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Perpetuation and Reinforcement of Rape Culture in Print Media 

By Anoushka Varma

Abstract: The objective of this article is to examine how the print media, specifically English print media, shapes and upholds a toxic and misogynistic rape culture that violates women’s dignity and human rights, as well as how it affects society and shapes beliefs that see women as second-class citizens to men.


Sexual assault against women is one of the major issues that India, along with the rest of the world, grapples with. The degree to which this issue exists around the world may vary but it can be said without a doubt that it is present and societies around the world have developed a certain attitude towards this violence. The desensitization of this violation of women’s agency is normalized by the media. This leads to the development of a mentality that aims to hold women accountable for their assault. This shift in the narrative and the failure to protect them is termed rape culture. Rape culture trivializes the sexual assault and rape of women and fails to hold men accountable for their criminal actions, all while policing women. Rape culture is extremely prevalent in patriarchal societies and its existence, one can argue, is rooted in the media. The objective of this article is to examine how the print media, specifically print media, shapes and upholds a toxic and misogynistic rape culture that violates women’s dignity and human rights, as well as how it affects society and shapes beliefs that see women as second-class citizens to men, as well as attitudes that justify the violation. 

Language of Reportage: 

The language used to report rape and sexual assault is frequently problematic and confounding, especially when headlines utilize passive voice instead of active voice. The majority of headlines regarding female assault and rape are written in a way that normalizes rape and portrays it as something that happens to women rather than something that violates their autonomy. I will illustrate this with the use of a headline from a newspaper article about the infamous 2012 gang rape published by The Hindu: “Gang-raped in moving bus, girl fights for life in Delhi hospital”. The headline above fails to mention that the heinous crime was committed by a group of men. Such headlines prevent men from being held accountable and instead spread the idea that rapes are the result of a woman’s carelessness or her inability to care for and look for herself. The use of the word ‘girl’ is also exceedingly inappropriate. Despite being 23 years old, the victim is referred to as a ‘girl’ rather than a ‘woman’ or ‘lady’. It is not only sexist, but it also infantilizes the victim, making her and thousands of others appear helpless and defenseless. This sort of news reporting merely serves to reinforce the idea that women are immature and weaker than men, and thus require protection. Following incidents of rapes, newspaper articles frequently centre on how helpless and dangerous it is to be a woman, turning all women into damsels in distress. The popular debates and dialogues that appear to follow such headlines are invariably focused on how women can be ‘kept’ safe or have to be saved. In order to keep women safe, these debates are typically followed by intense policing of their daily lives. This leads us down a path where society and the government believe it is their moral responsibility to guide and instruct these women on how to live their lives, as well as condemn them when they are merely enjoying their freedom or exploring their sexuality under the guise of protecting them. Because most societies are inherently patriarchal, the narrative never appears to shift to how men need to be stopped from raping women, instead relying on the vocabulary of ‘boys will be boys’ to legitimize the harsh regulations that are imposed on women. The media’s inability to hold men accountable in their reporting simply serves to amplify this patriarchal and problematic narrative.  Apart from failing to hold men accountable, such reporting reduces the gravity of gender-based violence perpetrated against women at the hands of men. Media in their reports also seemed to avoid using the word ‘rape,’ instead opting for terms like “assaulted/sexually assaulted”. Considering the graveness that is associated with the connotation of the word ‘rape’, by opting to use the former, the severity of the perpetrator’s actions is reduced. There is also a tendency of print media to report cases of rape as episodic incidences instead of reporting it as something that is institutionalized and is an everyday reality for all women. Given the fact, one woman reports a rape every 15 minutes in India (officially), it is safe to conclude that incidences of rape aren’t isolated, disconnected events but are, rather, a part of a larger problem of the need for power and control. Hence, there needs to be a shift in this episodic reportage of rape and instead a broader focus on how rape culture facilitates incidents of rape needs to be embodied. The media must place rape and gender-based violence in the larger context of being a systematic issue instead of something that can be combatted by altering individual behaviour. 

Following the gruesome 2012 Delhi gang rape, the reportage of rape in India changed drastically. Rape, unlike earlier, received more coverage, and the derogatory language that shamed victims was replaced with a more gender-sensitive one based on Justice Verma Committee’s recommendations. However, in recent years, the media has tended to use the Nirbhaya case as a yardstick against which subsequently reported rapes have been measured. This technique not only decontextualizes the individual circumstances of other cases, but it also tends to homogenize rape narratives. Furthermore, it appears that post-Nirbhaya, the most heinous incidents of rape with the most evident physical wounds receive the most attention. Because only the “most brutal” rape cases are now newsworthy, it desensitizes society to rape and assault. Other rapes become trivialized as a result, and are, hence, portrayed as being unworthy of public support. This leads to the sensationalization of rape at the hands of the media as reportage of rape, a grave and heinous crime, merely gets reduced to a money-making tactic. This sensationalization of rape leads us to an extremely jarring path. I will elaborate on this with the help of a headline from a newspaper article about the 2017 Rohtak gangrape published by India Times: “The Rohtak Gangrape Horror Gets Uglier, Victim’s Food Pipe Was Ripped Out and Gnawing Marks Found on Her Chest!”. Evidently, through such headlines, the rape of the victim simply becomes another form of theatrical entertainment for the readers. All print media outlets which embody such sensationalizing tones are only successful in creating short-term anger and outrage instead of bringing about meaningful change. This theatrical tone embodied in rape coverage can also be seen in the following headlines published by Hindustan Times and the Deccan Chronicles respectively: “‘Keep talking to me’: Hyderabad vet’s last phone call to sister.”, “Victim not spared even during periods”. While the former fails to mention the fact that the victim was raped, the latter pays unnecessary attention to the fact that she was menstruating, almost as if raping a woman who is not menstruating is acceptable. Such sensationalized reportage of rape, hence, only leads to heavy policing of the lives of women, especially in terms of their bodily autonomy.

