Reporting on sexual assault

Media backgrounder – February 2012

Choice of language

The choice of language used in reporting sexual assault is important.

Language styles or expression can help to change inaccurate ideas about sexual violence and work to counteract misperceptions of sexual violence in the broader community.

Labelling the offender

Labelling certain types of offenders as monsters or sex fiends presents sexual offenders as "out of the ordinary", freakish, compulsive, or predatory deviants. Reporting most often focuses on offences committed by a stranger, adding to the perception that sexual offenders are abnormal.

  • For 8 out of 10 survivors, the perpetrator is someone they know, most often family, friends or partners.
  • They are usually perceived by others - and present themselves - as ordinary, normal men.
  • Projecting a "nice guy" persona is often a key part of an offender's behaviour pattern.
  • It serves to gain the trust of the victim and her community, allows the perpetrator to isolate the victim, and to conceal or deny the offence.

This mode of offending behaviour does not fit with the idea of the monstrous offender, and many victim/survivors are not believed when they disclose their experience.

In some instances the victim/survivor does not immediately recognise their own experience as constituting sexual assault.

Known offenders often use a range of planned and practiced tactics (e.g., isolation and grooming) to gain the trust and access they need, and to avoid getting caught.

For more information on the way that trust is used in sexual offending see Insights into Sexual Assault Perpetration: Giving Voice to Victim/Survivors' Knowledge (AIFS Research report No. 18)

Recommendation

It is preferable to use the terms perpetrator, offender or alleged offender.

Cases of sexual assault with more than one perpetrator should be referred to as multiple perpetrator rape/sexual assault. Avoid using terms like "gang" or "pack" rape, as these obscure the responsibility and choice of each individual perpetrator.

Sexualised language

"Man faces child sex charges dating back 40 years'"

"Women warned of Sydney sex attacks"

Use of sex in place of sexual assault may be a form of shorthand, but it implies that these offences are primarily about sex as opposed to a form of violence where sexualised behaviour is used as the tool to commit a criminal offence.

  • The term sex implies a consensual encounter and does not explicitly identify the perpetrator's behaviour as constituting a form of assault or harmful behaviour.
  • The issue might be compounded when used in headlines, as the reader might only pick up on the word sex without going on to read the full report.

Recommendation

It is preferable to use the terms sexual assault, sexual violence, or other appropriate legal terminology rather than sex.

Normative sexual language

The specific events of a sexual assault can be made to sound normal and acceptable with the use of certain language.

  • Events characterised as part of a normal, consensual sexual interaction obscure the sexual assault for what it is - an assault - and reframe it as a romantic interaction.

Example

The man kidnapped his wife and drove her to a remote location where he made love to her and then strangled her.

  • Terms such as kissed, fondled or caressed give the impression of a loving or mutually enjoyable and consensual encounter. These words downplay the seriousness of the crime.

Example

Saying the offender indecently assaulted the victim/survivor more accurately reflects the actions.

  • Words such as relationship or affair to refer to non-consensual or illegal behaviour (such as child sexual abuse) hide the abusive and problematic nature of these behaviours.
  • Describing actions as being performed by the victim implies that the victim was a willing participant, and obscures the coercive or forced nature of these events.

Example

The victim performed oral sex, compared to the perpetrator forced oral sex. However, explicit sexualised detail should generally be avoided when possible.

Recommendation

Use language that conveys the non-consensual and coercive nature of sexual assault, as this presents a more accurate picture of sexual assault than normalising descriptors.

Passive versus active voice

Journalists often write in active voice. However when reporting on sexual violence there is a tendency to use the passive voice.

This may be to allow the writer to distance themself from the actions of the perpetrator or otherwise disturbing content, to downplay the responsibility and agency of the perpetrator, or as an attempt to produce an unbiased report. The use of passive voice can subtly reproduce misconceptions about sexual assault.

The use of the passive voice in reporting sexual violence:

  • places the victim in the foreground of the story, minimising the role of the perpetrator;
  • may encourage readers to place greater blame on the victim;
  • obscures the actions, choices and responsibility of the perpetrator; and
  • may encourage readers to view the perpetrator as less responsible for an assault and the victim as having received less harm.

Example

An article in The Age demonstrates the use of passive voice in reporting on sexual assault:

A woman has been repeatedly sexually assaulted after being kidnapped from Victoria and driven to New South Wales in the boot of a car. ("Kidnapped, raped and locked in a cupboard: Woman's 600km ordeal", The Age, July 5 2011)

The role of the perpetrator is secondary in the above sentence. An alternative way of phrasing this may be:

A man has been charged after he kidnapped a woman and repeatedly sexually assaulted her.

Recommendation

Whenever possible write in the active voice when reporting on sexual violence.

Sensitive use of details

In striving to disclose essential facts in a sexual assault case, reporting should avoid explicit, sexualised detail.

What constitutes appropriate detail is a question for the journalist's judgment. It might vary depending upon the individual circumstances of a case, and the information available from police or court hearings.

Appropriate details might include:

  • Explicit tactics or behaviours used by the perpetrator leading up to the assault.
  • This may include seemingly benign, normal actions such as purchasing the victim/survivor drinks or attempting to befriend her/him.
  • In hindsight this is often recognised as part of the grooming behaviour.
  • Emphasis should be placed on identifying the behaviour of the perpetrator.
  • Take care to avoid implying that the onus was on the victim/survivor to avoid being sexually assaulted. 
  • Explicit mention of whether the perpetrator was a partner, friend or workmate of the victim/survivor, or is otherwise known to them. 
  • This will avoid perpetuating the stereotype that only deviant, abnormal individuals commit sexual offences, which is a significant barrier to assaults being reported and believed.
  • Include tangible information such as descriptions of the physical appearance of a perpetrator.
  • Provide contact details for sexual assault counselling and support services at the end of all articles reporting on sexual assault.

Inappropriate details might include:

  • A focus on the behaviour of the victim/survivor, such as their clothing, actions preceding and following the attack, or alcohol consumption.
  • By including such information, blame is shifted onto the actions of the victim/survivor, rather than the behaviour of the perpetrator. This can cement misconceptions about sexual assault including that victim/survivors provoke their attacker or contribute to the violence.
  • Explicit detail of the sexual assault that might serve to sexualise or eroticise the assault.
  • An undue emphasis on the physical harm caused to the victim/survivor, reinforcing the idea sexual assault is inherently physically violent. The majority of sexual assault victim/survivors do not sustain extrainjury in the course of their assault.