As ledes go, Toronto Star columnist Rosie DiManno’s “She lost a womb but gained a penis” is pretty awful; it’s sensationalist, unclear, and laughably insensitive. However, the next sentence, “The Former was being removed surgically – full hysterectomy – while the latter was being shoved into her slack mouth” reveals just how inappropriate the lede is for the story.
Yet as horrible as these sentences are, the story itself is much, much worse: an anesthesiologist, Dr George Doodnaught, is currently standing trial accused of sexually assaulting 20 female patients whilst they were unconscious during surgery in Toronto’s North York General Hospital. The crimes that Dr Doodnaught has been accused of are abhorrent, shocking and inexcusable; oral rape, forcible touching of the breasts and ‘French kissing’ one patient while she was having hip replacement surgery.
Clearly, the story is one of a trusted medical professional abusing their position in order to exploit vulnerable female patients for his own sexual fulfilment, and the failure of North York General Hospital to protect its patients by investigating previous complaints against Dr Doodnaught. However, DiManno’s clumsy wording, which included describing one anonymous witness, known as D.D. as an “…attractive married mom” – are her looks, marital status and children relevant to the case? – Switch the reader’s anger from Dr Doodnaught to DiManno herself, crushing the real horror of the story and creating a different, and much more vitriolic kind of outrage.
Whether DiManno intended to sound ‘edgy’, or dramatic, or she was simply having an ‘off day’ remains to be seen. However, this isn’t her first questionable lede: in a piece published earlier this month on the disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong, DiManno gleefully cried: “Give Lance Armstrong this much: The guy’s got, um, ball.” Jokes about Armstrong’s anatomy and integrity aside, journalists, whether they’re writing a column or a news story, have a responsibility to write objectively, and in the case of writing about sexual assault with care and compassion.
However, as recent articles, such as THAT Julie Burchill article, and the furore surrounding Suzanne Moore have revealed, words have power, they can be simultaneously uplifting, informative, destructive and damaging. Burchill’s dismissal of transsexuals as ‘trannies’ amongst other hateful words and Moore’s angry tweets on transsexuals and feminism serve only to make people angry, and further feel alienated. Whereas DiManno’s over simplified description of oral rape as “…gaining a penis” minimises one woman’s horrific tale of sexual assault. After all, would you ever say to a rape victim, “Hey, don’t worry about it, remember, you weren’t horribly violated, you gained a penis”? No, you wouldn’t, because that’s not what rape is.
Words carry so much weight, they influence and teach the reader. So when DiManno describes oral rape in the way she has, when Burchill dismisses transsexuals as “chicks in dicks clothing”, when a 12-year-old gang rape victim in Texas is described by a defence attorney as a “spider”, “who lured the boys into her web” and when the gang rape of two 12-year-old girls in Reading is described by a “park orgy” and the victims as “schoolgirl Lolitas” then we have a serious problem. Not just in journalism, but also in society in general.
Words move worlds, they have the power to enlighten, destroy and corrupt, and it’s time to face the reality that what we say and write can move people in all the wrong ways.