The representation of sexual violence has been subject to critical inquiry in two main ways. One strand of research explores whether scenes of sexual violence (in films, computer games, and pornography magazines) might trigger sexual aggression. This sort of research is often pursued under the umbrella of psychology and criminology. A second strand, more often pursued by communication scholars, focuses more on how the media frame sexual violence as an issue. The aim of this body of work is to explore how the media present the causes of, and solutions to, sexual violence, and examine how this might help to shape public and policy responses. This approach also includes an interest in the everyday representations of sexuality that infuse popular culture and how these might reinforce gender inequalities or romanticize sexual aggression (Ramasubramanian & Oliver 2006).
Research into sexual violence in the media blossomed from the 1970s onwards in the UK and the US alongside the emergence of the women’s liberation movement (WLM). WLM activists fought for recognition of the extent and seriousness of all forms of violence. Although rape is the “signature assault” usually used to represent sexual violence, feminists highlighted a continuum of abuses, including sexual harassment in the workplace, forced sex in marriage, domestic violence, and the sexual exploitation of children within the family. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the WLM fought to challenge the idea that rape was just “a bit of fun,” worked to reform the unsympathetic way in which police treated rape complainants (e.g., the assumption that they must be lying), and questioned the routine use of victims’ sexual histories to discredit them in court. The WLM also campaigned for new legislation in many countries, for example that a man could be charged with raping his wife.
Alongside such efforts, feminist campaigning also had a profound impact on media representations: countering the salacious reporting of attacks as titillation and the promotion of the idea that women enjoy rape. Particular TV programs were also instrumental in raising the profile of incest, for example, as well as prompting debate about the legal status of rape in marriage or the abusive nature of police investigations in rape cases (Cuklanz 1996; Kitzinger 2004a).
Key Findings And Issues
Although there have been major changes in the media representation of sexual violence in many countries since the 1970s and 1980s, more recent research still highlights problems. For example, communication researchers note an element of “moral panic” around the reporting of some forms of violence (such as ritual child sexual abuse). This is combined with a media “fatigue” and a declining interest in the most commonplace forms of sexual assault. Although someone familiar to the victim perpetrates most sexual violence, this is not the impression promoted by the bulk of media reporting (Kitzinger 2004a). In addition, when victims know perpetrators, the perpetrator may be excused or their violence minimized and the victim subtly implicated in her (or his) own victimization (Benedict 1992; Moorti 2002). Indeed, alleged assaults by boyfriends, family members, or others in a position of trust often only seem to attract major headlines through the lens of disbelief. This allows for a new discourse of skepticism to be promulgated. Peak coverage in the UK and the US has focused, for example, on controversies around contested “date rapes” and scandals around allegedly false allegations of child sexual abuse (e.g., intervention “scandals” or “false memory syndrome”; Kitzinger 2004a).
Journalists also often position abusers as “outsiders” via a variety of rhetorical devices. They may portray an assailant as a “beast” or “animal” or use racist stereotypes (tapping into a long history of fear of black men and justification for racist attacks such as lynching; Moorti 2002). Although a white-dominated western feminist movement has often prioritized gender as a category of analysis, critics highlight the inadequacy of a “color-blind” approach, citing the complexity of controversies surrounding sexual harassment/violence accusations against black men such as US boxer Mike Tyson or Clarence Thomas, the nominee for the US Supreme Court (Morrison 1992). It is also important to examine how media reporting may promote homophobic assumptions (e.g., journalists sometimes conflate gay men and pedophiles). Even apparently neutral or expert concepts, such as the word “pedophile,” are potentially problematic. The very fact that there is a special noun for those who sexually abuse children implies that they constitute a breed apart. It also singles out the sexual abuse of children, as if there were no connection between abuse perpetrated against boys and girls and that perpetrated against adults (Kitzinger 2004a). This effort to isolate the sex offender from society fails to address the continuum of abuse or to confront the widespread nature of “mundane,” everyday, sexual violence and the cultural attitudes that support it (Carter 1998; Kitzinger 2004b).
When journalists do connect sexual violence to endemic cultural attitudes, it is usually in considering “sub-” or “foreign” cultures. Coverage of one notorious gang rape in the US, for example, suggested that only the Portuguese-American community held the sort of attitudes that led to such assaults (Moorti 2002). Similarly, reporting about the rape of the Central Park jogger by a group of young black men in 1989 treated “inner-city youth culture” as the problem (Cuklanz 1996). These types of cultural explanations are even more evident in western reporting of sexual violence in “foreign” countries. US news media accounts of the 1991 mass rape case in a Kenyan school, for example, associated the abuse of women with “tribal tradition” and collapsed all Kenyan women into the onedimensional category of “the oppressed” (Hirsch 1994). Sometimes the western media seem happiest focusing on “exotic” violence against women. “Dowry burning,” “honor rapes,” “female genital mutilation,” or the mistreatment of women under “alien” fundamentalist regimes are then treated as evidence of those countries’ backwardness.
