This is Not an Analysis of Rape Culture. This is a Rant.

by Cara on April 28, 2010

in assholes, courts, misogyny, patriarchy, race and racism, rape and sexual assault, slut-shaming, violence against women and girls

Trigger Warning for very graphic and disturbing descriptions of rape, as well as descriptions of death from alcohol poisoning.

This morning I read a story about how a man named Shareef Clemons confessed to raping a 15-year-old girl when he was 16. He raped her along with Juan Williams, who was 17 at the time of the crime that he has also confessed to.

Their victim is now dead. Kierra Johnson cannot see her rapists spend time in prison, because she is dead. She died shortly after Clemons and Williams finished raping her. They raped her as she was dying.

They raped her as she was dying.

The trio ended up at Williams’ house on Crowson Street near Church Lane, East Germantown, where they drank vodka, wine, peach schnapps and rum.

When Johnson passed out on the living-room sofa, the boys carried her down the basement stairs and placed her on a weightlifting bench, Hurley told the judge.

They put on condoms and took turns having sex with Johnson, who was vomiting and drifting in and out of consciousness.

Clemons also had unprotected anal sex with Johnson, and his DNA was recovered from the victim’s body, Hurley said.

The city medical examiner later that day determined that her blood-alcohol level was .433 – rendering her unable to consent to sexual intercourse. That level is also nearly five times above the legal limit to drive a car. When Williams’ mother returned home, he ran out the back door, and Clemons told her before fleeing that he and Williams had been in the basement lifting weights. Williams’ mother found Johnson unconscious, partly clothed and dangling from the weightlifting bench.

They raped her as she was dying. I keep repeating it because I can’t get it out of my head. I keep repeating it because I want to shout it from the rooftops, because I want to march in the streets, because I want it to wake people up. They raped her as she was dying. They raped her as she was dying.

They raped her as she was dying, and they confessed to it. They plead guilty to rape, to rape, to raping her as she was dying, and the Philadelphia Daily News can’t even bring itself to use the fucking word. They raped her as she was dying, a medical examiner has testified to as much, the men have confessed to as much, the physical evidence proves as much, this girl’s poor mother one of the boys’ mothers finding her body dead and partially clothed tells us as much, and this newspaper finds itself unable — no, unwilling — to say “rape” when describing what they did. They have the gall, instead, to actually print these horrible words:

They put on condoms and took turns having sex with Johnson, who was vomiting and drifting in and out of consciousness.

They find themselves unwilling to give this girl even so much dignity in death as to use words that make sense. Because these words they printed on the page are absolute nonsense. You cannot have sex with someone who is vomiting and drifting in and out of consciousness. You can only rape someone in that state. And yet, here they are, using the word sex. Minimizing.

They can’t even treat this dead girl — a dead girl, who it is probably worth noting in this context, was of color — with enough respect as to not feel the need to slut-shame her with irrelevant details about her life:

Kierra Johnson, 15, lived a turbulent life that ended in a haze of alcohol and sexual violence on the afternoon of March 7, 2008.

Johnson, of East Germantown, gave birth at age 14 and was expelled by the school district to Community Education Partners, a disciplinary school in North Philadelphia, after she was caught having sex on school grounds.

They tell us this information not to let us know that a small child is left without a mother for the rest of her life. They seemingly tell us this to let us know what a wild child she was, and that she was previously sexually active. In what context is a child’s prior sexual activity and disciplinary problems at school relevant to a report about her death, and the boys who raped her as she was dying? What possible purpose could it serve, if you are not just attempting to indicate that maybe she deserved it, if you are not merely intent on devaluing and shaming a girl of color in a way that girls of color are so regularly and specifically devalued, based on her sexuality?

Meanwhile, the media seems to have ignored this brutal, unforgivable crime almost entirely. I certainly don’t recall hearing of Kierra’s death and rape when it occurred 2 years ago, a time when I was already writing about these topics. Google News only pulls up 3 stories from around the time of her death. Now that Clemons has confessed, a total of 4 recent news stories appear.