Ingrained Biases and Prejudices: 

The media frequently appears to sympathize with rapists, particularly if the rapist is a socially (racial, caste, gender, religion), politically, or monetarily privileged person. The way some print media sites sympathized with Brock Turner, a Stanford student who raped an unconscious woman, exemplifies this. He was referred to as a “young, promising man” or a ‘Stanford student”  by several media publications that covered the case. Such problematic reportage tries to present the rapist as a brilliant and promising young man who simply made a bad decision. Furthermore, it is a common practice embodied by the media to portray rapists as “jilted lovers” or profile them as calm and composed people. The portrayal of a rapist as a jilted lover is incredibly inappropriate and damaging as it seems to spread forth the narrative that the assault of the women is a result of their provocation and the men’s ‘right’ to rightful vengeance and revenge. The rape, hence, is reduced from being a heinous crime to a punishment that the woman has to face for hurting and ‘rejecting’ the man instead of giving in to his advances. Considering we live in an extremely patriarchal society where men have male entitlement, the rape is, therefore, justified by members of the society by arguing that by rejecting the man, the victim ‘agitated and aggravated him’ and, hence, deserves the fate she met. By using the vocabulary of ‘jilted lover’ or ‘calm and composed man’, the media portrayed these rapists as ‘good sons’ or ‘good men’ who were merely led astray by a ‘bad woman’, who by leading him on or rejecting him ruined his life. As a result of this sympathy and pity for the rapist, questions regarding the woman’s role in the rape are raised. The woman’s acts are analyzed by the media and society; why was she so inebriated? Why was she dressed in such a suggestive manner? Why was she out late at night by herself? She must have enticed him because she has slept with several men. These inquiries reinforce the assumption that women are partially (if not entirely) to blame for being raped, a belief that perpetuates and strengthens rape culture. When compared to media coverage of other rape cases (particularly those in which the rapist is a member of a marginalized community), it is clear that the media is attempting to elicit sympathy and pity for the rapist. Using the Nirbhaya case as a comparison, it can be seen how the rapists’ marginalized backgrounds were scrutinized, which helped to popularise the discourse of the rural, lower-caste savages brutalizing the middle-class and upper-caste hard-working urban women.

Erasion of Power Dynamics: 

It’s also worth noting the importance of power and privilege in reporting on rape and sexual violence against women. While coverage of rape has increased in the aftermath of the #MeToo movement (in India, following the Nirbhaya case), most mainstream media still portrays rape as a one-dimensional issue unrelated to other social, political, economic, or biological factors. This isn’t the case at all. It is imperative to note that gender-based sexual violence does not affect all women in the same way. Rape is routinely used as an instrument of power, suppressing the voices of those women who are marginalized or disadvantaged. Rape is used to subjugate them and their experiences. However, these power relations are rarely reflected in actual news reports. This is evident in the way the media in India portrays the case of a Dalit woman being raped by an upper-caste man (albeit reportage of such cases is rare due to institutionalized casteism in print media and a lack of accessibility of law and order for Dalit women). Even if they mention the victim’s or rapist’s castes (which is rare; a trend that is changing after the Hathras case), they fail to mention how the woman is raped for more than the upper caste men’s sadistic pleasure; it is a tool to further oppress and dehumanize the lower caste in order to remind them of their ‘aukaat’ or place in society. It is also worth noting that print media does not cover rape in this way since the socio-political majoritarian elites in charge of these media outlets believe caste and patriarchy are a thing of the past. In addition, the media downplays sexual abuse perpetrated by powerful people and institutions. The paucity of journalistic coverage of allegations of rape and sexual violence perpetrated by the Indian army in Kashmir and Northeast India, as well as allegations of rape against hotshot politicians, businessmen, and others, is an excellent example.  It reveals that power dynamics and asymmetries play a significant role in sexual assault against women and that these power dynamics nearly never translate into print media.


To summarise what has been said thus far, despite the media’s critical role in publicizing and bringing attention to the pervasive sexual harassment that women face on a daily basis, it perpetuates stereotypes and beliefs that shape, perpetuate and reinforce the rape culture. Although post the 2012 Nirbhaya rape case, coverage of rape cases has increased and they are being reported in a more gender-sensitive way, the language that these English print media outlets use is still far from being ideal. The media thrives on and strengthens the patriarchy (and other structures of power such as the caste system, race hierarchy, etc.) and essentially further marginalizes women as it leads to and contributes to the formation and perpetuation of attitudes and ideas that shame raped women and let men pass by without being held accountable for their crimes. The way the media portrays a rape occurrence can have a significant impact on how rape and sexual assault are seen in society and if it adopts more gender-sensitive language in its reportage, the Indian society’s attitude towards rape can fundamentally change. However, the question that arises is whether the media, which is inherently based on sensationalism, and hysteria, and tends to cover incidents in a patriarchal and elitist way to reflect and emulate the broader perspective of society, can act as society’s moral compass by reporting rape in an ethical framework, which includes not victim shaming women, holding men accountable, and addressing intersectionality, among other things.

About the Author:

Anoushka Varma is a third-year BA. Political Science student from JSIA. Her area of academic interest revolves around Gender and Sexuality studies, especially the intersection of gender and sexuality with other social identities.  

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