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Mainstream Media, Let's Stop Describing Everything a Rape Victim Had to Drink

Cornell University has taken the spotlight a few times this year for instances of rape and sexual assault on campus, but last week’s arrest of wrestler Peter Mesko was the first time an alleged perpetrator was identified. So why does the media put the victim on trial? 

According to court papers, a Cornell University student awoke in the middle of the night to find herself being raped by a total stranger.  She screamed and woke up her girlfriend, and they both were able to run away and lock themselves in another room. The victim’s girlfriend was able to snap a photo of the attacker, and they were later able to identify the assailant as Peter Mesko, who has since been arrested and charged with first-degree rape.

As the media covers this developing case, the Associated Press’s account, which has been published in The Huffington Post, USA Today, Fox News, The Washington Post, and other mainstream media outlets, includes one particularly eyebrow-raising detail from the night of the incident:

“Court papers said the two women had gone out for drinks Friday night, and the alleged victim told police she had had two beers, a shot of tequila and a whiskey and Coke.”

More local coverage also included this tidbit, including Cornell’s university newspaper, which stated:

“The victim consumed two beers, a shot of tequila and a whiskey and Coke, and was ‘moderately intoxicated,’ according to court documents. Still, the victim told police, ‘I remember the entire night and purchased my own drinks.’”

Though none of these articles directly place blame on the victim, I find it deeply troubling that the victim’s alcohol consumption that night was even considered relevant to report. What’s most disturbing is that this inclusion wasn’t random—it’s part of a normalized cycle of rape coverage that judges and scrutinizes victims in ways that would be unheard of for any other sort of crime. Victim blaming has apparently become so engrained in rape investigations and coverage that a victim can be randomly attacked by an intruder in the middle of the night and still have her own actions and decisions called into question for judgment, and it says a lot about rape culture that the world’s largest news wire service finds it necessary to publish these irrelevant details. I’m actually surprised they failed to mention whether or not she was wearing sexy pajamas.

What if the victim had been totally drunk during the attack? Would that have changed the fact that a stranger entered her room and raped her in her sleep? Many other rape victims don’t fit so clearly into the ‘ideal victim’ narrative of being attacked by a total stranger. Some rape victims are blackout drunk, others are friends or in relationships with their assailants, some are wearing “slutty” clothes, or walking alone too late at night—and these victims would probably have an even harder time finding justice. Giving weight to these unrelated details slowly blurs the line between what is and isn’t viewed as “real” victimization, and it shouldn’t. Eventually, it spreads the message that unless you’re a chaste, white grandmother walking home mid-afternoon after church, you better watch the way you act just in case a man decides to rape you later. That makes the world a pretty scary place for women.

Women should be able to get drunk, stay out late, wear what they want, and know that these decisions have absolutely no impact on whether or not they consent to sex. Yet still women are told over and over by the media, by the police, and by society that these things matter. After this case, my question for the Associated Press is this: did you have six beers, two tequila shots, and a whiskey and Coke before you decided to turn a blind eye to your role in rape culture?