And to think that I thought we treated rape victims poorly when they were alive.

The thing about this entire story that hits me most, that strikes me right in the gut and makes me feel as though I’m going to be ill isn’t just that Clemons and Williams raped a girl as she was dying. It’s that they raped her as she was dying, when she probably didn’t have to die. If they had cared more about finding her help and getting her medical attention than they cared about fucking raping her, she may have been saved. If they had acted, instead of raping her as she was dying … she not only would have not been raped, as one of the final things to happen to her in her short life. She also might still be alive.

As Kierra’s mother Ernestine Harding said two years ago:

“I just want them to be held accountable for more than a rape. I’m not saying that they actually murdered her, but they played a part in her dying.

They could have gotten help.”

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{ 44 comments }

1 Anji April 28, 2010 at 12:48 pm

I can’t even find the words for how horrific this is. That poor, poor girl. Do we have no respect for the dead, that the media could speak about it so? Did these two young men have not the slightest shred of human decency? It’s enough to make me despair entirely of the whole world. :(

2 Ellie Di April 28, 2010 at 12:56 pm

…wow…just…wow…

3 wiggles April 28, 2010 at 1:14 pm

They didn’t get her help because raping her was the whole reason they fed her all that alcohol in the first place, which they probably rationalized by Johnson’s “turbulent life.”

4 wiggles April 28, 2010 at 1:20 pm

And the people in the comments at that article who are so disgusted and horrified byt this story – if the victim hadn’t died and/or the assailants were white boys, guess what they’d be saying.

5 Politicalguineapig April 28, 2010 at 1:20 pm

Ugh. It’s at the point where I’m thinking of beating up random men on the street. Men need to start facing violent consequences. The justice system and the media have failed women, so it’s time for us to embrace vigilante justice.

6 maevele April 28, 2010 at 2:17 pm

god. i feel sick.

7 AshKW April 28, 2010 at 4:24 pm

I have no words. None. It’s too horrible and sickening and unfair and horrendous and atrocious for me to form coherent thoughts.

Damn you, Philly Daily News. DAMN YOU.

8 Jas April 28, 2010 at 4:52 pm

@wiggles: Plus the one asshole who jumped right into victim-blaming. I think I want to find and strangle that one.
“Not placing blame on the victim but come on. Gives birth at 14. Sent to reform school for having sex on school grounds. Goes with 2 complete strangers she meets at a bus stop, gets drunk with them (probably intended to have sex with at least one of them), to a point where she passes out at 5 times the legal limit. Great parenting all around. At 15, you know right from wrong.”
Come on. I hate that phrase with a fiery passion.

9 Cara April 28, 2010 at 5:01 pm

At 15, you know right from wrong.

At 16 and 17, though, whether it’s right or wrong to rape a girl who’s dying in front of you is clearly a little murky.

10 Jennifer Drew April 28, 2010 at 5:11 pm

Despite the fact rapists Shareef Clemons and Juan Williams confessed to raping and allowing Kierra Johnson to die the white dominated male-centered mainsteam media focuses yet again on the late Ms. Johnson’s personal history, as well as deliberately denying the fact two males planned and carried out an horrific rape of a young woman.

Clearly Ms. Johnson was not considered to be a human being but instead the media infers it was her ‘personal history’ which caused two males to target and subject her to horrific multiple rape. Wrong, wrong and wrong. Accountability lies with Clemons and Williams not with Ms. Johnson’s personal history. But then rape apologism is rife and we must never hold male perpetrators accountable for their crimes even when, on the rare occasions male rapists confess to their crimes.

Even worse because she was a woman of colour this in itself supposedly means she is less human than a white woman. This particular newspaper not only deliberately engaged in denying the fact two males committed multiple rape but also promoted white male supremacy because only white males are considered human, whereas women and girls of colour are way down the white male chain of defining who is and who is not human.

Rant? No this article was reporting the facts – rather than engaging in white male-dominated media hiding and denial concerning the reality of endemic male sexual violence continuing to be committed with impunity against women and girls.

