Sexual assault in the media

There is no one certain way to be a sexual assault survivor and no perfect narrative when it comes to trauma. Even if it seems like dramatic trauma stories are the only way to spotlight the issue, promoting media-created “celebrity stories” can actually hurt outreach to sexual assault survivors and counter healing.

Positive gains are happening in the movement against sexual violence: unprecedented traction with issues of campus sexual assault, increased notice of topics of domestic sex trafficking, and new levels of awareness for child sexual abuse. This public attention is essential to gaining funding and cohesive national strategy toward ending sexual violence in all its forms. We owe much of the progress we see today to people through the decades who overcame fear and doubt to share their stories and shed a light on the problem.

But there’s also some serious toxicity in the movement, fueled by media attention and public appetites. With a groundswell of survivor stories in the public eye, there’s an undercurrent of sensationalism that defines how those stories are reported and that, unfortunately, shapes how some survivors craft their own narratives for dissemination.

The “survivor narrative” becomes a currency used to buy clicks and views. Stories are used intentionally for emotional impact and to galvanize action beyond statistics. It works. Yet, within this need to raise awareness, survivors become fodder in a media-driven effort to feed a voracious beast craving more tales of shocking ordeals. It is almost as if sexual violence is deemed more serious when the accounts are graphic.

The pressure to report a trauma for popular consumption in the name of “awareness-raising” in turn creates a dangerous scenario: to be heard, the survivor must fit into the mold demanded by the media and the mold is not made for many survivors. No, the mold is for a specific type of survivor, one who is willing to speak publicly, often with a linear narrative of a clear trauma and vilified perpetrator. In reality, many survivors’ narratives rarely fit the confines of memory, much less clear-cut verbiage.

What can happen in the media frenzy is that some survivors in the public eye feel pressured to litter their narratives with small and large embellishments, even lies, as they keep up with the demands. The notorious report from Rolling Stones magazine on the UVA rape case was exactly this type of embellishment. There were truths in the survivor’s story; they just became lost in the elaborations. Another famous case of lying through a “survivor narrative” was that of Somaly Mam. Her partially fabricated tale of sex trafficking was used to further the cause of ending sexual violence against girls in Cambodia. Ironically, both untruths, before exposed, were predictably for the “good of the cause.”

For our part, the majority of activists in the anti-sexual violence movement, we tend to look the other way when we are confronted with dramatized sexual assault stories in the news. We do not confront sensationalism and even untruths out of fear that doing so will discredit the work we do and impact the viability of the movement. In doing so, we forget the people we’re fighting for.

After all, the 1 in 5 is real; the statistics are real; there are real survivors in our offices every day; and we provide real support to suffering people in pursuit of healing and strength. The problem is that our movement lacks the conscientiousness and intentionality required to push back on sensationalism and reject celebrity, whereby dramatic, singular survivor stories are lifted up as true examples of the sexual assault epidemic in the United States.

We do not stand up to the abuse of “survivor narratives.” Instead, we stand by, and in doing so, we betray survivors everywhere.

Polished, explicit narratives are not what the movement is about. Few survivors see themselves or their own stories in magazines or newspapers. Rather, the stories I hear most often from survivors are heart-wrenching struggles in the midst of complex, fuzzy, trauma memory where guilt, shame, and self-blame lie. The truth of sexual violence is that it happens everywhere, everyday, in families, in intimate relationships, among acquaintances and classmates, and the trauma narrative that emerges from assault and abuse is broken and disjointed. Survival is messy.

Yet, sensationalism would have survivors feel their worth as a survivor comes only from having a perfectly consumable trauma tale.

The current mass media narrative disregards the sensitive intricacies of trauma and survival. It is rarely critical, thoughtful, or realistic. It’s often minimizing.

Yes, we’ve fought for the survivor’s story of sexual assault to be seen, heard, valued, and validated in a public way. But is the survivor’s story really being seen, heard, valued, and validated in the current climate? Frenzied dissemination of rape stories is not the type of light the issue needs. We cannot send the movement spinning from one buzzing tale to the next, in the hopes it will transform lives and attitudes. The work, instead, is about caring for trauma in a real way through sensitive and relentless advocacy, allowing survivors to tell their stories as they see fit, and respecting the confusion they feel when they cannot remember their trauma or create a linear narrative. 

Instead of silently endorsing a standard that demands that survivors feed remarkable stories to media, as activists, we must use the very skills we tout as essential to healing and speak up. We must speak up against the defining, confining, sensational “survivor narrative” that hurts survivors of sexual violence every day on the news, on television, and in “docu-dramas.” We must comfort the survivor abandoned by the narrative perpetuated by these fantastic stories. We must remind her that she matters, especially when she doubts herself and her story by comparison. We must insist that there is no one certain way to be a survivor and no perfect narrative.

We must encourage her to speak only as much as she needs to heal, whether that is on a stage or in a quiet room with one close friend, and we can also tell her that it is ok not to speak out. Her life alone is an act of survival. Her life in its daily struggle, hope, confusion and worth is more powerful than the most graphic story a show or newspaper can sell. 

If we sit back and watch this toxicity take over, which demands she look like a media-verified “model” survivor, we will lose this fight for healing and change. This fight being carried out, actually, by millions of people—therapists, social workers, students, and more—across cities, states, and nations worldwide is not about rape stories splashed in a magazine spread and forgotten tomorrow. In fact, this fight exhausts us because it is a tedious trek of decades of long days, nights, and heavy shoulders under client’s tears, not because a quick story makes a splash and ignites a fast-burning fire, as media would have people believe. Telling and selling sensationalist stories is not the key to change, although the media thrives on such instant gratification and temporality. Rather, the key to real change is dedicated recruitment of allies, meticulous effort, and tireless work… for decades. Most importantly, the long-haul fight does not include greeting a survivor at the door with a newspaper and telling her, “This is what a survivor looks like,” especially when we know the dramatic story in the paper is probably not even close to the difficult, slow, confused story she’s about to tell. 

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