Are media outlets perpetuating sexual assault myths?

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New Brunswick prof feels these crimes are often misrepresented

Colin McPhail
CUP Atlantic Bureau Chief

“Women urged not to walk alone at night.”

That was the sub-headline of an online story published by CBC on Sept. 8, warning citizens of Moncton, N.B., there was a suspect at large in connection with three recent attacks on women.

The article, entitled “Moncton RCMP probe 3 attacks”, offered a police sketch of a male in his early 20s, along with the necessary descriptive information and where the assaults took place. The women were typically grabbed from behind at night and sometimes brought to the ground before managing to escape.

The story aimed to alert residents of the perpetrator, but also to advocate a change of lifestyle for women in the community. Not men. Not children or teenagers. Just women.

This was the lead paragraph: “The RCMP in Moncton is warning women not to walk alone at night after three attacks in the city’s downtown in less than a month.” Codiac Regional RCMP Corporal Dan Roy recommended it himself.

Megan Glenwright, a University of New Brunswick sociology and women’s studies student who volunteers at the UNB Women’s Centre, was incredulous after reading the story.

“I feel like they’re putting the blame on the victim and putting the responsibility in the woman’s hands to not be assaulted, [instead of] putting the blame on who’s assaulting people,” she said.

“It’s the same message presented over and over again. ‘Don’t present yourself in a way that you might be assaulted,’ rather than teaching young men, ‘Hey, you probably shouldn’t assault people.’”

Taking precaution is never a bad idea. However, Chris McCormick, a St. Thomas University criminology professor, said it’s sending the wrong message.

“The subhead should have read, ‘Men are encouraged to not walk alone at night,’ because otherwise they’d be suspected,” he said. “Why put the onus on women when women didn’t do the crime? It’s men that are doing the crime.”

Ninety-eight per cent of attackers are men, according to the Fredericton Sexual Assault Crisis Centre (FSACC). Eighty-two per cent of the victims are women, while 15 per cent are boys under the age of 17.

Advised lifestyle adjustment and sensationalized fear are just two of several sexual assault myths often perpetuated by the media in countless stories of similar nature. At the core of these myths are societal perceptions of the culture surrounding the assaults, most of which are incorrect and propagated by media outlets.

The end result is a habitual fingerpointing at the victim, which, for the most part, creates stigmas around being assaulted and leads to many unreported cases. Victimization surveys conducted by Statistics Canada suggest between one and three and one and four women will be sexually abused in their lifetime, yet McCormick said 94 per cent of sexual assaults are not reported.

Stranger danger

The myths being broadcast from society, and again in the media, rarely depict the true culture behind sexual assaults. For instance, articles similar to the aforementioned case in Moncton draw a profile of a typical assailant – a stranger in the shadows ready to attack.
McCormick said that assumption is false. Over 90 per cent of sexual assaults are committed by someone known to the victim, he said.

Yet, the media lends to the idea that assailants are strange, sinister men.

In Constructing Danger: Emotions and Mis/Representation of Crime in the News, McCormick’s latest book, he studied sexual assault stories in the National Post for a year. He found that over half of the pieces featured a stranger as the perpetrator – about 40 per cent off the actual trend.

“They’re emphasizing that it’s strangers,” he said. “We know that many of these instances happen in private, but the National Post sample said half occurred in public. So, they’re emphasizing public stranger danger.”

After analyzing a similar situation at a Halifax television station, McCormick asked the news editor why the station was focusing on incidents involving stranger attacks. The editor said the station decided a long time ago not to bother with the instances involving acquaintances.

“He just said it was ordinary and not interesting,” McCormick said, astonished.

“It wasn’t simply a happenstancial conclusion, but they made a very decided conclusion to diminish that type of reporting.

“There’s nothing wrong with that if you consider it entertainment. But if you consider it reality reporting, it’s not recording reality.”

Misconceptions

Glenwright powers down her Mac laptop, packs it along with her books into her bag, and cleans off her desk at the UNB Womens’ Centre. She turns off the lights and locks up before making her way out of the UNB Students’ Union Building, which is just about deserted at 8 p.m. on a weeknight. Outside the front doors is Pacey Drive and the vast, ill-lit parking lot also void of life across the street.