11 Astrid April 28, 2010 at 5:23 pm

I thought this is horrible before I realized all the levels of victim-blaming and slut-shaming this media piece goes into (and yes, I must admit to not having realized it right away). Now, I think this is worse than horrible.

12 Stav April 28, 2010 at 7:18 pm

That was a powerful essay. Not a rant. Just a request for little decency.

I went on the WashPost chat this morning with their National Editor. I asked why in discussing Oklahoma’s new anti-women law, every single media mention just touches on the already vile idea of an ultrasound, but not on the reality that these first trimester ultrasounds are Trans-Vaginal.
The media is playing down that aspects so unthinking consumers will think that it is just gross jelly and cold instruments rubbed on a belly and not what it is: the legislatively enforced penetration of a woman by the goo-covered ultrasound device. Yes it is icky and horrifying to think of that, but that is what the icky and horrifying law demands and the media should not airbrush all that ugliness out!

Oops! Digressed on my own mini-rant. He chose not to answer the question.

13 Femocracy April 28, 2010 at 8:05 pm

This story is appalling on just so many levels. First, the sheer lack of humanity of her two rapists – who could have so easily prevented her death by calling 911 when she passed out and was vomiting – but that would have prevented the window of opportunity they created to rape her!!! Secondly, the media treatment of it – they write this as if it were her fault she drank so much, as if her troubled past meant she was “asking for it” and in doing so, they do everything to take away from the awfulness of the crime and her rapists. Inexcusable.

And frankly, I would feel the same even if her attackers were white boys, and even if she hadn’t died.

14 Kelly H April 28, 2010 at 8:33 pm

I’m speechless in my anger.

15 Kenneth Hill April 28, 2010 at 8:51 pm

“this girl’s poor mother finding her body dead and partially clothed tells us as much, ”

It was Williams’ mother who found Johnson, not her mother.

“When Williams’ mother returned home, he ran out the back door, and Clemons told her before fleeing that he and Williams had been in the basement lifting weights. Williams’ mother found Johnson unconscious, partly clothed and dangling from the weightlifting bench.”

16 Melissa April 28, 2010 at 9:24 pm

I can’t even begin to imagine the thought process that goes into deciding to rape someone rather than save her life.

17 Cara April 28, 2010 at 10:02 pm

You’re right, Kenneth; my misread. The post has been fixed.

18 Lisa Harney April 28, 2010 at 11:23 pm

This is so horrifying and nauseating.

I am so sick of the media. I am so sick of rape apologism. Of even passively refusing to talk about rape, or at least only talking about rape as long as they also get to talk about how women bring rape upon themselves.

I’m sick of men who commit rape and I’m sick of men who pretend like rape is an individual choice and action, and not part of the cultural fabric that excuses and encourages rape.

Cara, your post is excellent.

19 Marilyn April 29, 2010 at 12:31 am

There are no words. None. I cried as I read this; it seemed the only logical response.

I found one article that just printed the facts without all the surrounding bullshit. Also the only one to use “rape” rather than “have sex.”

http://www.timesleader.com/news/ap?articleID=4429907

20 elle April 29, 2010 at 1:44 am

Cara,

This story made me cry. Am still crying. With your permission, I’d like to use it in one of my fall classes. I can e-mail you details if you’d like.

21 Astrid April 29, 2010 at 3:48 am

I can’t even begin to imagine the thought process that goes into deciding to rape someone rather than save her life.

I don’t even *want* to imagine that.

22 Kitty April 29, 2010 at 5:37 am

That’s horrible. That poor girl. Although I think what really gets me is that these sort of stories don’t shock and outrage me nearly as much as they should. I worry I’ve been far to desensitized to such tragedies, and I think that says something really disturbing about our culture.

23 speedbudget April 29, 2010 at 8:54 am

Frankly I’m surprised there is any blame being placed on the perpetrators by the public. Remember the case in California where the girl was passed out drunk and raped with objects found around the house and videotaped? VIDEOTAPED and people still questioned whether she was really passed out and she must have wanted it and…I get sick.

