An interesting article by the public editor of the New York Times, Arthur S. Brisbane, in response to complaints he received about how the Times’ handled descriptions of the allegations against Jerry Sandusky.
Some readers, responding to The New York Times’s first reports on the case, strongly objected to wording in the articles that, in their view, either underplayed the details or wrongly applied the language of consensual sex to the narrative.
One reader, for example, objected to the phrase “sexual assault,” suggesting it served to make Sandusky’s alleged rape of a 10-year-old boy invisible. Another pointed out that the phrase “having anal sex with” to describe what Sandusky was doing to that boy implied consent on the boy’s part and so also served to make the alleged rape vanish.
Brisbane’s take on all this is worth reading, and I like his conclusion, “When the facts warrant it, journalists should be as specific as possible, they should avoid using the language of consensual sex and, when appropriate, they should call a rape a rape.” What I found most interesting about the article, though, was this:
[Wendy Murphy, an adjunct professor at the New England School of Law] said that in surveying the 50 states, she found “something like 40 different terms to describe the act of rape of a child.”
It’s hard for me to imagine that, but then, as Brisbane points out:
“Rape” is a word in flux. The Times stylebook says to use it to mean “forced intercourse, or intercourse with a child below the age of consent.” In many cases, though, the justice system doesn’t use the word. In the Sandusky case, the charges do not include the word “rape” because he was charged under the statute covering “Involuntary Deviate Sexual Intercourse.”