[Trigger warning: discussion of rape, rape imagery, and victimization.]
On February 8, the (in)famous women’s blog Jezebel ran a story headlined “Did Libyan Video of a Journalist’s Rape Get Posted on YouTube?” (Trigger warning for images and content at the link; the contents are summarized below.) Appropriately, the editors tagged the story as Horrible; however, the horror registered in the post’s comments, as well as on Twitter and elsewhere, is directed toward the editors’ decision to run the story complete with screencaps from the video in question. In response to the outcry among its commentariat, which demanded to know why Editor-in-Chief Jessica Coen and author Anna North thought it was a good idea to post lightly altered images of a woman being sexually assaulted, the blog left the images up, albeit with extra pixelation — pixelation added, according to what I can work out from the timeline, almost a day after the original images ran.
In an explanation prefixed to the article, Coen attempts to explain the rationale for posting the story with its images, and the editors’ decision not to remove them despite the reaction:
We have since added additional pixelation to all of the images, including those of the attackers. This post is ultimately about the existence of a video, thus the images ARE the story — without them, there’s nothing. To remove them would be, in effect, to un-report the story. Which is not going to happen. –JC
First of all, what story? As we’ll see below, there is no story in the sense of a researched narrative, only a few images buttressed by the scant support of a writer’s hypotheses regarding the origin of the video and the identities of the men participating in it. Sure, the post may “ultimately” be about the existence of a video, but on the way to ultimate, North, Coen, and everyone involved in the conception, writing, and distribution of this article trampled over the one person who actually matters here: the victim herself.
Remember, this is an article posted on the site that was touted for declining to repost or link to leaked photographs of Rihanna following her physical abuse at the hands of Chris Brown. In her explanation for the decision, Anna Holmes wonders about the value of posting images of victimized and beaten women: “Assaults like [Rihanna's] are perpetrated on thousands of people — many of them women — every single day, the world over. Question: is posting such a photo exploitative or educational? (Is it both?)”
In the case of the article at hand, the answers would be: Yes and no. Yes, it is exploitative. No, it is not educational; and, even if it were (this is where I feel Holmes got it slightly wrong), it isn’t right to use the images of any woman’s suffering for the purposes of “education,” not when the woman isn’t in a position to consent to her images’ distribution, and not when we seem to have no damn idea what “education” means in this context. We’re all reasonably aware people and we know that rape happens, and we know that rape happens in war zones: what valuable new information, then, are these images supposed to provide? Arguments can be made about images of sexual violence serving the public good — for example, the photographs of the victims in Abu Ghraib — but what public good is being served here, precisely? Given Coen’s non-apology, the post’s contents, and the utter failure of the images to do what North hopes they will, not much good is being served at all. Certainly they’re not addressing the victim’s good so much as willfully disregarding it.
To repost images of a victim’s rape without her permission — the last two images in the post are graphic, if blurred-out, screencaps that specifically depict the attack — is to deprive her of her dignity and her right to preserve her privacy. It victimizes her all over again. Her blurred-out body does not get to be sacrificed on the altar of “raising awareness of rape” or even “seeking justice for a rape victim”; to make it bait for pageviews under the guise of awareness-raising and seeking justice is disingenuous at best, a reification of rape culture at its worst — and, I suspect, at its heart. There is a difference between torture-porn and explicitly tying images to narratives detailing systemic abuses of power: the former seeks to shock for its own sake, the latter shocks in the service of exposing institutional corruption and large-scale moral failure. Further, as feminists, we all know how wrong it is to demand that oppressed or victimized people tell their stories in the service of our education; how, then, is it right to demand that a rape victim be victimized all over again for purposes about which neither the Jez author nor editor seem clear?
That the entire post sensationalizes rape for the sake of controversy, rather than for the sake of justice, is fairly clear from its structure and the justifications offered for its existence. Aside from its interpretation of its now-pixelated images, the article is short on fact and long on supposition. North pads out her description of the video stills with a brief hypothesis on the video being a work of Gaddafi loyalists, speculation that should the name of the poster (Ahmed Aldorssi) be real, he “should be easy to find,” and the touchingly naïve expression of hope that “If anything good comes of the recording and posting of this disgusting crime, maybe it will be that the criminals actually get prosecuted.” In the article’s opening, North admits that the video can no longer be found, but its brief online existence still raises the questions “who raped her, who posted it on the internet, and will she ever get justice?”
With the attackers’ faces now pixelated into obscurity, the last question is rather easily answered: No, Coen and North, she will never get justice because no one can see their faces anymore. How are these images useful as a call for justice? How are they useful to anyone who might have the drive and means to arrest these men for what they did? For that matter, how are images of this woman’s rape — specifically a close-up of her body as she is being assaulted — helpful for tracking down the perpetrators? Are the Benghazi police calling Denton for the unpixelated screencaps so they can bring the videographer and his accomplices to justice? Hint: Probably not.
What the images are useful for, however, is driving up pageviews. Even for a site that now cynically trades in sensationalism and provocation for the sake of clicks — witness the Duke sex-rating PowerPoint and Edward “American girls are so uptight about sex” Pasteck — the fact that this story, and its original and now-altered pictures, was posted in the first place is disappointing, if not surprising. One would be forgiven for thinking that Coen would have done better not to issue the apology, and that North would have done better not to attempt to justify herself by making vague noises about truth and justice: the post would still be reprehensible, and unconscionable in its further disregard for a rape victim’s right to privacy, but at least it would be honest about its motives.
Journalistic ethics demand that writers respectfully treat people who figure as characters in the narratives they construct. Of course, it’s easy to argue that Jezebel is not staffed by journalists, or by individuals whose profession demands adherence to certain standards of ethical conduct. For that matter, the structure of the article — bracing the weight of screencaps showing men raping a woman against the unsteady support of speculation — clearly indicates that the standards to which this article was held were something other than professional in nature. But (and here’s the thing) in pixelating the images and clumsily trying to rationalize their use as potential evidence in the name of Obtaining Justice, Coen and North tacitly admit that their choices were, in fact, unethical, insofar as they were aware that ethics (or, hell, human decency) demanded better reasons than sensationalism to post pictures of a brutal rape. As Coen’s note makes clear with its journalistic terminology — her refusal to “un-report the story” — Jezebel’s ethos seems to hold that professional bloggers are journalists when it’s convenient: they will adopt the terminology, but not the ethical freight that come with it when such responsibility becomes burdensome. What Coen and North’s thin justifications make clear is that they decided the story — the proof of a video’s existence — was more important than all other considerations, including the human suffering that made the video’s existence possible.