I guess the only time it’s sad a woman is raped is if she dies. What a shame. I wish I had stronger words, but it’s almost like living with PTSD. So used to this shit being piled on women for crimes perpetrated against them that I can’t summon up stronger feelings anymore.

24 Cara April 29, 2010 at 9:01 am

Hi Elle,

Please, certainly, feel free to drop me a note.

25 Rochelle April 29, 2010 at 10:11 am

Thanks for pointing this out. I sent a letter to the editor about the disrespect of neglecting to call it what even the perpetrators are willing to call it – Rape. Sex implies consent and that’s just wildly offensive.

26 jen April 29, 2010 at 12:33 pm

i have no words for this… i am simply horrified… they raped her while she was dying.

27 elizabeth April 29, 2010 at 1:06 pm

The Philadelphia news media is notorious for just…ignoring things like this. I often have to read over stories twice because the general mentality around here is, “Poor people doing bad things to eachother: just another day at the office. Oh hey, BASEBALL.”

I’m disappointed. This is a horrific crime and it’s ignored, and cases like it are being ignored all the time in Philly.

28 megara April 29, 2010 at 3:32 pm

Horrifying.

Below, find the contact information for the writer of the article found at:
http://www.philly.com/dailynews/local/20100427_Ex-schoolmate_admits_raping_teen_who_died_after_booze_binge.html
By MENSAH M. DEAN
Philadelphia Daily News
deanm@phillynews.com 215-854-5949

Also, another article via Google News that called the rape “sex” with contact information below.
http://www.philly.com/inquirer/local/20100427_Teen_agrees_to_plea_deal_after_death_of_classmate.html

Contact staff writer Joseph A. Slobodzian at 215-854-2985 or jslobodzian@phillynews.com.

Great piece, Cara. It’s nice to see the power of a good writer.

29 libberding April 29, 2010 at 3:39 pm

@ Melissa: “I can’t even begin to imagine the thought process that goes into deciding to rape someone rather than save her life.”

I can’t even begin to imagine the thought process that goes into deciding to rape someone. PERIOD.

30 shadowlight April 29, 2010 at 9:55 pm

this is so awful…

but… depressingly I’m no really supprised… which in itself is depressing… I’m not supprisd by how it was reported and I’m nt supprise that people this sick and evil exist…

I remember when I reported my abuse and rape to the police and they turned round and called me a liar, before deciding that I wasn’t lying but that it was all my fault…

But to rape someone as they died… that is the highest level of opputunistic ****iness. The way the news reported it though is not supprising to me at all, I’ve seen far worse and I think i have just cme to expect ignorance and victim blaming in the media and the legal system now…

31 JusticesTiger April 30, 2010 at 12:19 am

@ Wiggles,

You know what I would be saying if she hadn’t have died and those boys were white? IT”S STILL FUCKING AWFUL.

32 wiggles April 30, 2010 at 11:43 am

JusticesTiger – Hooray for basic human decency. If only it was contagious.

33 Maud April 30, 2010 at 12:12 pm

I can’t even begin to imagine the thought process that goes into deciding to rape someone rather than save her life.

I doubt it even occurred to the boys that she was dying. First, because everything was going great as far as they were concerned. They wanted to get her drunk so they could rape her, and that’s what happened. Success. It doesn’t seem like the effect of any of this on her was something they gave any consideration to.

Second, this kind of scenario is treated all the time by lots of people, and certainly in the media, as simply one of “boys will be boys”. Of course they want to “have sex”, so of course they try to get a girl drunk, and if she doesn’t want to “have sex” she shouldn’t get drunk. Simple. The fact that ingesting the amount of alcohol which renders consent impossible is an acute health hazard is not treated as important any more than raping a girl or woman is. She shouldn’t drink that much, or at all, people say, and shrug.

The idea that doing your best to get a disabling, poisonous amount of alcohol into someone’s system so that you can make use of them is itself a kind of assault is never addressed. It’s treated as if there’s nothing really wrong with that, because the girl or woman should just not drink it. But no 15-year-old who drinks has any idea how much they can drink before they’re at medical risk.

