Beware of Sensational Rape Stories From Conservative Media
For those who follow Fox News or any of the other “alt-right” news sources, perhaps you’ll have noticed the many recent stories about rape.
On Aug. 2, it was the 23-year-old Dreamer (a person with Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals status) in Washington state accused of raping and breaking the jaw of a 19-year-old woman in a Seattle suburb.
Two days before that, it was a story on Portland, Ore., whose sanctuary city policies, according to Oregon GOP head Bill Currier, are implicitly responsible for the rapes of two women, allegedly by Sergio Jose Martinez, a man deported 20 times.
Three days before the Martinez story, it was an illegal immigrant named Fernando Alvarado-Perez who allegedly raped a girl repeatedly when she was 12 and 13 years old.
At the start of July, it was a Brietbart story about an “illegal immigrant” teen who, along with two other teens, allegedly tazed, scalded and raped a Georgia mother in her home in front of her children.
And, of course, throughout March and May, one of the most followed stories in the conservative media was the alleged rape of a 14-year-old high school girl in Maryland by two classmates, one of whom was reported to be in the country illegally. Though prosecutors later dropped the charge, citing “lack of corroboration and substantial inconsistencies from the facts,” the case remains a rallying cry in line with Donald Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric.
You don’t need a history degree to see why rape might remain one of the most sensational and morally offensive crimes for conservative readers to follow. Back in the 19th century, rape was tabloid or “penny press” fodder for journals in both Victorian England and America. The perceived threat that men of color pose to white female virtue—and still continue to pose in the imagination of some communities—has been used to intimidate black, Latino and Asian men and promote lethal vigilantism for the past three centuries. The scandalous and titillating nature of such stories even trickled into notable mainstream news sources, such as The New York Times, which launched in 1851 and ran reports featuring salacious tales of interracial rape in its early days.
Over the generations, the conservative press has changed its tactics very little when reporting about crimes committed by men of color. In the present day, the approach is a transparent attempt to bolster Trump’s anti-immigration platform and pander to the president’s post-inauguration plans of publishing a weekly list of crimes committed by immigrants. The strategy provides the added benefit of giving a body of factual “support” for the newest sweeping anti-immigration bill, which would initially cut legal immigration to the U.S. by 41 percent. According to the portrayal of immigrants that the conservative media would like us to believe, immigrants, particularly undocumented immigrants from Mexico and Latin America, are inherently oversexed, violent and dangerous.
But statistics show the opposite: Immigrants, documented or not, are not more likely than the native-born population to commit violent crimes. Between 1990 and 2010, national violent and property crime rates fell while the undocumented immigration population in the U.S. tripled. Even the conservative Americas Majority Foundation found that crime rates are lowest in states with the highest percentage of immigrants. These statistics, it seems, are inconvenient to news agencies desperate to portray immigrants as potential criminals. Still, why should so many of these stories focus now on rape?
As a woman, I can’t help but note how many of these stories feature victims and witnesses who are teenagers, sometimes even children. Fox News continually reminds its readers of the victims’ youth, even mentioning in its story about Alvarado-Perez that he raped his female victim “once in front of a baby.” Another recent Fox News article around the arrest of an MS-13 gang member described the teen as having burglarized an Oregon home while “a scared 12-year-old girl hid under a blanket.” According to Fox News, the Dreamer allegedly raped a 19-year-old woman and also faces a molestation charge for allegedly assaulting a 14-year-old the same day as the rape.
These stories thrive on details of young women and girls framed as innocents: girls and children who have no prior knowledge of their attacker, assaulted at home or in public spaces, where they should normally feel safe. The random circumstances of their attacks help portray the women in these stories as innocent, while the victims’ youth makes them appear figuratively—and occasionally literally—infantile: bodies to be protected and policed, because they cannot possibly protect themselves.
Rape stories in the 19th century press were used to excuse and incite white violence against non-white men. They bolstered the argument that black men couldn’t govern their own passions, let alone themselves as legal subjects. It was a way to keep black men from obtaining the full rights of citizenship and to fuel the anti-black suffrage movement. But these stories also promoted the notion that women, too, could not protect their own bodies and thus were helpless dependents, with the result that they curtailed the growing women’s suffrage movement, and women’s demands for equal rights. Though these stories were meant to excite the moral outrage of all readers, the call to action was directed implicitly at white men to consolidate and protect their own political power. For who better to govern the bodies of those who cannot govern themselves than those who are, in comparison, powerful, rational and unassailable?
So how surprising is it that so many stories of rape would appear in the conservative media at the same period of time that the GOP and the president, emboldened by their recent election victories, have worked to dismantle Planned Parenthood, to shut down abortion clinics and limit access to abortion services across much of the nation, to revoke the 2009 Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and to limit women’s access to contraception and even maternity coverage in the now-failed American Health Care Act?
The past months of the Trump presidency, with its frenzy of executive orders, state and federal bills and late-night tweets have fostered the feeling in me that the current conservative movement is addled at best, chaotic at worst. But when I see this proliferation of rape stories in the media, I begin to understand how deeply linked these assaults on our civil liberties are. In effect, these rape reports create a “two-fer” effect: They argue not only for the repeal of immigration legislation but for the implicit and inexorable limiting of women’s rights.
When we talk about immigrants, or the crimes of those we do not perceive to be or imagine should be American, we are rarely talking about the facts. Instead, we’re talking about our own fantasies and fears, in this case, the fear of being overrun by those we’ve historically imagined as ungovernable, and who—maybe through crime, maybe through the act of interracial sexual assault—may spread their own instability through the nation. In this, women and immigrants both pose a symbolic threat to those on the right: They are bodies that carry within them some imaginary weakness or contagion that must be policed.
These rape stories are not merely a sensational distraction for the alt-right set, or a deeply racist assault on immigrant communities. They should also be a feminist warning bell. This is not just a war on documented or undocumented immigrants. It is a war on our very ideas of who should be visible as citizens.