Why Language Matters
I wrote and emailed this letter to the reporter of this piece, and I share it publicly in the hopes that it provokes dialogue about how any of us frame the narratives of rape. It's a chilling story and I'm left with lots of questions, and the sense that a woman's choice not to press charges, not to call something rape means it wasn't rape. This story has so much to account for, like the very human need to feel loved, or wanted, and the power dynamics here: father, drunk, group of young men--not just the case leaves me unsettled, but the reporter's diction and sway in the court of public opinion. I respect this reporter; all the more reason to write him.
Please read the letter and the story, there's no obligation to agree or disagree, I just invite you to question what you or I know.
Dear Mr. Wilson,
You're an excellent and experienced reporter and I respect your work. Which is why I challenge your statement (or perhaps conclusion?) in your recent Brownsville piece that there was not a rape because there was no evidence of force.
Force looks a lot of different ways--she was drunk--how drunk, you don't say--sober enough for consent? She was having sex with her biological father, the fact that she doesn't want to press charges against him is not a sign that he didn't rape her so much as a window into the complexity of abandonment, foster care, and the promise of something--connection, approval, love? We don't know.
To say there is no evidence of rape because a person does not want to testify--against either man--may be more related to her current emotional state, her mental state, and her desire not to get anyone in trouble or face further stigma and/or repercussions herself. But to say it isn't rape, is an obfuscation of the fact that it may have been rape or two rapes. All rapes don't require tears and bruises to be rapes.
Not to mention, if your father is having sex with you and five men appear and you're terrified, maybe the safest thing to do is to just try to make it through with the least amount of harm--these are things we don't know, but they don't point to non-rape. They point to we don't know if it was consensual. Any of it.
Please think about your language, it may have roots in legalese and 20th century journalism but you do no favors for rape survivors who dare not come forward or who are coerced out of some obligation to come forward and report a rape.
Do you see what I'm getting at here? Journalists and police officers and courts carry so much weight when it comes to public perception.
Thank you for reading. I chose to write this to you directly because my intention is not about debating the facts of so much as to say, you have a voice, please consider the power you wield and what it would be like if you never had a voice.
We can't know at this moment whether she was raped and by whom, but that doesn't mean that she wasn't--it's a gray area in which we simply don't know. To me that's a big difference.
A day after prosecutors said they would drop the charges against five men in the case, a quiet calm set in at the playground where a woman reported being attacked.
MOBILE.NYTIMES.COM|BY MICHAEL WILSON