Thoughts On The Use Of Graphic Images Of Sexual Violence To Illustrate News Stories (Or, Whoa, I’m Suddenly Reconsidering My Position On Porn)

My own emotional response to the photos was not immediately one of anger and outrage. It was something else. Even after reading the headline, my emotional response to the images remained complicated.

Jul 2, 2013 at 10:00am | Leave a comment

 
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Is this picture sexy? What if I told you it wasn't? 

Last week on my Facebook feed, amidst the cat pictures, Rumi quotes and impotent complaints about it being Monday, there was a picture of a hot chick being banged from behind while another dude pulled her hair and a third guy cupped with her tit. Nice! I thought, until I glanced over at the images’ accompanying link: "Rape of Iraqi Women by US Forces as Weapon of War: Photos and Data Emerge." 
 
According to the article, the “hot chick” was a fourteen-year-old Iraqi girl. The men in the picture were American soldiers. The act, we are told by the headline, was nonconsensual. Accordingly, so was the taking -- and, thus, our viewing -- of the images. 
 
“I'm really confused why a news agency would publish these pictures and why anyone would repost it,” I commented. “If these photographs were of your mother being sexually violated, would you find it necessary to publicly display them to elicit outrage, or would you agree that such displays are an absolute re-victimization?” 
 
When somebody offends me on Facebook, I usually just unfriend them. I am friends with lots of random people, most of whom are not my “friends.” I do not personally know this person who posted this link, but for some reason this morning I’d chosen to engage. He responded back with some tautological argument about the importance of sharing information and how U.S. citizens should be outraged and angered (he is not from the United States). He said, “How do you expect people to know about things if everyone keeps their blinders on?”
 
To be sure, pictures are more effective than words at conveying meaning precisely because they elicit an emotional response. The public release of photographs from Abu Ghraib -- for example -- provided evidence of American brutality and sadistic violence so incontrovertible they made it so that we, as a nation, were compelled to respond. And there are times that victims want their stories and even the images of their victimization to be shown, hoping their courage in doing so will enact change.
 
That said, most victims desire privacy and prefer to remain unnamed. Images of victimization risks further humiliating the victim, as well as triggering strong negative feelings in viewers who’ve experienced similar traumas. For these reasons, legitimate news agencies have rules about posting graphic content. There are also rules about posting potentially offensive images on Facebook. Most journalists and decent human beings will not create content that is likely to offend the majority of its viewers, or if they do they’ll pre-empt the potentially disturbing footage with a “trigger warning." 
 
The effect that graphic images have on victims -- the victim in the picture, their families and communities, as well as others who've experienced similar traumas -- is something that most decent human beings take seriously. (My Facebook friend called trigger warnings “silly” and suggested the idea of them was elitist. Again, most decent human beings take these issues seriously.)  
 
But, were I to be honest, the problem wasn’t that I’d felt visually assaulted by an offensive graphic image. The problem, I realized the more I thought about it, had been the opposite. 
 
As my “friend” and his “friends” argued on, I looked more closely at the pictures, trying to figure out why they’d upset me so much. Generally, I’m not bothered by graphic pictures. In college, when the internet was first coming around (because I’m that OLD), I used to spend an embarrassing amount of time on a website called Consumption Junction. These days the site is all porn, but back when I was an impressionable youth it was your go-to source for an array of strange, weird, sick and otherwise disturbing graphic content, including images and videos of people dying or killed.   
 
Why we feel compelled to see what’s left over when someone shoots themselves in the head, or stare into the aftermath of a gruesome car wreck, I don’t know -- but we do. We slow down all the traffic behind us to get a good look. We Google “uncensored” in the safe privacy of our homes hoping to find a close-up without the black bar.
 
Maybe images of blood and guts remind us of what we’re all made of. It makes us think of our own mortality. And maybe, sometimes, when we see images of atrocity that we could potentially prevent, it compels us to act. In the least, for a moment, we care. We feel concern for the individual in the picture, for the people in our lives that we love (what if that car crash victim had been someone close to us? we might think), for ourselves.
 
But this wasn’t how these images made me feel. 
 
What bothered me about these pictures was not that they were graphic, but that they were sexual in nature, and while they were labeled by the headline as a depiction of sexual violence, the images themselves -- without the label -- were of sex. 
 
Can you tell rape from sex just by looking at it? I couldn’t.  
 
In the first picture, the one that appears on my news feed, a woman is being penetrated from behind while another man holds her head and a third man holds her breast. The expression on her face is inscrutable. The shot is fuzzy, distorted. In the next picture, the same woman is taking a large penis in her mouth as two hands, belonging to another man standing behind her, grip her head. The third photo is from above, a summary view of the second photo.  
 
In every way, the pictures look like porn. More than this, it looks like the kind of porn I like, depicting the kind of sex that -- in some circumstances -- I prefer. I like my hair pulled! I like to be fucked from behind! The guys are dressed in green but on first glance this does not read as army gear. Even if it did -- thanks to a memorable fling with an Afghanistan vet -- I might, too, find this appealing. There is no clear sense that they're soldiers, or that she's Iraqi.
 
And even if we could read these facts from the image, these facts alone would not signify that the sex was nonconsensual. I've talked to more than one person who does role-play and has engaged in role-play involving racial stereotypes and stereotypical power dynamics during consensual sex. 
 
The second picture is the one that might immediately read as nonconsensual. Her expression tells us that she’s struggling, gagging maybe. This face tells us that maybe she doesn’t like what’s being done. Or maybe she does and that’s just the face we make when we have a big dick in our mouth, even consensually. Or maybe it’s simply a bad picture.
 
Assuming that you’re not disgusted by pornography, your immediate emotional response to these photographs may not be one of disgust. My own emotional response to the photos was not immediately one of anger and outrage. It was something else. Even after reading the headline, my emotional response to the images remained complicated. 
 
To me, these photos are disturbing because they're "sexy" and I know there are people looking at them and thinking this -- before and possibly even after we learn of the photos’ context -- maybe even this douchebag that I’m “friends” with, whether he’s willing to admit it or not. 
 
As it turns out, the story is old, and the photos are probably fake. The photos may be fake -- apparently taken from a military-themed porn site -- but the story isn’t. The rape of the fourteen-year-old girl did happen, and rape is commonly, contemporarily as it was historically, and cross-culturally, used as a weapon, and male soldiers are sexually assaulting female soldiers at alarming rates.
 
We don't need to look at photos to be outraged by sexual violence -- and given how complicated it is to read sexual images, I say it’s better if we don’t. 
 
As one might expect, arguing with a stranger over the Internet didn’t change my position on the use of graphic images to depict sexual violence (unsurprisingly, it didn’t change my friend’s position, either). But, interestingly, it did make me think twice about my uncritical appreciation of porn.
 
Whereas there are implications when using graphic images of sexual violence to illustrate a news story, these implications are, in large part, a result of our having created a society laden with gratuitous sexual imagery. Pornographic sexual imagery is largely devoid of context, too, and this is a problem. 
 
We need the stories behind the pictures. Especially when it comes to sexual images, context is key. If we’re going to have the world we have -- with images of sex everywhere -- we need sex education and conversations about consent. Otherwise, your first thought when you look at a picture of a woman being raped just might be “that’s hot.”

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