The Importance of Media Advocacy: Changing Attitudes about Sexual Assault

I have been thinking a lot about sexual assault since our government’s (unconstitutional) recent efforts to redefine rape. Among the most important people to reach out to when attempting to educate and change attitudes about sexual assault are the ones who work in media. Media clearly shapes our environment, and the lack of sensitivity and understanding that is reflected by the way sexual assault has sometimes been reported is detrimental to societal attitudes and maintains the oppression of victims of sexual assault and women.

While I was an undergraduate at Miami University, I created “A Media Resource Guide to Reporting Sexual Assault” for my honors thesis project. The purpose of this resource is to encourage compassion and sensitivity towards victims when reporting sexual assault. I came upon this idea by reading media resources created by influential committees and social service providers. However, I have not seen nearly enough resources intended for media use.

Why should you care? This is an issue that impacts all of us. When it comes to rape and sexual assault, statistics become arbitrary. Rape and sexual assaults are difficult to quantify because it is estimated that less than 10% of assaults are reported. This means that about 90% of rapes go unreported. The real problem of rape is much greater than any of the statistics indicate.

For example: “Experts estimate that only 10 percent of sexual assaults are brought to the police (U.S. House 1990). Interpolating the above data [16 rapes are attempted and ten women are raped every hour], this means that sexual assault is occurring to 100 women an hour, or once every 36 seconds. Sexual assault is attempted on 160 women an hour, or once every 22.5 seconds” (Madigan, Lee & Gamble, Nancy C. The Second Rape: Society’s Continued Betrayal of the Victim. New York, NY: Lexington Books: An Imprint of Macmillan, Inc., 1991).

University policies on assault and gender inequality only confirm that our community is insufficiently educated on the consequences of sexual assault. Most of us have preconceived ideas about sexual assault without considering the facts. The media is powerful, playing a key role in influencing our beliefs. In many cases it is our main education resource and socialization. This is why change can start with the media. This project was one small step in striving for a long-term change in shaping and reframing education on sexual assault and the dangers of victimization.

Rape is a crime of violence and power. Rape is not sexual. Wait, let me say it again: Rape is not sexual. Given the above information, the particular resource guide that I created is directed specifically towards the victimization of and violence towards women. While I recognize the existence of male victims of sexual assault, I have framed this re- source within the context of an even greater problem: the United States’ accepted culture of violence against women. I believe that it is important to understand as much context as possible surrounding sexual assault within the environment in which it occurs. Due to the immense influence the media has on shaping public opinion, media has the potential to become an important tool for the prevention of sexual violence.

 

What No One Talks About: Myth & Denial

A myth that arises from the denial about sexual violence is perpetuated by how men who rape are described.

In “Stemming the Tide: Countering the Public Narratives or Sexual Violence,” Dr. Helen Moffett writes that: “When faced with actual situations in which the actor cannot be ignored, public discourse resorts to describing rapists as a monster, or some form of psychopath that is ‘out there’ – i.e. not like the rest of us. In most cases, these descriptions are tainted with the worst of racist and classist stereotypes. This process effectively pushes men who rape to the outer edges of society, thus ensuring that they aren’t recognized as one of us.”

This “monster narrative” is not an accurate portrayal of rapists considering that most rapes that occur are acquaintance rapes. This means that the victims know the perpetrator. This perpetrator could be a boyfriend, friend, family member, community figure, neighbor, etc. These people are not typically described as monstrous, or psychopathic and therefore it is difficult for the public to accept these men as potential rapists. These men appear to be “just like the rest of us.”

Moffett continues: “This [“monster narrative”] has enormously problematic consequences for society. If we only accept a certain picture of rapists, then we are greatly constrained as to which rape scenarios we can establish as valid.”

The message from the “monster narrative” is that “normal men don’t rape.” This is a false and dangerous statement.  Furthermore, the “monster narrative” reinforces an “otherness” or an “us vs. them” paradigm. This happens especially when referring to rape as a war crime. Since these are easy images to accept because they do not feel “close to home,” people believe that when rape “really happens” it is perpetrated outside the realm of normal everyday life.

 

Rus Ervin Funk summarizes the myths that Moffett points out in her article– in relation to the “monster narratives”– as such:

• There is no rapist, rape is something bad that happens to women.

• If there is a rapist, he is a monster, a stranger, a brute or a hardened criminal—not like us.

• Rape, when it “really happens” occurs in war or genocidal situations—far away from here.

 

These myths imply:

• Rape is a woman’s problem—it has nothing to do with men.

• Women aren’t raped by someone “respectable” or that they know or like.

• Rape can’t and doesn’t happen in “nice”, safe or secure communities.

 

Funk references the following as other important myths:

• The rapist may be aberrant, but rape itself is a biologically normal act which is only made criminal by the victim’s lack of consent. When rape is described as if it is some kind of sexual pressure that got out of control, undermines the ways rape is about power and control.

• The female body is “rapable” suggesting that rape is not necessarily violent. The vagina is often described and seen as an empty “penis-sized” space – suggesting that it is incomplete aren’t able to ask for it thus fueling the belief in false-reporting.

 

The Guide

If you are interested in more information, my guide and other guides focus on a wide range of issues and tips related to how the mass media can help construct an accurate public view of sexual assault.

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