I’m not taking any responsibility away from those two boys. What they did was heinous. But as long as so many adults shrug about the idea of boys and men deliberately planning to render a girl or woman insensible so they can rape her, and treat it as though it’s just a mutual party, teenage boys are unlikely to even consider the possibility that, in addition to committing rape, they may be contributing to the death of their victim.

34 SunlessNick April 30, 2010 at 2:37 pm

I doubt it even occurred to the boys that she was dying. … It doesn’t seem like the effect of any of this on her was something they gave any consideration to.

Yeah. They’d have had to consider her as a person at all for her death to cross their minds.

Cara’s asked, several times, what does it take. She was talking about convictions, but I’m asking here for something else: what does it take for the mainstream media to call rape what it is?

35 Andrea S. May 3, 2010 at 7:48 am

In addition to writing the reporter who wrote the story, I suggest also writing to the editor and senior editor. Usually every news story is seen by at least one editor and sometimes two (a junior editor and a senior editor). Even if a reporter writes the “right” thing (such as calling it rape when it is), an editor could still override that. And if a reporter writes the “wrong” thing, then it is the responsibility of the editor(s) to catch it and edit it. The reporter may well be at least partly culpable (though due to the way journalism works, we can’t actually be 100% sure it wasn’t actually the editors who chose that language). But whether or not he was, ultimate responsibility for what actually goes into print always belongs with whoever edited the story.

I’ve never worked at a major daily. But I did use to write articles for a campus newsletter and an alumni magazine at the same university, and most legitimate media outlets work in a similar fashion — an editor assigns reporters to stories, reporters gather the information and draft the story, the editor asks reporter to revise according to his/her instructions, reporter revises, then editor or senior editor makes any final changes needed. A reporter does have a chance, usually, to speak out against any changes he/she disagrees with, but the editor’s decision is final. Don’t assume that the reporter has full responsibility just because their name is the only one that’s actually visible to the public.

36 Fit For A Femme May 3, 2010 at 1:24 pm

I just wrote them, here are some email addresses if it helps to make it easier:

jslobodzian@phillynews.com
deanm@phillynews.com

Andrea, if you have any tips on how to track down the email addresses for any senior or managing editors there, share!

Here’s the letter I’ve written, feel free to c/p:

Good morning -

I’m writing to express my outrage and concern over the fact that your publication has shown great neglect in all four written articles on the story of the rape and death of Kierra Johnson (http://www.philly.com/philly/news/local/92158839.html).

It has been well-established that these two criminals raped Kierra as she was dying.

Sit with that for a moment: They raped her as she was dying.

So when you write, repeatedly, that “Clemons and Williams had sex with Johnson on a weight bench in the basement,” you are misrepresenting FACTS. I cannot say it better than it was said here (http://thecurvature.com/2010/04/28/this-is-not-an-analysis-of-rape-culture-this-is-a-rant/): The fact is that you cannot have sex with someone who is vomiting and drifting in and out of consciousness. You can only rape someone in that state.

And when you introduce irrelevant information about her life, you are dishonoring the victim, her family and her small child, you are – consciously or not – contributing to our society’s reprehensible rape culture as a major news source.

In the future, regardless of race, class, or other irrelevant aspects of a rape or sexual assault, I hope to see that you’ve learned from these mistakes and can grow as a publication to never again write “they had sex with the victim” when what you mean is (and what the truth is) “they raped the victim.”

37 corbis May 3, 2010 at 6:02 pm

If she had been white the paper would have called it rape…

38 rocknrollmd May 5, 2010 at 12:02 pm

I just want to throw this out there, for what it’s worth… for this child… I’m sorry, yes, woman, but so young and so vulnerable, that the word child becomes appropriate… so, for this child, the brutal rape and wrongful death by depraved indifference was the last horrible blow in a lifetime of cruel neglect and abuse. Just about every child with that type of “history” is a survivor of sexual abuse. At the risk of sounding like I’m saying DUH!!! , this was a horribly victimized child, who long before she communicated her willingness to accompany these two miscreants, had been brutalized. May she be in the arms of the angel, far away from here… and God help the men who reported on this tragedy in a way that added a last jolt of posthumous cruelty to the injuries. What a tragedy.

