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VIRGIN OR VAMP by Helen Benedict


How the Press Covers Sex Crimes

by Helen Benedict

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1992
ISBN: 0-19-506680-4
Publisher: Oxford Univ.

 An in-depth analysis of the print media's handling of sex crimes. Focusing on four widely reported rape cases, Benedict (Journalism/Columbia Univ.; Recovery, 1985, etc.) dissects the attitudes and language found in newspaper and magazine reports of the incidents. The overriding consideration she detects is the perpetuation of the myth of the rape victim as either ``virgin or vamp,'' a variation on the familiar ``madonna/whore'' dichotomy. To illustrate, Benedict chooses the 1978 Rideout case of marital rape; the New Bedford, Mass., gang rape that was the basis of the film The Accused; the murder of Jennifer Levin in the so-called ``Preppie Murder Case''; and the ``Central Park Jogger'' trial of 1989-90. Benedict begins with a concise and informative overview of the press's handling of sex crimes since the 1930's. Here and throughout, she does a sensitive job of linking, where applicable, race and class to her subject. But much of what she discovers--that reporters and editors denigrate women victims with such words as ``girl'' and ``bubbly''; that alleged rapists' defense lawyers often rely on the ``she was asking for it'' line of argument; that press coverage almost invariably highlights the more sensational aspects of sex-crime trials--will be familiar to most readers. Benedict's probing into the advantages and disadvantages of disclosure of victims's identities is thought-provoking, though, and her recommendations for upgrading press coverage are dramatic, calling for a thorough overhaul of current newsgathering and reporting techniques. Lacking in original insights, but, still, a well-intentioned and thoroughly researched introduction to a painful subject.