A recent editorial in the Journal for Public Health calls on the media to do a better job of reporting on sexual violence against women. It says, too often, the media focus on sensational crimes and fail to reveal the full scope of the problem.
Last December, a young woman in India was fatally gang raped. In February, a teenage girl in South Africa was gang raped and mutilated. She also died of her injuries. In March, in India, a Swiss tourist was ganged raped in front of her husband and in April a four year old girl died from injuries after she was raped. These and other horrific sexual assaults received a lot of international media coverage.
The United Nations says hundreds of thousands of cases of male-female rape - or attempted rape - are reported to police every year. But experts believe that figure is far below the actual number of attacks because many go unreported out of fear of stigma or retaliation.
Citing World Bank data, the U.N. says that women – aged 15 to 44 – are “more at risk from rape and domestic violence than from cancer, car accidents, war and malaria.”
Dr. Janice Du Mont, a scientist at the Women’s College Research Institute in Toronto, Canada, and Dr. Deborah White of Trent University wrote an editorial about rape for the Journal of Public Health. It’s titled Sexual violence: what does it take for the world to care about women? Du Mont said that the media do not give an accurate picture of how pervasive the problem is.
“So much of the recent – and I guess past media coverage, as well – of sexual assaults seems so skewed. For example, the Western world – Canada, the United States, et cetera – there’s been this tendency to focus in on cases that occur in other countries, which is problematic. Rape is not just India’s shame. It occurs everywhere, you know, regardless of culture or socio-economic status.”
Du Mont said the media are drawn to particular types of rape cases.
“These are the more shocking cases. So cases in which women are gang raped or raped by more than one assailant, savagely beaten. Or more recently in terms of coverage in the Western world, it’s cases in which women are sexually assaulted while unconscious, or near unconsciousness, and then the assaults photographed and further exploited on social media. You know, these cases are not really representative of the full sort of realities of sexual assault, especially in non-conflict settings,” she said.
It’s much more common, she said, for women to be sexually assaulted by a single male that they know – husbands, boyfriends, other family members, friends, neighbors and acquaintances. These attacks, she says, often occur in private settings. Du Mont says she understands that the media will choose to report what they deem “newsworthy.”
“I guess the point we would like to make is that these other more common forms of sexual assault that may not be deemed newsworthy have a huge toll on the individual and society as a whole. You know, have immediate and lingering effects. They result in a lot of pain and suffering, unwanted pregnancies, sexually transmitted infections. Women may become depressed or anxious, attempt suicide, miss school. There are costs to the medical and mental healthcare system, police and investigative costs. In some jurisdictions, women are forced to marry the assailant or they’re killed in the name of honor.”
Women do not have to be killed or savagely beaten for rapes to take a toll. She said the problem is made worse by ignorance, myths and stigma.
“I think it’s these pervasive negative attitudes and stereotypes about women who are raped and rape, in general. This huge rape mythology that women ask to be raped. They deserve to be raped. Women lie about rape. And we need to challenge those attitudes, but also practices and policies that, first, excuse violence by men and, secondly, that disparage and denigrate women,” she said.
The Journal of Public Health editorial quotes former Canadian journalist Dr. Shannon Sampert of the University of Winnipeg. She said, “Journalists do not operate in a vacuum. They are subjected to the same myths and stereotypes to which the rest of society is exposed.” She added, “Journalists work in an environment that requires that stories are novel, contentious and scandalous.”
In 2011, The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that nearly one in five women surveyed said they had been raped or were victims of attempted rape.
Du Mont said, “We know that sexual assault is really under reported. In Canada, for example, we haven’t had a really good national population-based survey for some time. But we did have one back in 1993 that was replicated in many other different countries globally. And it was found that 39 percent of Canadian women had experienced a sexual assault since age 16. But when they asked these women about reporting those sexual assaults to the police only six percent of those sexual assaults had been reported.”
Du Mont and White write that “it is incumbent upon those…in the field of women’s health to assist journalists in more accurately reflecting the true nature and multitudinous psychological, physical, social and economic costs of all types of sexual violence.”
“It is about exerting power and control over somebody else. It’s not related to sex. It’s related to abuse of power and control,” said Du Mont.
Rape also has become a weapon of war. The U.N. says hundreds of thousands of women in the eastern DRC have been victims of sexual violence. During the 1994 Rwandan genocide, it’s estimated up to 500,000 women may have been raped and up to 50,000 during the Bosnian conflict.