Reporters pretend they’re confused about rape

Earlier today, I highlighted a couple of examples of how the media suffer from some serious blind spots when it comes to coverage of the hot-button topic of abortion. I noted that the struggles of pro-life Democrats to have their existence simply acknowledged by their party receive very little, if any, mainstream media coverage. Conversely, the pro-life platform of the Republican Party is big media story.

I also pointed out how reporters love to ask consistent pro-life politicians about rape exceptions to abortion but hardly ever ask consistent pro-choice politicians about sex-selection abortions, late-term abortions or Down syndrome abortions.

For a look at how reporters have had historical trouble covering abortion with even a semblance of balance, you may be interested in this essay by Newsweek contributing editor Kenneth Woodward or the Los Angeles Times media analysis he references therein. Let’s move on to another area where the media have had trouble reporting — as opposed to advocating for a particular social issue goal. That’s the curious attack on the pro-life Paul Ryan as someone who was trying to “redefine rape.”

For anyone who has not been paying attention to newspapers or legal dramas for the past few decades, the justice system distinguishes between forcible rape (which is, well, exactly what is described by the words “forcible rape”) and statutory rape. Statutory rape is where someone who is of legal age to consent to have sex (say, 18 in some jurisdictions) has sex with someone who is not of legal age to consent to have sex (say, 17 in some jurisdictions).

Now, I think most people with a basic comprehension of words understand this distinction. I think most people understand that there is a difference between someone who is violently assaulted and someone whose boyfriend is a couple of years older than they are. They may be strongly opposed to both sexual encounters, but I don’t think that there’s any real question that these are different types of rape and that it’s in no way offensive to distinguish between them.

But for some reason the media have been pretending that they don’t understand the difference and that to distinguish between these two legal definitions of rape is an attempt to “redefine” rape. These are perfectly fine talking points for pro-choice activists, but should journalists be playing along?

Here’s ABC:

Now with Akin making headlines, Democrats will seek to tie Ryan to the Missouri congressman by highlighting social-issues legislation on which they’ve partnered.

Akin and Ryan cosponsored a 2011 bill, the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortions Act, that would redefine rape as “forcible rape,” narrowing the scope of what’s considered rape in cases of abortion.

First off, there is absolutely no evidence provided by ABC that this would “redefine” rape, as it claims. There is no evidence provided that it would narrow the scope of what’s considered rape. And there’s no mention of the fact that — since Republicans dropped the wording because they viewed it as redundant or a political liability. They don’t mention that 225 other representatives cosponsored this legislation — including, shhhhhhh, eleven Democrats. Now, maybe it’s totally legitimate to focus this much attention on one word that was never voted on because it was dropped from a bill cosponsored by 225 representatives from both parties. I don’t know. But I smell something a bit lacking in terms of balance or fair reporting. Or, as one reporter noted, Barack Obama holds a position in support of taxpayer funding of abortions that is opposed by 72 percent of Americans, according to a Quinnipac Poll. Have the media been writing breathless reports about that? It’s fantastic to write about abortion. But if you’re writing about Ryan and abortion — and you haven’t found the time to cover sitting President Barack Obama’s abortion record — you may be doing it wrong.

But it looks like journalists are all in for pushing this pro-choice talking point about forcible rape. Do they really not understand the distinction between forcible rape and statutory rape? Really? Really? Come on. But here’s Anderson Cooper of CNN:

Last year Paul #Ryan distinguished between “forcible rape” and other kinds. How come today he won’t explain what he meant?

Is anyone else pretending that they don’t understand the distinction? Sadly, hundreds of reporters are pretending they don’t understand the distinction. Even Jake Tapper’s otherwise fine and balanced report for ABC News emphasized that Paul Ryan didn’t explain something we all know — the headline was:

Ryan Refuses to Explain “Forcible” Rape as Dems Attempt More Akin-izing of the GOP Ticket

NBC‘s Kelly O’Donnell also played along with her story “Ryan backed more than one ‘forcible rape’ abortion bill,” that repeated the same talking points and has been “updated” (which is what others call “corrected”) for problems with the reporting. That includes the last paragraph which, after tarring Ryan as having some magical, mystical understanding of rape that is different from everyone else’s, concedes that, well:

For broader context, the term “forcible rape” appears to have roots in the legal community, where it has been used by prosecutors to distinguish that crime from “statutory rape,” which involves a minor unable to legally consent or a person who lacks mental capacity for legal consent.

By Wednesday night, one reporter found that there were already 337 stories about this pro-choice talking point that requires reporters to pretend that they don’t actually understand the difference between statutory and forced rape. As I finish writing this, we see that the New York Times is now also pretending not to understand rape — as this comprehensive take-down of that story’s inaccurate and misleading reporting makes clear.

