home Features #FixedIt: The Representation of Sexual Violence in the Media

#FixedIt: The Representation of Sexual Violence in the Media

Elisha Carey, Features Editor

“Every time a headline goes like this, it’s letting the perpetrator off the hook,” Mary Crilly tells me over Zoom on a grey Wednesday afternoon. We’re chatting about the headlines this past week. All the major news outlets are covering Albaraa Turkistani, a Dublin man who was caught with 272 images and 159 videos of children and babies being “molested, raped and sexually assaulted” by men. The headlines use the term ‘child porn’ but Mary and the community behind the #FixedIt campaign will tell you there’s no such thing. “We need to call it what it is” Mary says, “it’s images of children being raped and abused and when we minimise it to something like child porn it doesn’t capture what it really is.” Such terms can casualize the effect of what’s really going on, they fuel the myths surrounding sexual crimes, that men can’t control themselves or that survivors of these crimes can prevent their own sexual assaults by behaving a certain way, and they’re wrong. We have to pause our chat three or four times because the phone is ringing off the hook, “lots of people think that sexual violence has stopped over Covid” she says, “it hasn’t.”

Mary is something of a Cork icon. Essentially everyone in UCC will recognise her as a friendly face who frequents FemSoc and LawSoc events. She founded the Cork Sexual Violence Centre, formerly the Rape Crisis Centre, in 1983 and has been working tirelessly since then to “keep the conversation going” around sexual violence. She takes time out of her busy day to meet with me over Zoom to discuss the Sexual Violence Centre’s #FixedIt campaign. Originally set up in Australia by feminist and journalist Jane Gilmore, the campaign takes inappropriate or incorrect headlines and “fixes” them, tagging the news source to ensure that they see the new headline and take action. 

To Mary, the Sexual Violence Centre’s involvement in the campaign is all about “challenging victim-blaming and the way women are treated in the media.” She draws my attention to a story reported last summer in the newspapers where a fifteen-year-old girl was raped in a Dublin hotel room by a group of much older men. The headlines referred to the child as ‘coked out of it’ and that she had ‘had sex with men in hotels for drugs and alcohol,’ but were silent “about five adult men putting their hands in their pockets, giving her drugs and then raping her” Mary exclaims, “it was all about her seducing these men.”  

The danger of framing headlines in this way is that it allows blame to subtly slide from the perpetrator to the survivor, sparking familiar victim-blaming conversations and questions like, ‘what was she doing there?’ or ‘why was she using drugs?’ instead of, ‘why were five older men in a hotel room raping a child?’ The Irish Times, one of the papers involved, removed their offending headline and apologised after pressure was applied by Mary and the #FixedIt community. 

We chat about the different ways rapists are portrayed in the media. There seems to be a spectrum from ‘baby-faced’ and ‘sobbing in Court’ to ‘monsters’ and ‘beasts’ with the latter featuring most heavily in tabloids and the former in our more well-known broadsheets. 

“I think they’re both wrong,” Mary says, adding that, “these men are neither beast nor monster; they are part of a community, they are normal men, they are usually married with a couple kids.” 

A common sexual violence myth is that “real rape” involves extreme violence by a stranger in the dark, when in reality,  these are ordinary men who commit these crimes and, as we know, the vast majority of women who are raped or sexually assaulted know their attacker. According to Women’s Aid, only about 10% of rapes are committed by men unknown to the victim. As well as the terms ‘monsters’ and ‘beasts’, the media often uses animalistic terms to describe rapists like ‘pounced’ or ‘prowled.’ When rape is sensationalised this way in the media, it has the effect of reducing the perpetrator into an “other,” creating distance between “normal men” and “monsters” when in reality, there is none. 

On the flipside then, media outlets may decide they want to evoke sympathy for the perpetrator, they’ll do this by mentioning the fact that he was ‘crying’ or ‘sobbing’ during sentencing or that he suffers from a mental illness. This is an attempt to draw attention away from the victim, by making the perpetrator into a victim himself and it only serves to undermine the seriousness of his offence. Another common sexual violence myth is that men who abuse women are mentally unwell, yet there is no research to support this, “there’s so many men in this world struggling with their mental health and they’re not going out raping people and abusing people” Mary adds. 

Another recent headline uses the phrase ‘pub groper.’ “Groping” Mary says, “is a very minimum kind of term.” This kind of language takes away from the gravity of sexual assault. Our conversation moves to the topic of the different behaviours we have come to normalise in Irish society, being afraid to walk alone at night, sexual assault in pubs and clubs or inappropriate name calling. Mary explains that lots of the women she speaks to didn’t think that what had happened to them was worth reporting because “sure it happens all the time.” 

“I’d love a society where we could look at sexual violence and be shocked” Mary says, “the behaviour that we tolerate from young men needs to change.” The media have a significant role to play in the normalising of these crimes, ‘groping’ is sexual assault, ‘child porn’ is imagery of child sexual abuse, and a fifteen-year-old cannot ‘have sex’ with adult men, this is an impossibility, you have to be 17 to consent to sex in Ireland, we must call it what it is: rape. 

Mary recalls how the issue of misogynistic reporting in Irish media was thrust into the spotlight in 2016, following the murder of Clodagh Hawe and her three children by her husband, Alan. News outlets across the country featured headlines referring to Alan’s sporting career and his job as a teacher, calling him ‘the perfect husband’, ‘a real gentleman’ and ‘a pillar of the community.’

“He couldn’t have been that great” Mary says, almost rolling her eyes, “he murdered his own wife and children.” The papers were plastered with pictures of Alan, with Clodagh being referred to as “the murderer’s wife,” only relevant insofar as she related to the man who killed her. Clodagh had been reduced to a footnote in the story of her own murder. A campaign unfolded under the hashtag #HerNameWasClodagh and in response, Women’s Aid Northern Ireland released guidelines for journalists covering domestic and sexual violence. The organisation says that articles covering domestic homicide can lose the voice of the victim where they obscure the cause of the murder by not framing it “as a consequence of an abusive or controlling partner” but “as a good person who snapped or was suffering from mental illness.” The guidelines include: calling out domestic abuse instead of writing it off as an “isolated incident”, avoiding looking for comments from neighbours or colleagues of the perpetrator, refraining from using graphic or offensive images or family photographs that include the perpetrator,  being respectful of intersectionality, and signposting to local domestic abuse services at the end of an article.

Before we say goodbye, Mary and I have a brief moment to chat about how the inappropriate reporting of sexual crimes fits into a wider framework of poor treatment of women in the media in general. Women have always been held to a different standard than men. Recent years have seen Britney Spears, Caroline Flack and Meghan Markle ruthlessly picked apart in the press, with devastating consequences. The media doesn’t like to see women in charge of their own stories, but they have proven that they cannot be trusted to write them for us.

 “We have to stop the acceptance” Mary says, of sexual violence myths, the news outlets perpetuating them and the wider culture they are a part of.  #FixedIt allows us to take back control over the narrative surrounding sexual violence, to hold perpetrators accountable and to make the world a safer place for women and girls. Changing the headlines changes the conversations and changing the conversations changes the laws. It’s all within reach.

 Get involved at https://twitter.com/FixeditI 

You can freephone the Cork Sexual Violence Centre on 1800 496 496 or send them a text at 087 153 3393