Correcting Misconceptions About Sexual Violence
I’m writing on behalf of Violence Prevention Grey Bruce – the coordinating committee of agencies and groups working in violence prevention locally – in response to Scott Dunn’s article published in the Owen Sound Sun Times published on February 14th titled “Time Served for ‘Sexual Predator’” which detailed the court proceedings against three local men charged with assaulting a 13-year-old.
Among many details, the article reported that the 13-year-old survivor of the assaults had consented to various sexual activities with one of the men who was in his late twenties at the time. This is impossible. In Canadian law, 13 year olds cannot consent to sexual activity with individuals who are more than two years older than themselves. If an adult engages in sexual activity with an individual younger than 16 in Canada, it is sexual assault. By suggesting that the activities could have been consensual, Mr. Dunn promoted a dangerous misunderstanding of the nature of consent.
True consent is the clear, enthusiastic, ongoing, and sober agreement between individuals of legal age to engage in sexual activity. Anything else is sexual assault which, as Mr. Dunn reported, can have devastating impacts on the lives of survivors.
Unfortunately, reporting in the style of Mr. Dunn’s article often increase the devastation. By reporting graphic details about the assault and including information about the 13-year-old’s previous sexual history and alcohol consumption, Mr. Dunn shifted part of the article’s focus on to the teen survivor and away from the perpetrators. When reports imply that survivors of sexual or physical assault are responsible for the violence they experienced, those reports are said to be victim-blaming. Publishing graphic details of a devastating event not only makes it possible for readers to blame survivors, it also increases the survivors’ shame and vulnerability knowing that intimate and traumatic details about their assaults are now public knowledge. In the aftermath of traumatic experiences survivors of sexual violence often experience self-hate and blame themselves. Media reports like Mr. Dunn’s perpetuate that problem, increasing stigma by spreading misunderstandings about both consent and sexual violence, with the effect of decreasing the safety of all survivors of sexual assault who might fear being blamed if they come forward. Alternatively, reporters can focus on the actions of perpetrators, dedicate more space to explaining why the actions are illegal, and raise public awareness about the surrounding issues.
The media have immense responsibility in shaping our community’s conversations around violence. The way that communities talk about violence influences both what we think and how we feel about it. In turn, our conversations influence survivors’ willingness to reach out for help as well as bystanders’ willingness to intervene when violence happens.
As an organization, Violence Prevention Grey Bruce believes that shifting our community’s conversations about violence is the first step to eliminating violence all together. If we want to reduce sexual violence then we must collectively raise awareness about consent, what it is, what it is not, and when it is impossible. For their part, the media has a responsibility to educate their audiences and improve our collective conversations by reporting on sexual violence more appropriately. We encourage Mr. Dunn and all reporters to draw on reports like “Use The Right Words: Media Reporting on Sexual Violence in Canada” by femifesto – a Toronto-based, organization working to promote consent culture – to develop and refine their journalistic best practices for reporting on sexual violence. If we want to prevent sexual violence then we cannot stop writing and talking about these issues but the language we use and context we give while doing so will determine whether those conversations reduce or amplify the suffering of survivors.
Coordinator of Violence Prevention Grey Bruce