Either reporters are pushing an agenda supportive of abortion rights or they’re idiots. It’s one thing for pro-choice activists or the Democratic Party to advocate in support of those goals. But reporters playing games in service to that agenda is ridiculous. We’re all better than that, no matter what side of the issue we’re personally on.

Confused guy image via Shutterstock.

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  • GregTulane

    Total strawman.
    Here’s why…
    A) Consistent pro-life politicians are banning all, “No, no exceptions.” No consistent pro-choice politician I ever heard of, ever tried to have unrestricted abortions, “Yes, no exceptions.”

    B) The momentum is towards restricting abortions, and the debate is being driven by pro-life politicians. They become the focus of the debate.

    Don’t pretend this is the media’s fault. It’s disingenuous and unhelpful.

    • mollie

      While it’s not entirely your fault for believing this, you are mistaken. I say it’s not your fault because the media have been so terribly bad at reporting this fairly.
      To give but one example of a pro-choice politician who believes in no exceptions to abortion (going so far as to oppose a law against infanticide on the grounds that it might be used to restrict abortion in some way): Barack Obama.

      • GregTulane

        You apparently didn’t bother to read my reply, so it’s not your fault you didn’t understand it.

        As I said before, the momentum of the conversation is being driven by conservatives trying to pursue a policy of no abortion, no exceptions. Reporters are correctly asking them questions. Why would you hassle a pro-choice politician or a moderate pro-life politician, when their views aren’t driving the debate. If ultra-conservative pro-lifers don’t want to be asked questions about their no abortion, no exceptions policy, they shouldn’t put it out there publicly.

        When the conversation shifts to a place where abortions are made widely available, and the question at hand is whether there is ever any instance in which abortions can be restricted (and we as a nation are thankfully far from that place) reporters should (and will) be pursuing politicians in the other direction.

    • win

      If you have never a seen a pro-life politician support abortions available for all cases without exception then you haven’t paid attention to Obama’s stance on abortion. In fact that is what “pro-life” stands for, though the media seldom if ever questions that fine point. There are others on record with the same view as Obama, I just do not recall who they are.

      [Editor: Do you mean “pro-choice”?]

  • For what it’s worth, the Associated Press Stylebook says:
    “Forcible rape: A redundancy that usually should be avoided. It may be used, however, in stories dealing with both rape and statutory rape, which does not necessarily involve the use of force.”

  • Joe K

    This story is driven first and foremost by national politics with the balance of the US Senate at stake. The elections are just 10 weeks away. There’s blood in the water and the political sharks are attacking. The nuances of types of rape or stress-related effects on fertility are not part of the narrative.

    Mollie, I suspect many of the reporters on the left can’t help feeling a tingling run up their leg. This election is just too darned close.

    • James


  • You finally deign to blog about Akin’s comments, and then you can’t even wait a day before churning out a blog post accusing REPORTERS of being “confused” about rape?

    Cathy G. makes the obvious point, in terms of good journalism. But in terms of good sense, there’s no need for the “forcible” adjective before “rape.” If it’s statutory rape, in the sense that the crux of the crime was the age difference, then qualify it as needed. But to otherwise feel the need to qualify the word “rape” is to define it as a non-forcible act unless otherwise specified. Which is troubling, to say the last.

    As for the abortion parts of this post, I was hoping that moving to Patheos would prompt GetReligion to be more evenhanded on such political issues. Maybe next time.

    • mollie

      Yes, here at this media criticism blog, we actually do media criticism.
      If you have anything specific and on-point to say regarding the media criticism, by all means do so.

  • dalea

    Doesn’t the term ‘statuatory rape’ also include situations that are consensual but involve an inbalance of social power? Here in CA, I have seen reports of professors accused of statutory rape for affairs with adult students, supervisors with employees, ministers with parishoners. The idea is that statutory rape involves someone with power or influence having a relationship with someone dependent on them for grades, employment etc. This may be a California thing, but seems to follow a clear logic. A junior college student has no real option to end an affair with someone who controls her grades.

    • I’d suspect that would depend on the state’s laws regarding the matter. The version of California’s law that I can find mentions only otherwise consensual intercourse when one or both of the parties are under 18 ( The other situations are certainly inappropriate and might fall under harassment laws or merit civil penalties, but they do not seem to fit the state’s definition of statutory rape. I suspect some people like to throw the term around without knowing what it means and attach it to those other kinds of cases.

      Reporters would be responsible for defining the crime according to their own state’s laws, I would imagine, and for making it clear which crime or offense was being discussed.

  • WhiteBirch

    The problem, I think, is that because some situations occur in which what’s legally defined as “forcible rape” doesn’t actually involve force, people get confused about the term. Things like date rape using drugs or spousal rape where one partner is too intimidated to actually resist don’t involve physical force and so people aren’t sure whether they’re classified as “forcible rape” or not. So people who aren’t legally trained or aren’t read up on the issue hear Ryan saying “only violent rape counts” when (I certainly hope) he’s familiar with the legal definition and is referring to all rapes – those that involve physical violence and those that don’t.

