“Where were [her parents] when this girl was seen wandering at all hours with no supervision and pretending to be much older?”
–Kisha Williams, Cleveland, Texas, resident, in “Girl’s Sex Assault Rocks Cleveland,” Houston Chronicle
I’m pretty sure that when James C. McKinley, a reporter for the New York Times, filed “Vicious Assault Shakes Texas Town” with his editors, he had no idea that his failed attempt at nuance would have such a massive fallout. Despite the heinous nature of this crime — an 11-year-old Mexican-American girl was allegedly raped by 18 African-American boys and young men ranging in age from 14 to 27 in two different locations — McKinley chose to include quotes from Cleveland, Texas, residents — mostly black — who believed that the preteen had lured the men and was a consenting participant.
He wrote, “[Residents] ‘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.’ ” A neighbor tells the paper, ” ‘Where was her mother? What was her mother thinking?’ “
Normally, an article like this would have soon been forgotten, but when well-known feminist activist Shelby Knox called out McKinley and the Times in a Change.org petition, stating that the article was “appalling” and “alluded that the victim was asking for it,” McKinley found himself at the center of a firestorm. While the Times has yet to apologize, its public editor wrote in a blog that he understood why people were outraged and he was told that the newspaper would be working on an update to the story. He wrote that he hoped the paper would “delve more deeply into the subject” next time, but he wasn’t sure if that would happen.
Only time will tell.
And so in this national debate about the media’s responsibility to report sexual assaults fairly and accurately, something needs to be pointed out: If there hadn’t been any ignorant comments made in the first place, McKinley could not have used them. So yes, the Times deserved to be scrutinized for bad judgment, but so do the people who were eager to go on record with their ridiculous insinuations.
Blaming the Victim
How can adults actually believe that an 11-year-old is able to consent to sex with a 27-year-old — let alone 17 other young boys and men? How can grown folks, who should know better, place so much responsibility on the most vulnerable and least powerful in our society?
What’s even more disturbing is that the communal response in Cleveland isn’t an isolated incident — we have a rich history of dismissing victims as being either “fast” or “hos.” Minus a few exceptions, this nonsense also continues to go unchecked. And while this particular young girl in Texas was Latina, we have reacted in similar ways when the victim was African American.