Reporting on sexual assault

Media backgrounder – February 2012

Misconceptions and stereotypes

There are many misconceptions and misunderstandings about sexual assault and they can appear in subtle ways in media reports.

Some of the most powerful myths of "real rape"

Myth: Perpetrators are strangers.

Reality: Most victim/survivors are sexually assaulted by someone know to them, such as a partner, friend or acquaintance. According to the Personal Safety Survey, in almost 80% of sexual assaults women knew the men who assaulted them.

Myth: It happens in parks, alleyways and other secluded public places.

Reality: Most victim/survivors are sexually assaulted in their home or another private location. Recorded crime data (PDF 5.6 MB) tells us that only 7% of reported sexual assaults took place on public streets.

Myth: A weapon is used.

Reality: According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics only about 2% of sexual assault incidents recorded involve the use of a weapon.

Myth: Additional injuries are sustained. 

Reality: The majority of victim/survivors do not sustain additional physical injuries during the assault. Just over a quarter (28%) of women sustained an injury in their most recent experience of sexual assault according to the ABS Personal Safety Survey.

Media reports

Media reports can be framed in a way that supports, rather than challenges, misconceptions about sexual assault. For example:

Police have issued a warning to women walking home from work in the dark to be vigilant and aware of their surroundings following a string of violent sex attacks in the past month. ("Women warned of Sydney sex attacks", The Daily Telegraph, 26/08/09)

This reinforces a number of misconceptions byassuming that:

  • The behaviour women engage in can either prevent or cause rape or sexual assault ("what was she doing walking by herself in the dark anyway?") rather than being caused solely by the decisions and actions of the perpetrator.
  • Sexual assault is committed in public, by a stranger and in a dark and isolated location. 
  • Women are safe from sexual violence in their homes and in daylight. 
  • Sexual assault is always violent. 
  • Only women are vulnerable. 

There is merit in alerting the general public to any real and immediate threat of sexual assault but this article does not include details of the offender's appearance or tactics used to assault the women.

Therefore, it is unclear exactly who, or what, women should be on the look out for.

Advice like this is unlikely to have any actual impact on the safety of women. It may lead women to be unnecessarily fearful for their safety in public and to hold unrealistic beliefs about the nature of sexual assault.

For further information on misconceptions about sexual assault, see: Myths and Facts (PDF 46 KB)NSW Rape Crisis, What are the Myths and Facts About Sexual Assault? (PDF 64.5 KB) (SE CASA) and Unhelpful Myths About the Sexual Assault and Rape of Men (Living Well).