She heads toward her car, sometimes needing to travel an extra 200 metres to an auxiliary lot, but her thoughts are far from the paranoid or anxious variety. What’s likely to cross her mind is an upcoming social gathering, the next step in writing her thesis, or maybe what’s for dinner.

They’re normal thoughts from someone with a grip on the current circumstances of sexual assaults. Glenwright said she would be more concerned at a party than walking home alone at night.

“I don’t worry about it,” she said, adding that it’s her prerogative.”The cultural perceptions of it are not really well-versed in the reality of it.”

Lorraine Whalley, executive director of the FSACC, said the cultural perceptions are amplified on university campuses. The combination of sexually-charged young adults and binge drinking creates a setting where assaults can occur nearly every weekend – and some weekdays for that matter.

“The attitude about parties and binge drinking and the idea that women are fair game … I would say at every university there is that culture, and it’s representative of societal culture,” Whalley said.

The problem is, however, the lines can appear to be blurred – especially when alcohol is involved. The cases reported by the media are often violent acts of aggression, lending to the myth that strong visual evidence of an attack is needed in order to be deemed newsworthy, let alone legitimate.

“Sexual assault is always violent,” Whalley said. “Just because someone isn’t being held down and beaten, it’s still a violent crime.”

Preconceived notions of what a sexual assault looks like can affect the manner in which the victim is treated, according to Whalley. Victims have limited resources open to them to begin with in New Brunswick – the FSACC is the only facility of its kind in the province – but uninformed service providers, hospitals, and even police could affect the victim negatively.

“If there are misconceptions that she should be hysterical, she should be really upset, she should be crying, but she isn’t because maybe she’s trying to keep it together or her personality … that could impact the way service providers respond,” Whalley said.

Inequality issues

The FSACC has been responding to the needs of survivors, raising awareness, and operating a 24-hour crisis line since its inception in 1975. Whalley said the now 40-volunteer strong operation receives, on average, more than 100 calls a year from survivors dealing with after effects of an assault. While Whalley said each case is unique, there are commonalities in the aftermath.

The centre supports victims in dealing with how others react to them afterwards, coming forward, fears of continual harassment, and – what is the most infuriating effect, for Whalley – self-blame.

“It’s a cultural thing, with victim blaming,” Glenwright said.

The question, “Was she asking for it?” still seems to be posed in some form. Glenwright said societal norms create the illusion that women put themselves in a position to be assaulted for wearing “slutty” clothes, walking at night, or consuming too much alcohol. However, she noted that studies have revealed there is no correlation between what a woman wears and whether or not she’s going to be assaulted.

“It’s because of inequality, gender inequality that exists in our society,” Whalley said. “When you have people who are generally perceived to be equal, there’s no need to have the feeling of power over [another] or to keep power.”

The standard perceived behaviours define women a certain way, but they also define men a certain way, according to Whalley.

“Girls grow up in a world where from Day 1 we learn, in different ways, that we have to worry about rape, which is very different from how little boys grow up,” she said, adding that it’s not to say boys aren’t assaulted, but generally that’s not what parents worry about.

“The focus was all on women having to adjust their behaviour instead of looking at it community wide,” Whalley explained.

“We don’t tell people to stay off the streets at 12 a.m. because they might get hit by a drunk driver. We say, ‘Don’t drive drunk.’”

Changing the tone

The media is getting it wrong, according to McCormick, when it comes to reporting on the perpetrator, the scene, the aftermath, and even the victim. The survivor stories are often presented in a neutral manner, free of emotion.

“You don’t hear the voices of the victims,” he said.

“In the victimization surveys, we find that victims are angry; they’re really angry. These aren’t dispassionate people, but their experiences become dispassionate accounts.”

While McCormick, Glenwright, and Whalley all agree that the media needs to alter its reporting on sexual assault, Whalley said the change needs to occur on a broader scale.

“True prevention is social change,” she explained. “It’s about having people understand why sexual assaults actually happen, why it occurs, why it keeps occurring, and trying to change those attitudes.”

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