these men have 11 year olds. Do they find it acceptable for their 11 year old to have sex? The girl has the judgement of an 11 year old. The girl’s family needs to relocate far from this town. The girl will never have a chance to get over this living in the same area. Someone will know someone that knows her, they will call her names and continue to blame her for what has happened. I have seen this happen before, especially in a small town. I find it appalling that grown men would feel the need to have sex with a child and do it so casually. I hope the prosecution has asked for a change of venue, where the girl will receive a fair trial, where non of the rapist’s have friends or family. Wake up America and start educating your male children that it is not okay to have sex with someone under age and that it is not acceptable to have casual sex. 18 men and teenage boys!!! Wow, this speaks volumes about today’s morality. The little girl will never recover from this. It is a stigma that will effect the rest of her life. These men need to be prosecuted to the fullest the law allows. They deserve to be branded sexual predators the rest of their lives. They were all old enough to say no and to do something to stop this violent act from continueing. Why didn’t one of them call 911 when they received the call to join in? Anyone that was phoned and did not call in should also be prosecuted! Stand up for the rights of the victim!

  20. PB says:

    This is outrageous. First off, she is an 11 year old child. There is a huge difference between consensual sex and rape – get your facts right. It disgusts me that James could even write such a thing, who cares what she was wearing, does that make it alright to rape someone? I wished every single one of those men would get the death penalty, but then that would be the easy way out wouldnt it? They should be given at least 25 years for inflicting immeasurable damage – both physically and mentally – upon that helpless child, so they can rot in jail for most of their lives and think about how they have stolen the life of the victim, or whatever ruins remain of it.

    How dare anyone blame the poor girl’s mother? How about blaming the parents of these disgusting men – did they not teach their children right from wrong? I am beyond appalled to say the least.

  21. Annie says:

    NYT blaming child rape victims now? So much for ‘moving foward’ in the tolerant, progressive, liberal media, huh?

  22. Daniel says:

    If you’re outraged after reading the story, you’re absolutely in the right. But has anyone stopped to think that maybe McKinley was outraged too? Journalists are restricted—both ethically and, more immediately, by the editors to whom they answer—from editorializing in an article. Meaning: if McKinley talked to locals about the rape and found that almost everyone he spoke to commented on the victim’s dress and behavior, he can’t turn around and write, “‘It’s sad, but I’ve seen that girl around and she dressed like a 23-year-old full-grown woman,’ John Doe stupidly said, like the victim-blaming douchebag he is.”
    I would bet money—good money—that McKinley wrote the article the way he did expressly to highlight the horrific perspective commonplace in the town without compromising his journalistic integrity. There’s circumstantial evidence to support that theory, such as the reports that the victim’s mother has received threats from locals.
    What surprises me is that the same critics who cite the article as an example of rape culture, can’t seem to wrap their heads around the idea that these people could very well hold the majority opinion around town. Because, you know, (start sarcasm) of course a small town in Texas must have a women’s advocacy group as strong as any found in Seattle, San Francisco, New York or other urban centers. Everyplace has at least one enclave of progressive thinking! (end sarcasm)
    Remember that McKinley cited a church praying on behalf of the 11-year-old girl. That’s probably as good of a voice of support for her as he was able to find.

  23. Julia says:

    THANK YOU. This is HORRIFIC.

  24. Larry says:

    Conservative viewpoint on sex: Women are always responsible if men choose to have sex with them, because of they wore some garment that a man found sexy, they looked in their direction for more than a few seconds, and/or they don’t have a penis. God created women to bear children, so using a contraceptive method or obtaining an abortion is sinful and goes against His will.

    Doesn’t it ever seem like areas that tend to uphold that view have higher rape incidents as well as higher unintended pregnancy rates?

  25. DamnPissedOff says:

    Then they wonder why with reporting/stories like this, newspapers are on the decline. Filthy bunch of degenerate, slob sucking, scum bastards! The NYT, not the rapists, who are much much worse. Every single one of these rapists, & also their “supporters” in the town, should be publicly castrated. BTW, what the hell kind of sick, twisted town is that anyway, where adults actually blame a pre-pubescent, 11yo CHILD, for her own gang RAPE? And what kind of special degenerate, I mean, all the men involved were sick, disgusting, filthy degenerates, but what kind do you have to be, to be #16, 17, 18, 19, 20, etc, in the line of men who raped her? I have to admit, it takes quite a bit to phase me, & even more to actually turn my stomach, but I literally want to F&%@ing vomit even thinking about this. I can’t image what this poor child went through, lying there on the filthy floor of an abandoned house, while 20 men, many of them adults, take turns raping her? The towns-folk who defend their inhuman, animal like actions are no better IMO, & maybe even just as bad, if not WORSE! Telling the rape victim/family, the should move, for THEIR safety! OUTRAGEOUS!!!! I think the USAF/military, without warning & in the middle of the night, should make Cleveland TX either their new bomb testing range, or an urban chemical & biological warfare testing range. If what I read is true, few in that shit-hole town are worth saving, nor would they be missed. Not by anybody that qualifies as moral or civilized human being that is.

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  29. mike says:

    Larry your such a trolling joke…..conservative view? Its the new york times you moron, th most liberal rag in america…. how about the liberal viewpoint of rape? Rape is ok if the people getting raped arnt monorities, or if the rapists are illegal aliens… the good news is that the nytimes will be gone in a decade…extinct like maps.

    • Larry says:

      “Rape is ok if the people getting raped arnt monorities, or if the rapists are illegal aliens”
      Uh, no. Nice try. And fix your spelling and grammar.

  30. Shirin says:

    Small correction to the original blog post: I don’t think McKinley was the editor of New Letters. According to Wikipedia, that was his father.

    • Jane says:

      Ran across this today; that is correct. James McKinley Jr’s dad Jim was the editor of New Letters and a prof at UMKC. I took a writing seminar from him. He’s a pretty awesome guy.

  31. Liz says:

    Hey there! I did eventually get a contact for direct donation to this girl and her family. If you want to pass it along to your readers, it’s here:

    http://bookmaniac.org/fundraiser-for-the-girl-in-cleveland-texas/

    People can mail directly to Amergy Bank, to Silvia, or donate online to the ChipIn which, in a week, I will sum up and mail a personal check to Sylvia made out to the crime victim fund, along with any notes people want to pass along to the family.

    – Liz

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  35. ph16 says:

    Poor child, frankly she may have been dressing too old for her age and “slutty” persay, but it doesn’t excuse the 18+ men who raped her though period.

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  37. Chickadee says:

    Great point, victim blaming especially for a media outlet is WRONG

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