39 Mike Crichton May 5, 2010 at 3:59 pm

corbis wrote:
If she had been white the paper would have called it rape…

Bullshit. White victims get dismissed all the time. Don’t be so quick to assume racism when sexism explains the facts just as well.

40 Cara May 5, 2010 at 5:52 pm

Mike, you’re right that white victims get dismissed all the time. But don’t be so quick to assume sexism when the likely answer is a combination of racism and sexism. A whole lot of instances of oppressive behavior aren’t just based on one prejudice, but on several.

41 Allison May 6, 2010 at 5:46 pm

I completely agree with what people have said here, and understand the outrage, but after working as a journalist for 15 years, I feel the need to explain something. The teenager in question confessed to raping the girl, but when this article was written, he had not been CONVICTED. You can’t call a murderer a murderer in a news story until he or she has been CONVICTED of murder. Same for rape. Otherwise, the paper opens itself up to a litany of legal issues, including libel. I’m not saying it’s right, but that’s how it works. If he is not a convicted rapist, he cannot be called a rapist. I’m just putting this out there. The reporter certainly could have framed this differently, but again, you can’t call a rapist a rapist until he is CONVICTED.

42 Cara May 6, 2010 at 10:50 pm

Allison, as of this article he had pleaded guilty and was awaiting sentencing. He didn’t just confess on the record, but in court and took a deal. My understanding is that this is the same thing as a conviction, though if it’s not, please clarify.

In any case, even if they couldn’t say “he raped her,” they could say “they allegedly raped her.” I’m fine putting the word “alleged” in! The word “alleged” does not bother me at all! So long as the word rape is actually used. Because it still centers the victim’s experience. And it’s my understanding that there is no rule about referring to alleged crimes by their legal names at any point in the proceedings, so long as the word alleged is used.

43 Allison May 7, 2010 at 10:24 am

@Cara:
I’m Canadian so I don’t know if the rules are the same in the U.S. but even if the accused has confessed and is awaiting sentencing, he is still not a convicted rapist. As such, you cannot call him a rapist until a judge has done so. You can, as you said, use the word alleged, which is what I would have done, had I been writing the story. I would have framed the entire thing differently, choosing to lay out the sequence of events as the accused relayed them in his confession. He confessed to rape, and I, as a journalist, would have explained that, explicitly.

All I wanted to point out is that many people assume there is an anti-feminist agenda among journalists. I suppose I take this personally, as I’m a journalist and a feminist and the two most important things to me as I practice my craft are a stimulation of dialogue and accuracy. Unfortunately, at the top of many newsroom hierarchies is a team of white men. As such, tough newsroom decisions involving contentious issues such as this are tackled by men with an outdated view of reporting on sexual violence. I will admit, perhaps the focus on absolute accuracy (calling it sex rather than rape because the accused had not been convicted of rape) actually does more harm than good. I am completely open to a discussion on this, which is why I enjoy writing like yours.

44 Katrina May 27, 2010 at 1:20 pm

The city medical examiner later that day determined that her blood-alcohol level was .433 – rendering her unable to consent to sexual intercourse. That level is also nearly five times above the legal limit to drive a car. When Williams’ mother returned home, he ran out the back door, and Clemons told her before fleeing that he and Williams had been in the basement lifting weights. Williams’ mother found Johnson unconscious, partly clothed and dangling from the weightlifting bench.

This part disturbs me the most. I can’t help but wonder why they told one of the boy’s mother that they were lifting weights. What were they going to do with the girl later? She died even after the mother of one of the boys found her. She certainly would have died without being found. Did they think the girl would just go away once they were done and never bother them again?
I hate when it’s so obvious that the rapist saw a piece or ass instead of a daughter/mother/human.

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