Mass Media and Rape Culture in America

On May 17th, 2013, Judge Thomas Lipps of Steubenville Ohio found Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond, two Steubenville high school football players, guilty of raping an inebriated 16-year-old teenager on August 12, 2012, and spreading pornographic photographs and videos of the unconscious girl around Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites [1]. When the decision was announced, both Ma’lik and Trent reacted emotionally, collapsing and sobbing—acts that garnered sympathy from the media channels intently covering the trial. CNN’s Poppy Harlow reported that the scene was “incredibly difficult, even for an outsider like me, to watch”, and her deeply controversial reaction to the conviction was largely circulated amongst an outraged audience shortly thereafter. Rather than focusing on the traumatized victim and the justice she achieved, CNN and many other news outlets instead chose to shift the focus towards a sympathetic portrayal of the rapists who committed the crime.

In the aftermath of CNN’s controversial coverage of the Steubenville rape trial, a nationwide conversation concerning “rape culture” has emerged [2]. According to Dr. Merril Smith’s Encyclopedia of Rape, the term rape culture “originated in the 1970s during the second-wave feminist movement, and is often used by feminists to describe contemporary American culture as a whole” [3]. Essentially, a “rape culture” normalizes and tolerates rape, and condones attitudes that justify and trivialize rape. This particular instance of the coverage of the Steubenville High School rape trial is one such example of America’s rape culture, in the way that the reporter sympathized with the assailants of violent sexual assault cases rather than the victims of their crimes. The media is increasingly coming under fire for preserving such ideals, and discussions have erupted within the scientific community as to whether or not various forms of media can be partially blamed for America’s established rape culture [2].

One important study conducted by Neil M. Malamuth and James V.P. Check of the University of Manitoba in Canada [4] analyzed the effects of viewing a sexually violent film on students’ acceptance of violence and sex in a population of 271 male and female students. The students were shown the sexually violent film and afterwards participated in a “Sexual Attitude Survey,” which analytically determined the subject’s attitude towards the acceptance of interpersonal violence in sex. These results showed a significant difference between males who viewed this film versus those in the control group, who viewed a film that was not sexually explicit. The students exposed to the sexually violent film indicated at a higher rate that violence in sex was acceptable [4]. Such results reveal the startlingly significant effects of mass media exposure and can be compared to a news outlet’s portrayal of rape.

Dr. Wendy Wood also conducted a meta-analytic review of the media’s coverage of violence by examining the effects of viewing such material would have on viewers’ aggression in social interactions. Adolescents were exposed to violent or control media, and their post-exposure behavior was recorded and analyzed for violent tendencies [5]. The exposure to such media violence was shown to drastically increase violence in social interactions. But media sources perpetuate rape culture through more than simply their portrayals of violence; Steubenville demonstrated that even the subtle presence of rape myths in a news story can have a profound impact on the public’s reaction to the story. Several psychiatrists from the University of Wisconsin conducted two studies involving the coverage of the well documented Kobe Bryant sexual assault case in 2003 [6]. The first was an archival study, which discovered that 65 out of 156 stories perpetuated at least one rape myth. The second evaluated the effects of such articles on subjects with limited prior knowledge of the cases and found that those exposed to the myth-endorsing articles were significantly more likely to sympathize with Bryant and believe that the alleged victim was lying [6].

The preservation of rape myths and rape culture has demonstrably disturbing and prominent effects;in one set of studies, Dr. G. Bohner and Dr. F. Siebler discovered that acceptance of rape myths has the potential to increase rape proclivity, exposing rape culture’s self-perpetuating nature. Interestingly, this set of studies showed that college males who saw that their peers scored high on a measure of rape acceptance also tended to score high. Such individuals also admitted greater rape inclinations, demonstrating the group-culture element to rape culture [8].  Social media therefore serves to perpetuate such attitudes, which has begun to play an increasingly large role in rape cases. In the Steubenville rape trial, evidence was collected directly from social media outlets Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube [2].

That being said, this is by no means to say that all those affected by rape culture, or with high degrees of rape myth acceptance, will commit an act of rape; in fact, most will never even consider raping a person. However, the prevalence of these outdated ideas concerning rape and sexual assault are problematic, demeaning, and unhelpful to victims attempting to recover from rape or assault. Such ideas are only amplified today, considering the increasingly large role that media plays both in our lives and in perpetuating such a culture [2]. Social media also expounds on the group culture components of rape culture and contributes to the spread of such group psychology. Psychiatrist Shannon O’Hara of the University of St. Andrews concludes that “Much of the news media’s coverage of sexual violence perpetuates myths and stereotypes about rape…this is troubling, as the news media shapes public opinion about rape and can affect policy-making” [9]. Poppy Harlow’s comments about the assailants in the Steubenville rape trial were only a sad reminder of the deeply-rooted belief system that remains ever resilient in our culture.

1. Erik Wemple, “CNN is getting hammered for Steubenville coverage” Washington Post, March 18, 2013, accessed April 30, 2013,
2. Andrew Welsh-Huggins, “Steubenville Rape Case Moves Forward with Search Warrants”, Huffington Post, April 25, 2013, accessed April 30 2013,
3. Ed. Merril D. Smith, Encyclopedia of Rape. Greenwood Publishing Group, 2004. New York, New York.
4. Martha R. Burt, Cultural Myths and Supports for Rape. The Urban Institute, Washington D.C., Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (1980). Vol. 38, No. 2.
5. Neil M. Malamuth and James V. P. Check. The Effects of Mass media Exposure on Acceptance of Violence Against Women: A Field Experiment. University of Manitoba, Journal of Research in Personality (1981). Vol. 15.
6. Raymond W. Preiss. Mass Media Effects Research: Advances Through Meta-Analysis. Psychology Press, 2007. New York, New York.
7. Renae Franiuk, Jennifer L. Seefelt, Sandy L. Cepress, & Joseph A. Vandello. Prevalence and Effects of Rape Myths in Print Journalism: The Kobe Bryant Case. Aurora University, University of Wisconsin, University of South Florida.  Violence Against Women (200*). Vol. 14, No. 3.
8. Saroj Hardit, Predicting Sexual Aggression Among College Men: The Role of Male Peer Groups and Sexualized Media. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (2012).
9. Shannon O’Hara. Monsters, Playboys, Virgins, and Whores: Rape myths in the news media’s coverage of sexual violence. University of St. Andrews, UK. Language and Literature (August 2012). Vol. 21, No. 3.

Melissa Pavlik is a first year at the University of Chicago majoring in Political Science, and minoring in Statistics and Spanish. Her primary political and academic interests concern the promotion of equal rights, particularly across social gender constructions. She hopes to pursue a career that would allow her to lobby on behalf of such causes.