What We Need to Know


Since writing “The Careless Language of Sexual Violence,” I have started paying more attention to how the media reports on sexual abuse and rape cases, the ways the media frames these issues, and how they report on the victims. I’ve noticed that there is often some kind of qualification about the victim (and certainly, this is not new), where we learn about what the victim was wearing or drinking, or that it was late at night or that there was partial consent or that the victim comes from an economically depressed community—information that should bear no relevance whatsoever. These qualifications often seem to imply that criminal acts are somehow justifiable. It is disconcerting, at best.

It’s been about a year since I wrote that essay and I’m still thinking a lot about language, its limitations, and how we often stumble when trying to find the right language to write about the complex issues of sexual abuse and rape.

I’ve been following the growing sexual abuse scandal in Los Angeles at Miramonte Elementary School with real sadness.

What’s unfolding in that school is the kind of horrifying scenario that makes you want to wrap your child in bubble wrap and home school them in perpetuity from the concrete safety of an underground bunker. Schools are supposed to be safe. That’s what we hope even though many of us know this to be untrue. Still, when a parent sends their child to school, there is a certain amount of trust placed in teachers and school administrators. It is difficult to accept this trust can be broken and so irreparably and it is unlikely that any gesture can truly repair a trust broken in this manner.  There are the repulsive incidents of abuse, the lack of communication from school officials who knew there was a problem and didn’t communicate effectively with parents, the number of children affected, and the veteran teachers involved. The more the story is reported, the more the horror builds. Today, I learned they are replacing the entire staff at the school, at least temporarily, to try and determine the extent of the abuse. The move is also a step designed to rebuild trust. That may not be possible.

I am not a journalist, though, over the past year, I have learned journalists sometimes use the language they do because they are supposed to be unbiased. Our justice system is predicated on the presumption of innocence and it should be, so incidents of sexual abuse and rape must be framed by journalists as alleged until the courts adjudicate a case.  I have also learned that the language used to denote different kinds of sexual crimes is often based on legal definitions which are inadequate. That is reasonable enough though it can be infuriating to those of us outside the profession.

Scandal, itself, is an awkward word. I generally associate scandal with political figures having sex in highway rest areas or divorcing sick wives or doing interesting things with cigars. There’s a certain glee, more often than not, in discussing a scandal. Did you see? And did you hear? And my goodness, do you know?

There’s no glee where Miramonte Elementary and what has taken place is concerned. Is scandal the best word to use when we talk about allegations of sexual abuse or rape?  I’m not sure. It may be the only word we have. One definition of scandal is, “a circumstance or action that offends propriety or established moral conceptions or disgraces those associated with it.” When fleshed out in that way, scandal starts to feel more appropriate for explaining the terrible situation at Miramonte. Unfortunately, we cannot trot out that definition each time we need to such matters.

Time published an article today about Miramonte, offering a brief overview of what is known about the “scandal,” and exploring the question of whether or not it is possible for children to fully recover from sexual abuse of this nature.

For the most part, the Time article was fine until I stumbled on this paragraph:

Most of the students at Miramonte are Spanish speakers. The school, situated in L.A.’s Florence-Firestone zone, serves a low-income area in which many families are from Mexico or Central America. Ninety-eight percent of its 1,400 students are Hispanic, 56% are considered English-language learners and some are from migrant families. All students at the K-6 school receive free or reduced-price lunches. Miramonte did not meet its proficiency target rates for standardized test scores in language and mathematics last year, according to its website.

The first few sentences clearly provide context and illustrate the additional vulnerability of the children who were abused, but I fail to understand the relevance of the last sentence. What does the school’s standardized test scores have to do with a sexual abuse scandal? It reads like yet another qualification of the victims. This Los Angeles Times article also mentions the school’s poor academic performance, as do a number of other articles in several publications. The information has little bearing on the reportage of incidents of sexual abuse. Low test scores don’t mitigate sexual abuse. The information doesn’t enhance our understanding of what took place. It is strange, perhaps, that I trip over this kind of carelessness, but once I started really paying attention, it became hard to stop. When I see statements like this, I am reminded that a lot of time is spent discussing what we know about the victims as if by understanding the victim, we can understand the crime. In reality, what we need to know is more about the alleged abusers. Did they attend schools in an impoverished area? Did they attend schools with low standardized test scores? Did they eat lead paint as children? Is that why they committed depraved acts?

In addition to thinking about the limitations of language, I’m also starting to consider what information is necessary when reporting or otherwise writing about sexual abuse and rape. What do readers need to know to be well-informed about these cases and the people involved? It’s worth thinking about what we need to know and what we want to know and what our personal biases make us think we need to know.

Roxane Gay’s writing appears in Best American Mystery Stories 2014, Best American Short Stories 2012, Best Sex Writing 2012, A Public Space, McSweeney’s, Tin House, Oxford American, American Short Fiction, Virginia Quarterly Review, and many others. She is a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times. She is the author of the books Ayiti, An Untamed State, the New York Times bestselling Bad Feminist, Difficult Women, and Hunger forthcoming in 2017. She is also the author of World of Wakanda for Marvel. Roxane was the founding Essays Editor and is a current Advisory Board member for The Rumpus. You can find her at roxanegay.com. More from this author →