Rape, and other sexually-based crimes remain under-reported in the modern day. As a whole, society has progressed leaps and bounds in terms of reporting and dealing with these crimes, yet it is an uncomfortable fact that such matters can, and are, often swept under the rug. There is plentiful speculation as to the reasoning behind why some cases explode in a media frenzy, and why some others receive a brief mention on the back pages of the newspaper, if that.
Nils Christie’s celebrated paper produced five aspects, together which form the ‘Ideal Victim’, victims who seem primed for media attention and societal outrage. These include: 1. The victim was weak in some manner, 2. The victim was doing something legal and respectable, 3. The victim was in a public place, 4. The victim struggled against a more powerful offender, 5. The victim did not know the offender, and 6. The matter was immediately reported to police (Christie 1986). This framework, although useful and often prescient in its description of media coverage, provides troublesome connotations when examined closer.
This piece does not seek to denigrate the attention and cases of women who have received substantial media attention. It simply seeks to shine a light on those who have not, and why that may be.
By establishing what a victim should comprise in the eyes of the public, it builds victimhood as a status, as something to be achieved. This flies against what is seemingly logical, that all people who have had offences committed against them are victims. It is, of course, foolish to think that all victims will receive sympathy, when some victims are themselves seasoned criminals (‘Carl Williams bashed and killed in jail’, ABC). It is easy, and on occasion correct, to blame media, both televised and social, for the issues pertaining to achieving victimhood. News media is overwhelmingly negative (Soroka 2015, paragraph 3), and headlines are often sprawled with sensational titles and, when covering a crime, oversized, eye catching pictures of persons related to the case.
Blame cannot lie solely at the feet of the media, however, as they simply offer up what society is interested in, being sex, violence, or, as is relevant, simplistic and sensationalist crime coverage. In coverage of crime, a hierarchy of victimhood emerges, (Greer 2007) a pecking order wherein victims who fit the earlier described mould can create outrage and, in positive outcomes, real change, whilst non-ideal victims are hardly even mentioned. Media coverage is often visual (Ibid 2007), offering up pictures which disturb and pull at our emotions. Christie’s categorisation of what is considered ‘weak’ includes persons very young, and it is easy to determine why. Visuals of young, often female victims tap into our empathy and outrage far easier than other types of victims (Koubaridis 2017). Even without pictures, an article’s headlines and stylised writing can capitalise on societal fears and attitude. After initial frenzy surrounding the attack itself died down, coverage of the Jill Meagher case focused on the perceived inadequacy of the bail system, targeting the fact that her killer had prior rape convictions (Farnsworth 2015). The Meagher case was an easy way to garner and sustain interest, which could then play on the negative attitudes many Australians already had surrounding the current bail system.
This line of thinking is not to disparage the reforms that were made. It is an examination of the worrying idea that someone must be societally compatible with being granted victimhood before proactive calls for change are made, even having to be brutally killed in the process. Compare this to the meagre coverage surrounding the murder of a prostitute prior to this case (‘Man jailed for prostitute’s murder’, 2005). One might notice how there is no photo of her, how her name is not in the headline, along with the factual, dull writing which permeates the article. A large stigma surrounds prostitution, and such an individual cannot be expected to warrant sympathy and to be granted victimhood, when media coverage scarcely grants her personhood. Attitudes surrounding victimhood create a near-predatory reaction to victimhood, with some being seized upon and used as a beacon of outrage, which, as in the Meagher case, frequently becomes less about the victim and bringing justice to them, and more about satiating our own desires for anger and perceived change.
As a culture, Australia, and the world at large, is heavily reactionary. As was just discussed, certain cases and certain victims are usually needed before cries for change and reform begin. Those who do not fit discussed and accepted notions of victimhood are chastised, and often have the blame shifted onto themselves. Studies surrounding sexual assault via football players drew criticism, not just from the players, but from other women as well, who suggested the female victims had brought it upon themselves (Pierik 2010, paragraph 7). What is notable in the study, is the idea of victim agency. That by being active in some manner, the victims are responsible for their own situation, whether it be courting the players or wearing suggestive clothing. This is another troublesome notion, as it requires that victims must be passive, to the extent where they almost do not exist outside of the victimhood which might be granted to them. That victims are docile, unchanging shells who cannot be assigned a role other than that of a victim. The hostility to victim agency does not extend to victim resistance, however. Male rape victims are more likely to be blamed if they do not struggle against their attacker (Sleath & Bull 2010, p.973). One of Christie’s victim categories included that of the ‘weak’ victim, which most frequently consisted of the sick, the young, or the elderly. Adult males therefore struggle to find recognition for their victimisation, as they cannot be viewed as weak by many. The idea that men are inherently strong, and therefore are the sexual instigators, would, with or without Christie’s categorisation, disqualify them from victimhood in the eyes of many. It ties back into earlier discussed ideas of agency, where, just like the women in the football study, the men must have brought it upon themselves. To have agency is to enable the attack to occur, which disables one from the so-called privilege of being a victim.
Nils Christie’ theory of the ‘ideal victim’ is not a perfect encapsulation of what a deserving victim is, as such a theory does not currently exist, and likely never will. Yet it has proven to be a pivotal method through which to examine societal attitudes towards victims, as was done in this piece. In addition, notions of victimhood and victim-blaming are not the only issues facing these people. Yet, moving on from viewing victimhood as a privilege with only a very narrow parameter to be achieved, will be at least a step towards equal and fair treatment of all victims of crime.
Christie, N 1986, ‘The Ideal Victim’, in E Fattah (ed.), From Crime Policy to Victim Policy: Reorienting the Justice System, The Macmillan Press, London, pp. 17-30.
‘Carl Williams bashed and killed in jail’ 2010, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 20 April, viewed 24 March 2018, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2010-04-19/carl-williams-bashed-and-killed-in-jail/402028
Soroka, S 2015, ‘Why do we pay more attention to negative news than to positive news?’, web log post, 25 May , viewed 24 March 2018, http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/why-is-there-no-good-news/
Greer, C 2007, ‘News Media, Victims and Crime’ in P Davies, P Francis and C Greer (ed.), Victims, Crime and Society’, SAGE Publications, London, pp.21-49.
Farnsworth, S 2015, ‘Jill Meagher’s killer Adrian Bayley had history of violent sex attacks; parole board failed to take him off the streets’, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 23 March, viewed 25 March 2018, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-06-11/violent-past-of-jill-meagher-killer-adrian-bayley-revealed/4745406
Koubaridis, A 2017, ‘Thalia Hakin: Young Bourke St victim farewelled at emotional funeral service’, News Corp Australia, 25 January, viewed 25 March 2018, http://www.news.com.au/national/victoria/crime/thalia-hakin-young-bourke-st-victim-farewelled-at-emotional-funeral-service/news-story/71b8e0c409af9fcd256fd0d3bd82f24f
‘Man jailed for prostitute’s murder’ 2005, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 18 August, viewed 25 March 2018, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2005-08-18/man-jailed-for-prostitutes-murder/2083562
Pierik, J 2010, “’Floozies’ to blame in AFL sexual assaults, say women”, The Age, 19 September, viewed 26 March 2018, https://www.theage.com.au/national/victoria/floozies-to-blame-in-afl-sexual-assaults-say-women-20100918-15ha7.html
Sleath, E & Bull, R 2010, ‘Male Rape Victim and Perpetrator Blaming’, Journal of Interpersonal Violence, vol. 25, no. 6, pp. 969-988 (online Sagepub).