How the media frame the problem of sexual violence is vitally important because such framings help to promote certain types of solutions. The tendencies outlined above allow for individualist, law-and-order, and colonialist solutions to be proposed as the only way forward. Concern about the abuse of women can be used to help justify a disproportionate application of the law to certain populations (such as black inner-city youth) or, indeed, intervention against foreign regimes (e.g., in Afghanistan). Framing the problem of sexual violence in the ways outlined above also leads to the responsibility for prevention being often laid at the door of potential victims. Children, we are told, should be closely supervised; young women should be assertive to forestall “misunderstandings” with their boyfriends; and all potential victims should avoid going out alone at night or being sexually provocative. A key theme running through much of this analysis is that media reporting often ignores radical and self-reflective social strategies. Journalists sometimes seem to prefer to sensationalize the details of an individual attack, than reflect on the real patterns of sexual violence. Newspapers seem sometimes to orchestrate outrage about sentencing, or the release of individual convicted sex offenders, rather than looking at the social changes within the dominant culture that are needed to make rape and sexual abuse a thing of the past (Kitzinger 2004a).
Some of the most interesting work in this field (becoming widely accessible via the Internet) is emerging from parts of the world such as Asia. Media research initiatives in diverse countries confirm that many of the characteristics of media representation in the west are echoed across other parts of the world. Such work also brings new perspectives to western approaches. Alongside particular forms of domestic violence (including “honor killings”), other forms of institutionalized violence are highlighted. Issues such as the use of sexual violence in ethnic cleansing and genocide have increasingly gained recognition, as has military sexual slavery and the increasing trade in sex trafficking. Commentators stress the importance of including a gender-sensitive perspective in thinking about disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration, and the importance of linking issues such as trafficking to the breakdown in social structure. The bridge between academic analysis and activism is often very strong. Media monitoring groups challenge bad reporting, as well as providing support and advice to journalists to improve their practices (see www.icescolombo.org/ vaw; Lloyd & Howard 2005). Such work also records the key role the media can play in helping support social justice. This might include the role of a local newspaper in challenging the punishment gang rape meted out to a young woman in Pakistan, the role of radio programming in supporting the reintegration of women stigmatized by their sexual exploitation during a war, or the importance of the national media as a route through which to put the issue of “comfort women”/“military sex slaves” on the national agenda and push for restitution.
There is a need for more work that goes beyond textual analysis to examine, and engage with, how media accounts are produced, and how they impact on the survivors of sexual violence as well as on society as a whole. Studies of progressive examples of mass media reporting could provide insight into the role of the media in social transformation. Important work could also be pursued by examining specific campaigns designed to transform dominant social norms about sexual assault: initiatives ranging from “community caravans” in Trinidad and Tobago to a CD “virtual conference” for judges in India (Drenzin 2006).
Technological changes also present new sites of research. The ways in which sexual violence can be facilitated by the Internet (including “Internet pedophilia” and trafficking) is gaining attention from some communication researchers. Such changes also raise questions about how the Internet might help to challenge sexual violence, creating an avenue for alternative discourses and challenges to the status quo. The Internet also can support international dialogue – a dialogue which helps create new alliances and also raises questions about the cross-cultural representation and definition of sexual violence. Such debates can provide productive new directions for research in a field of inquiry that is constantly evolving in response to social, political, and technological changes.
- Benedict, H. (1992). Virgin or vamp: How the press cover sex crimes. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Carter, C. (1998). When the extraordinary becomes ordinary: Everyday news of sexual violence. In C. Carter, G. Branston, & S. Allan (eds.), News, gender and power. London: Routledge, pp. 219–232.
- Cuklanz, L. (1996). Rape on trial. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.
- Drenzin, J. (2006). Picturing a life free of violence: Media and communications strategies to end violence against women, United Nations Development Fund for Women. At www.unifem.org/ resources, accessed October 12, 2006.
- Hirsch, S. (1994). Interpreting media representations of a “night of madness”: Law and culture in the construction of rape identities. Law and Social Review, 19(4), 1023–1056.
- Kitzinger, J. (2004a). Framing abuse: Media influence and public understandings of sexual violence against children. London: Pluto Press.
- Kitzinger, J. (2004b). Media coverage of sexual violence against women and children. In K. Ross & C. Byerly (eds.), Women and media: International perspectives. Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 13–39.
- Lloyd, F., & Howard, R. (2005). Gender, conflict and journalism: A handbook for South Asia. Paris:
- Moorti, S. (2002). Color of rape: Gender and race in television’s public spheres. New York: State University of New York Press.
- Morrison, T. (ed.) (1992). Race-ing justice, en-gendering power: Essays on Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas and the social construction of reality. New York: Pantheon.
- Ramasubramanian, S., & Oliver, M. B. (2006). Portrayals of sexual violence in popular Hindi films. In C. Carter & C. K. Weaver (eds.), Critical readings: Violence and the media. Maidenhead: Open University Press, pp. 210–225.