The national press has recently lavished coverage on several major sex-related scandals: the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings, the William Kennedy Smith rape trial, and the Mike Tyson case. With each event came lurid stories pitting either a loose or a virginal woman against an unwilling or monstrous man. Such extreme coverage, argues Helen Benedict, perpetuates myths that are harmful to the victims of these crimes (and sometimes to the accused). With the rise in reported rapes, more such myth-mongering stories are bound to be seen in the future. In Virgin or Vamp, Benedict addresses the press's tendency to misrepresent rape, denigrate victims, and invade the privacy of its subjects, while also pointing out the press's critical role in informing and educating the public.
In this timely book, Benedict draws on her experience as a reporter and professor of journalism to examine the print press's treatment of four prominent sex crimes from the past decadethe Rideout marital rape trial in Oregon, the Big Dan's pool table gang rape in New Bedford , Massachusetts, the "Preppy Murder" in New York, and the Central Park jogger rape. By analyzing the language of the original news stories and interviewing the original reporters, Benedict identifies the press's tendency to label victims as either virgins or vamps, a practice she condemns as misleading and harmful. For example, she finds that the press worked so hard at portraying Jennifer Levin, the victim of the "Preppy Murder," as a man-chasing vamp that it made her seem as responsible for her death as was her killer, Robert Chambers. Likewise, Benedict shows how the press depicted Greta Rideout as a hysterical wife who accused her husband of rape for revenge, rather than as a victim of domestic battery who eventually escapedthe truth of the case.
Benedict also looks at other factors that perpetuate the misunderstanding of rape. For instance, she shows how the New York press presented the Central Park jogger rape case as motivated by racism because of its unwillingness to consider rape an issue of gender. She also addresses our inherent language bias (more positive words exist to describe men than women), the press's tendency to use sexually suggestive language to describe crime victims, and its preference for crimes against whites. In her conclusion, Benedict analyzes the William Kennedy Smith rape case, and argues that the debate over naming victims is misconceived in light of the press's current lack of understanding about rape.
More than a critique about the way the print press covers sex crimes, Virgin or Vamp also reveals the roots of rape coverage in the days of lynching, and shows how deep traditionalist views of women still run. Benedict concludes with both practical and radical suggestions of how reporters can challenge such views by covering these increasingly common crimes without further harming the victims, the defendants, or public understanding.