    The media OUGHT to know the distinction, and Ryan OUGHT to know the distinction. And if the media is concerned that their readers don’t know the distinction, instead of playing dumb they really ought to just define it and then their readers would understand the distinction too.

    If the media suspects that Ryan doesn’t understand the distinction and are trying to hash out whether he’s referring to the legal definition or the more “commonsense” definition, well there’s better ways to go about it.

    Ultimately, though, the definition of rape HAS changed (because when the distinction was created only violent rapes by strangers would have been considered) and the legal terminology hasn’t kept up with the times. Really the term “forcible rape” is outdated and a better descriptor is called for.

    • And all this is happening in the context of Akin repeating the myth that women don’t get pregnant unless they cooperate to some extent with the intercourse. That’s precisely why the term ‘legitimate rape’ aroused so much outrage – because it implied that a woman who got pregnant from an unwanted sexual encouter wasn’t legitimately raped.

      If Akin had said exactly the same thing, but used the word ‘forcible’ instead of ‘legitimate’, the story wouldn’t have gotten the same traction. In that context, asking people who go out of their way to specify ‘forcible rape’ or ‘assault rape’ what they mean by that term doesn’t seem out of line.

    • Meg

      Thank you. I am glad to see someone pointing this out here.

  • Ben

    Sorry, I am confused just reading the post and comments. As people have noted there are situations of non-statutory rape that don’t involve physical force being deployed, such as the woman intoxicated, so “forcible” rape cannot simply mean non-statutory rape. If that’s what was meant in the bill, it should have been worded as non-statutory.

    • mollie

      The “forcible” language was removed from the bill in under a week when supporters realized that using legal definitions could be seen as reduntant or could be used against them in precisely the manner the media are carrying water for the opponents now.

      • sari

        It is relevant that reporters note the bill’s sponsors, even if the bill failed to pass or the language was changed for practical reasons. The bill reflects the sponsors’ desires, and, within the context of a movement that explicitly states reduction of government intrusion in Americans’ lives, demonstrates that the party feels that certain types of intrusion are legitimate (e.g., Texas’ 24 hour sonogram-wait laws, this bill). It is important for the public to be aware of their legislators’ or potential legislators’ histories—all parties, all ideological sides.

        As to Barack Obama’s position, I think it’s disingenuous to drag him into a conversation in an attempt to deflect attention from Akin’s ill-advised and scientifically disproven statements. Pro-life, pro-choice–all women should be afraid if he is elected.

        Lastly, the omission of statutory rape from the bill, if I understand the term correctly, leaves young girls molested by much older men, like the thirteen year old seduced by a fifty year old man on the internet with no recourse but to carry to term. So, reporters probably need to include a tight and generally accepted legal definition of statutory rape in any articles where a distinction is made between different types of rape.

        P.S. The preview post feature is much missed.

        • win

          Given Obama’s stance on abortion it is perfectly valid to name him in reply to a post saying no pro-choice politicians support abortions without some restrictions.

  • Ben

    Mollie, was there some good reporting from 2011 that explains why the wording was removed? I’ve mostly heard it explained that democrats pushed back hard on that and it was therefore scrapped. The realization of redundancy is new to my ears, so I would like to read some account of that from the time.

  • mollie

    Just a reminder that we focus our comments on media coverage and not doctrine or history or any other interesting topics that are best kept for other parts on the internet. It’s part of the way we keep conversations here civil and fun for people of differing religious and political persuasions.
    If your comment has not been approved, that’s probably why.

  • Great post, I’l be sharing.

    It seems to me (as was mentioned above) that it’s only common sense that — other than cases of statutory rape — “forcible rape” is redundant. How is it “rape” it it’s not done by some kind of coercion?

    Of course, putting “media” and “common sense” in the same general vicinity is an exercise in futility.

  • Gerry

    The answer, as is often the case with such questions, is both: They are idiots pushing a pro-abortion agenda.

  • Larry

    The author is also confused. I’m no lawyer but the term forcible rape is redundant. Black’s Law dictionary defines rape as “Unlawful sexual intercourse with a female without her consent. The unlawful carnal knowledge of a woman by a man forcibly and against her will. The act of sexual intercourse committed by a man with a woman not his wife and without her consent, committed when the woman’s resistance is overcome by force or fear, or under other prohibitive conditions”. However the same dictionary defines forcible rape as an “aggravated form of statutory rape made punishable by statute”. You wouldn’t have known that by what the author wrote. Statutory rape is “having sexual intercourse with a female or male under statutory age. The offense may be either with or without the victim’s consent”.