Newfoundland and Labrador has one of the highest per capita sexual assault rates in Canada. (Stats Can 2011) One out of three women and girls in will experience sexual violence. This is our reality. Most women live through multiple experiences of sexual violence — at work, at home, at school, on the streets and, yes, out for an evening with friends. Most of us experience violence from the men who are supposed to love us and who are supposed to be safe.
Still, less than 10 per cent of us come forward to report. When we do, we are told it didn’t happen and our experiences are unfounded (see https://tgam.ca/2laKu64) or that we are to blame. The few women who do report and make it to the justice system are vilified on the stage of public opinion.
This is why so many women railed against a newspaper headline “Too drunk to remember.” It’s all too familiar. The women’s behaviour is the main event when sexual violence is discussed. Infuriatingly, this wasn’t the only example, almost every one of our media outlets took up this editorial victim blaming.
On a very rudimentary level, it was a clear example of irresponsible and harmful journalism.
In use the right words: media reporting on sexual violence in Canada, they argue that Mainstream media has the power to shape conversations about violence in our communities. News stories about sexual violence affect the way we think about it. (See http://bit.ly/2lYD4F1)
And, this headline, shaped our conversation alright — and it went something like this:
The victim’s intoxication level is more significant than the fact that a man working as a police officer, sworn to protect her, is charged with sexual assault.
We are angry because our community is now even more dangerous, when it is already so unsafe for so many of us to begin with. We are frustrated that once again we must remind the media that rape isn’t a commodity you get to benefit from, that wrapping up someone’s very real experience of violence into a salacious headline to sell papers is intentionally cruel.
Many felt triggered on a very personal note because of our shared experience of internalizing the message that it was somehow it is our fault because:
• we had a few drinks when we were sexually assaulted and didn’t report.
• we were told we deserved it because of what we were wearing.
• when we did report, the police they said it was unfounded.
• our abuser told us, “we made them do it.”
To exasperate the issue, you chose to double down and respond to the community outcry with a tweet that was ironically more harmful than the headline.
In Canada, The YMCA reports, there are 460,000 sexual assaults in Canada every year. Out of every 1000 sexual assaults: 33 are reported to the police, 29 are recorded as a crime,12 have charges laid, six are prosecuted,three lead to a conviction. 997 assailants walk free. (See http://huff.to/2kCh1n9)
Thank you, anonymous Telegram tweet moderator, but we know all too well how we will be judged in court.
And then, you call on us to defend our position, our outrage, to calmly explain it to you. We don’t want to explain the unexplainable: why this headline — that should never have been written, never mind be allowed to go to press — is so painful. And, the backlash that will inevitably land on us for defending ourselves becomes just another form of abuse we are expected to tolerate.
Let us not forget the young woman at the centre of this. A young woman who thought she would be safe getting a ride home with a police officer, and she wasn’t. Still, she found the courage to come forward, to report, to endure the long, painful and adversarial court system. She takes the stand and bravely tells her story. Then, in the morning, still in the middle of this unbearable ordeal of the court process, wakes up to read the headline in her community paper, on permanent record for evermore. We are furious because she didn’t deserve that. We are furious that sexual violence is a silent epidemic and we are tired of the silence. We are furious that we must spell out that language matters to media, again. So, while we’re at it, here are some pro-tips:
1. Focus on actions of perpetrator, not the behaviour of victim.
New headline “Police officer charged with sexual assault of woman”
2. Do not conflate sex with rape. Rape is not sex. There is no such thing as non-consensual sex.
3. Reporting on sexual violence takes training, context, and yes, journalist ethics. Stop editorializing the violence we experience.
4. Use the right language. Language matters. Here is a guide written by the professionals: http://bit.ly/2lYD4F1
5. Strive to do better, because our lives and safety depend on it.
Executive Director, St. Johns Status of Women Council