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Challenging the media’s narrative on violence against women

By Sian Norris

On Valentine’s Day, 2013, Oscar Pistorius’ girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, was shot in the home they shared. It’s now for the courts to decide if her death was murder or an accident. But one thing was decided within hours, by the Sun newspaper.

Her death was sexy.

The Sun’s front page featured a huge, overbearing image of Reeva Steenkamp in a bikini, pouting at the camera. Their reporting reduced Steenkamp to an object attached to Pistorius. Her name wasn’t included on the paper’s front page. But her body was.

This isn’t the first time the Sun has used sexualised imagery of women’s bodies to illustrate stories about violence against women. A soapstar, discussing a violent assault against her, is illustrated by a bikini shot.

When feminists complained to the Sun about their treatment of Steenkamp, the response was dismissive. She was a model, they explained. She posed in swimwear as part of her job. We responded that they wouldn’t report the death of a hairdresser with an image of him holding hair clippers, a chef in a chef’s hat. If a famous footballer who doubled as an underwear model passed away, would his death be reported with images of him in his pants? She was a model, she was a TV personality, she was an activist, she was a woman, she was a person. The decision to portray her murder in a highly sexualised way was incredibly deliberate.

The mainstream media has a problem when it comes to reporting violence against women and girls that goes beyond sexualisation. When feminist groups submitted their statement to the Leveson Inquiry in 2011, they reported to a frightening degree of a victim-blaming rape culture in the news that permeated the way we talk about violence against women across society.

Some examples.

The Daily Mail calls 12 and 14 year-old rape victims ‘Schoolgirl Lolitas’. They worry that the careers of promising footballers are ruined by the ‘biggest mistake of their lives’. When the rapists were let out of jail after appealing, the Mail reported that they were ‘accused of rape’ when in fact they remained convicted and simply had their sentence reduced.

The Mail again – this time with a Melanie Phillips’ column accusing a woman of ‘crying rape’ after becoming ‘aggrieved about what she voluntarily allowed to happen’. Here’s Richard Littlejohn explaining that ‘there’s a world of difference between a violent sexual assault at the hands of a complete stranger and a subsequently regretted, alcohol induced one-night stand’ (of course there is, one is rape and the other is a one night stand. However his column reports that rapes which happen after drinking with the perpetrator are not real rapes). Then we have Peter Hitchens claiming how ‘all rapes are bad. But some rapes are worse than others. The extension of rape, to cover any situation where a woman says she has been raped, is a huge difficulty for a fair legal system.’

The Mail again, reporting that men found ‘not guilty’ of rape are victims of ‘false accusations’, a serious crime that their accuser has not been found guilty of – just as alleged rapists are innocent until proven guilty, so are their accusers.

Over in the States, the tabloids called Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s alleged victim a ‘prostitute’ and Celia Walden refers to the alleged rape as ‘messy extra curricular activities’ of French politicians, mere ‘pecadilloes’. Across the media it’s called a ‘sex scandal’ as opposed to ‘rape’, as if this is all just a French farce centring around bedroom hopping and not a powerful man allegedly sexual assaulting a woman in his hotel room.

On CNN, a newscaster is concerned at what will happen to the Steubenville rapists who are so upset at the fact that they got caught and convicted. Who cares about the victim, when another promising footballer could see his future career ruined?

On This Morning, Eammon Holmes tells an incredibly brave rape survivor to take a cab home next time.

On BBC Newsnight, a former British ambassador names Julian Assange’s alleged victims in defiance of the law. Sky News accidentally displays the name of Ched Evans’ victim.

A glowing article in the New Statesman celebrating Polanski dismisses the fact that he was found guilty of raping a child, merely referring to it as:

“He also spent a spell in prison and then under house arrest in 2009 and 2010 on historic rape charges dating back to 1977. A thorough documentary, Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, examines the case and its ambiguities.” [my emphasis]

An extensive and informed article from Keir Starmer emphasising how rare false accusations are was turned by BBC Newsbeat into a story about how common false accusations are – as many as 35 prosecutions in 17 months against 5,651 prosecutions for rape (meanwhile, the conviction rate for rape stagnates at 6.5%).

And this is even before we get to the degrading language in ‘lad’s mags’, where Danny Dyer famously advised a man whose girlfriend had left him to cut her face so no one else would want her.

These few examples are a mere drop in the huge ocean of dangerous and influential reporting of violence against women and girls. News articles on false accusations are far more common than reports on rape. When reports on rape occur, they often emphasise a victim-blaming narrative – judging 12 year-old girls for drinking in a park, or a young woman who agreed to go to a hotel with a man.

Women’s behaviour is still central to how the media reports on male violence. In cases where men murder their children, it is generally mentioned in the context of their wife leaving them. This is a covert victim-blaming that suggests if she had only stayed, the children would have lived when, of course, his violent actions are the only thing that caused the deaths of their children.

Media reporting on violence against women has been linked to prejudicial attitudes in jurors towards survivors and victims of rape and domestic abuse. Alison Saunders, Head of the CPS, told the Guardian that ‘myths and stereotypes’ about rape victims may give jurors ‘preconceived ideas’ that could affect their decisions in court. She argued that when victims are ‘demonised in the media you can see how juries would bring their preconceptions to bear’.

It’s not hard to see why. We are fed the message that ‘real rape’ is rare, and that women who have been drinking, have taken drugs, know the perpetrator, have had consensual sex with or kissed the perpetrator before, have willingly ‘gone somewhere’ with the perpetrator, worn a short skirt, been out alone late at night etc. are not really victims. We are fed the message that most rape accusations are false, that they’re something regretful women make up the next morning. We are fed the message that a rape ruins the perpetrator’s lives and the impact on women – emotionally, physically, medically – is silenced. Of course these messages are going to make people think twice. Of course these messages are going to foster a culture of disbelief, of victim blaming, and, eventually, impunity and even sympathy for perpetrators.

So, what can we do?

We need to see responsible, honest and fair reporting of violence against women and girls. This means taking a stand against victim blaming and irresponsible journalism that ignores the facts of the law and instead promotes the idea that there are ‘grey areas’ of rape where women and girls are to be blamed for the violence committed against them.

We need to see honest reporting around false accusations that reflects the truth about the extent of rape in our society.

We need to see a media that respects the realities of women’s lives and that refuses to diminish or mock the impact of rape and sexual assault. We need to stop seeing editorial that sympathises and even celebrates the lives of perpetrators.

We need to see wider coverage of violence against women. All too often abhorrent crimes aren’t considered news simply because they are so common or because we don’t want to recognise it happens here. The Delhi bus gang rape rightly received widespread coverage in the media, but when a girl was gang raped on a Glasgow bus it barely made the news at all.

The way violence against women and girls is talked about in our press is having an impact on women feeling able to report rape, on jurors convicting rape and on judges correctly sentencing rape. The bias in the media portrays women as liars or responsible for the violence committed against them, and leads to survivors and victims blaming themselves.

This is simply not good enough. It needs to change.

Sian Norris is a blogger and author based in Bristol, UK. She writes and talks about feminism and politics on her blog http://sianandcrookedrib.blogspot.co.uk. Her first novel, ‘Greta and Boris: A Daring Rescue,’ was published in 2013. https://twitter.com/sianushka


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The research leading to this website has received funding from the European Union Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013) under grant agreement No. 244147.