It Happened to Her: xoJane Screwed Up Her Disney World Rape Story

I've long hesitated to write much criticism about fellow ladyblogs. It's not a matter of camaraderie or believing that our peers are immune to criticism. It's more like: We're all trying to do our own thing and do it in our own ways, as best we can and, yes, I am aware, it's not like Jezebel is perfect. What's the phrase about throwing stones and blogging in glass houses? Yeah, that.

But. But. This appeared on xoJane:

IT HAPPENED TO ME: I WAS RAPED AT DISNEY WORLD AND NOBODY CARED

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Most media folks can admit we're a jaded bunch; I myself am particularly dead on the inside when it comes to Horrible Thing Is Horrible headlines. But this one sure as hell caught my attention. How could it not? It's an OMFG headline, and OMFG headlines are like internet gold.

xoJane, brainchild of Jane Pratt (whose Sassy had considerable influence over a lot of us here), is very good at what it does — enough so that Jezebel has republished some of their stuff, and I'm happy to let them republish some of our work (the more, the merrier, I say) — but their real bread-and-butter is the It Happened to Me series, which originally started in Sassy. The essays, which seem to be mostly run on submission, can range from hilarious to fascinating to disturbing. Or, in this most recent case, disturbing and upsetting. (This tends to be the case with first-person essays on rape. They are disturbing and upsetting. Because, you know, someone got raped.)

But this particular rape story was disturbing and upsetting not just because it's another awful story about a woman who got raped and the assholes who didn't listen or help or care. It's disturbing and upsetting because of the inaccurate headline. I WAS RAPED AT DISNEY WORLD. If you know that's not true, it suddenly seems pretty gross and cheap, no? Yes.

Of course, this is what happens when the web gets inundated with rape stories and rape news (and Jezebel has definitely contributed to this): It's not enough to just be someone's rape story. No, to get peoples' attention it has to be a CRAZY rape story. It's gotta be a real freak-show rape! Not your average rape!

I'm going to guess that the writer, Dana Wierzbicki, never wrote that headline, not only because editors tend to make the final call on headlines, but also because she was not raped AT Disney World. Wierzbicki was a summer employee at the theme park through the Disney College Program. She was raped after-hours at a co-worker's apartment. She does not say whether or not his apartment was provided by Disney (participants "have the opportunity to request off-site housing," according to the program's website), but whatever the case, the housing most certainly is not in the theme park. Summer employees are not bunking in Cinderella's castle or sleeping in teacups.

And the point of Wierzbicki's essay is not, in fact, that she was raped in the theme park, because — despite what xoJane sets you up to believe with that screaming headline of theirs — that's not what happened. The point is that she was raped by a co-worker and the employee assistance office of a family-driven mega-business, a publicly held juggernaut that raked in $10.55 billion in revenue in the first quarter of 2013, treated a rape victim like total shit.

I finally decided to talk to someone […] I made an appointment to see one of the counselors in Disney’s Employee Assistance Program.

I recounted everything that happened that night while the counselor stayed silent and seemed at least mildly sympathetic. When I told her we had been drinking, her face changed from “concerned” to “you made a mistake.” Still, I told her, I said "no" the entire time and he never listened.

The first thing she said to me was “Well, now you know not to be hanging around boys in the middle of the night. You know what they want.”

Et cetera.

Unfortunately, you know exactly how the rest of this story goes. And that is the story. That is the point. But by making the headline "I WAS RAPED AT DISNEY WORLD," not only does xoJane mislead readers, but it takes one woman's very personal and painful story and turns it into gross link bait. "Tacky" doesn't quite convey the impact of it, but tacky is the word that keeps sticking out in my mind.

I can think of some more accurate headlines that are still pretty grabby and don't, you know, lie.

  • IT HAPPENED TO ME: I WORKED AT DISNEY AND THEY DIDN'T CARE ABOUT MY RAPE
  • IT HAPPENED TO ME: I MET MY RAPIST WORKING AT THE MAGIC KINGDOM, BUT DISNEY DIDN'T CARE
  • IT HAPPENED TO ME: MY DISNEY CO-WORKER RAPED ME AND DISNEY HAD NO FUCKS TO GIVE
  • IT HAPPENED TO ME: A DISNEY WORLD EMPLOYEE RAPED ME, BUT DISNEY THOUGHT I WAS ASKING FOR IT

Maybe you don't find those quite as awful as the idea of being raped in Cinderella's castle, but I think they're still pretty damn awful. They get the job done, as far as headlines go, and they're honest.

To a certain extent, I get this game. We all have to eat; every day is a balance of getting readers and staying in business while still enjoying what we do and not completely losing our souls (or what little is left of them, anyhow — we do our best to hold on to what we've got). Anyone working in media understands the challenge — sometimes torture — of getting the right headline; if you don't grab people's attention, you're more likely to sink than swim. We can be sensationalist, certainly. That's kind of part of the job. And I will be the first to admit that Jezebel doesn't always get it right. Word choice, tone, narrative…it can be hard to nail down. We've made mistakes.

That said: It is one thing to skew a headline wrong or miss the tonal mark, or even leave something up for interpretation. But it is quite another thing to take a woman's rape story and market it as something it isn't for the sake of clicks. I WAS RAPED AT DISNEY WORLD. No room for interpretation there.

Forget not being fair to readers (and it's not); it's incredibly unfair to the woman who came forward — a brave move by any standards — to tell her story. Slapping a seriously salacious — and seriously untrue — headline on it cheapens the whole thing and is an insult to both readers and, more importantly, Wierzbicki herself. She deserved to have her story presented honestly; trust me, it's horrifying enough without having to write a bullshit headline.

Update: A number of commenters have pointed out that Jezebel's own headline — "xoJane Lied and Said She Was Raped at Disney World" — is inaccurate. I agree that it's open to semantic interpretation and have changed it.