Right-wing media weaponized a sexual assault at a Loudon County, Virginia, high school in order to spread anti-trans disinformation and make trans rights into a wedge issue in Virginia’s gubernatorial election -- despite trans-inclusion having nothing to do with the assault. In particular, Fox News aired 88 segments in just over a three-week period about a student sexually assaulting a classmate in a girls bathroom.
After right-wing outlet The Daily Wire published a story about the assault, which included an interview with the survivor’s father, right-wing media twisted the story into an opportunity to perpetuate the myth that trans-inclusive bathrooms allow predators to attack women. In the October 11 story, the assault survivor’s father asserted that the attacker “is apparently bisexual and occasionally wears dresses.” In addition, he falsely claimed that kids are using the trans-inclusive bathroom policies “as an advantage to get into the bathrooms.”
On October 25, The Washington Post reported that the teenage survivor testified that she knew the assailant and planned to meet him in the bathroom when he assaulted her. This is unfortunately part of a broader trend in which the majority of sexual assaults are committed by someone the victim knows. As Katelyn Burns noted in an October 30 MSNBC op-ed, “the facts of the case don’t match up with the trans stranger danger happening” that Republicans and their right-wing media allies “have painted it to be”:
But the facts of the case don’t match up with the trans stranger danger happening that they have painted it to be. The sexual assaulter didn’t lie secretly in wait for his victim to unknowingly enter the stall next to him. Instead the meetup was arranged beforehand. The attacker and victim had had sex in the same bathroom before. This time, however, the girl said no, and the boy didn’t stop. The crime is no less awful, and should be outright condemned. But it was not the attack facilitated by a trans-friendly bathroom policy as conservatives claimed it was.
Loudoun County Public Schools superintendent Dr. Scott Ziegler admitted that the board failed to provide students with a safe environment following the assault. According to The Washington Post, the attacker “was transferred to another high school, enabling that student to commit a second assault.”
Fox News has aired 88 segments discussing the sexual assault since October 11
From October 11, the day of the Daily Wire’s published interview with the survivor’s father, through November 4, Fox News aired 88 segments that discussed the assault.
Key findings include:
- Fox’s so-called “straight news” programs aired 33 segments about the assault, accounting for over one-third of the total segments. The remaining 55 segments were from its opinion programs.
- Fox & Friends and its weekend counterparts as well as Fox & Friends First, the network’s weekday early morning show, together aired the most segments (26) about the assault. The Ingraham Angle and Fox News Live aired the second-most segments (7 each), followed by America Reports With John Roberts & Sandra Smith (6 segments). Tucker Carlson Tonight aired 4 segments on the topic.
- On October 26, one day after a Loudoun County juvenile court judge “found sufficient evidence” that the “teen sexually assaulted a classmate in the girls’ bathroom,” coverage of the story peaked, with Fox airing 10 segments on the subject. The second-most segments per day occurred on October 13, two days after the Daily Wire report was published, and October 27, two days after the judge’s verdict. Fox aired nine segments on the topic each day.
- Fox hosts and guests repeatedly tried to use the story to bolster the debunked bathroom predator myth. In one segment, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) claimed, “Maybe [Attorney General] Merrick Garland's Department of Justice should be looking into Loudoun County School Board superintendent who can't protect young girls from being raped by boys pretending to be girls." In another, Fox News host Jesse Waters called the incident a “transgender bathroom rape cover-up.”
- Fox hosts also incorrectly claimed that the district’s trans-inclusive bathroom policy allowed the teen to sexually assault another student. On October 21, Fox host Will Cain asserted that the father of the survivor “wanted accountability from the school board after their transgender policies led to his teenage daughter being allegedly raped in the school bathroom by a man in a skirt.”
Right-wing pundits used the story to bolster their fearmongering that trans-inclusive policies pose a threat to women’s safety
Outside of Fox, other right-wing media figures twisted the assault into an opportunity to advance anti-trans rhetoric:
- On November 3, Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk commented on the case, asserting that “everyone's a Democrat till your daughter gets raped by some trans person in the restroom.”
- The Daily Wire’s Michael Knowles claimed that the Virginia election “came down to one issue: education” and that the Loudoun County assault and the astroturfed frenzy against critical race theory supposedly being taught in schools were two of the biggest aspects of education that impacted the gubernatorial race.
- One America News Network host Kara McKinney falsely asserted that “sexual predators now have a loophole to both get into female-only spaces and to minimize their punishment if caught.”
- In an online piece, Breitbart editor John Nolte said, “The entire goal here is obvious. The school wanted to cover up a horrific rape claim long enough to make it legal for sexual predators and mentally ill transsexuals to enter your daughter’s bathroom and locker rooms.”
Right-wing media’s distortion of the sexual assault case demonstrates just how low they will go to demonize trans people for political gain
Once again, right-wing media distorted the details of a story to elevate anti-trans messaging into a national frenzy with wide-ranging implications. In reality, the sexual assault in Loudoun County is a deeply tragic story of interpersonal violence that is being unfairly wielded as a cudgel against trans equality -- despite it having no relationship to or national implications regarding trans inclusion.
Notably, as Katelyn Burns highlighted in her MSNBC op-ed, Youngkin’s win marks “the first time a conservative candidate has been able to leverage trans panic into an Election Day win.” It could be expected that conservatives will interpret Youngkin’s campaign victory as a reason to double down on using anti-trans messaging as a political wedge issue -- particularly ahead of the 2022 midterms.
Burns detailed this dynamic ahead of the election, noting that “ultimately, a Youngkin win would be a complete disaster for trans people both in Virginia and nationally. It would signal open season on trans rights going into perhaps the most important midterm election in U.S. history.”
Media Matters searched transcripts in the SnapStream video database for all original programming on Fox News Channel for any of the terms “Loudoun,” “Virginia,” “VA,” “Daily Wire,” “school,” or “bathroom” or any variation of the term “trans” within close proximity of any of the terms “assault,” “rape,” or “predator” from October 11 through November 4, 2021.
We included segments, which we defined as instances when the assault was the stated topic of discussion or when we found significant discussion about the assault. We defined significant discussion as instances when two or more speakers in a multitopic segment discussed the assault with one another. We did not include mentions, which we defined as instances when a single speaker mentioned the assault without another speaker engaging with the comment, or teasers, which we defined as instances when the anchor or host promoted a segment about the assault scheduled to air later in the broadcast.
We split Fox programs into “news” and “opinion” sides. We defined “news” programs as those with anchors, such as Bret Baier or Shannon Bream, while we defined “opinion” programs as those with hosts, such as Tucker Carlson or Laura Ingraham, at the helm. We used the designations from each anchor or host’s author page on FoxNews.com. We also considered the format of the program; we defined those using a panel format, such as Outnumbered and The Five, as opinion programs.