Comment | Dear mainstream media, I believe the word you’re looking for is ‘rape’.

Mainstream media reports and commentary continue to shy away from accurate representations of rape and sexual abuse, falling back instead on euphemistic language that implies consent and encourages victim-blaming.

Ideas, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Sunday, November 10, 2013 15:27 - 1 Comment

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[Trigger warning: generally discussion only around use of terminology of rape and sexual abuse, but starred paragraphs briefly discuss an incident of rape.  The link from ‘taxi ads’ leads to an article with a potentially distressing image.]

I am so angry right now. Furious, in fact.  That kind of anger that makes you feel like you’re physically shaking even when your body is still, that makes your hands hot, and your mind feel hectic to the point of being unable to focus on any other thing, your outrage snatching your mind right back to its source every time.

I have just read the Evening Standard’s article on the case of a 23 year old Roma woman being raped by two members of staff at Yarl’s Wood detention centre.  Only they describe the incident as follows:

“Staff sacked over sex with detainee”

“Two staff at a privately-run immigration removal centre for women have been fired for engaging in sexual activity with a detainee.”

“inappropriate sexual behaviour from guards”

An identical report appears on the BBC news website, leading me to wonder who originally made the gross understatement, and who blindly copied it.

Nick Hardwick, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons (in charge of investigating the allegations), does go a step further in his own description:

“two staff had engaged in sexual activity with a female detainee, something that can never be less than abusive given the vulnerability of the detained population”

But Hardwick still holds back from calling it what it clearly is (based on the descriptions given here): rape.

‘Rape’, along with the images it conjures, is an ugly, nasty word.  Uglier and nastier still, though, is the experience of each and every person that experiences it.  Their experience warrants, at the very least, the respect and truth of being accurately labelled and recognised.

Shireen Ahmed (@Footybedsheets) notes the ridiculousness of the media avoiding explicit use of the word ‘rape’ due to potential ‘discomfort’ of readers or viewers – I agree, and cannot begin to fathom a privilege that counts the comfort of a few over the expression of the discomfiting reality of many others.  I acknowledge that media audiences inevitably include a significant percentage of people who have themselves been victims of abuse, and who may therefore be triggered by sight of the word itself; but I guarantee that even more triggering is the dismissal of abuse by describing it in such carelessly understated terms.

How can there be any justification in downplaying this woman’s violation to something that is made to sound more akin to a casual fling, a sexual encounter in which the woman involved had just as much say as the men?  That is, a vulnerable female detainee is presented as having had a choice in the matter of engaging in this act of sex with the two men, staff involved in her detainment, who abused her (abusing their position of power over her at the same time).  Are the Standard and BBC really suggesting that she had any element of consent?  Because that is certainly how their headline and description read.

As @HonestlyAbroad put it:

Screen shot SA tweet

According to the online Oxford dictionary, rape involves ‘forcing another person to have sexual intercourse with the offender against their will’.  I am not quite sure how in any way this case does not fit this definition.  Since reading the reports, I have also come to know that the National Union of Journalism actually has guidelines for writing about violence against women.  As such, it cannot even be argued that the Evening Standard and BBC do not have a clear code of ethics by which they can produce responsible reporting.

This actually goes beyond irresponsible journalism (and, despite both outlets having past form in blatantly subjective and inaccurate reporting, the degree of this is more than a little shocking).  It serves to add to the widespread trend of victim blaming that continues to surround rape and sexual abuse.  Describing this incident as anything but rape downgrades both the offence committed and the abuse experienced by this woman, as well as implicating the woman who was abused.  I can only assume that the thinking behind this (i.e. that there is any element of consent or blame attributable to this woman) is the same that continues to imply and/or state that victims of abuse are in any way complicit in their experiences.

Over the past few years, I have spoken to a number of women who have experienced rape and other forms of sexual abuse.  In so many cases, despite rationally knowing they were not responsible, they still experienced an element of guilt, believing they allowed it to happen, didn’t do enough to prevent it, or did something to ‘ask for it’.

A friend recently told me that, many years ago, she was raped by a former partner.  For years, she lived with the knowledge of what had happened, but with no definition for it. It couldn’t be rape, because they were in a relationship, because they’d had consensual oral sex before, because she didn’t stop it, because she didn’t report it afterwards – and all the other reasons offered to victims of abuse, convincing them they are either exaggerating or to blame for what happened to them, or both.

And yet she continued to be triggered by even just the word ‘rape’, finding herself distressed whenever she came across reports of other victims, but unable to explain to herself why she should be.

In telling me about her experience, my friend wrote:

“You may also want to mention tonic immobility. Like many rape victims I did nothing to stop my rape. I just froze. I only just found out that it’s common and an involuntary reaction. Also I found it hard to piece together the memory the next day – another involuntary thing the body does when it goes into tonic immobility.

…we’d had consensual sexual experiences before and had oral sex, but I’d been clear that I didn’t want to have proper sex and lose my virginity before marriage. So when he raped me with anal sex I didn’t know whether or not it was rape and I didn’t know whether or not I could still call myself a virgin.”

It was only recently that she learnt that happened was actually rape – that the ‘reasons’ for why ‘it couldn’t be’ were false, and that this was its true name.  Despite the horror of the event itself being in no way diminished by this new knowledge, the relief – of finally knowing she had reason to be distressed and that her feelings of being violated were not just in her mind, were not her ‘mis-reading’ the event – has been immense and empowering.

Caitlin Moran’s vile comments about women wearing high heels alerting potential rapists; ‘safety advice’ which basically reads as ‘if you don’t take these precautions, you have given your attacker reason to attack’; judges who attribute a portion of the blame to victims of rape; even taxi ads - these and numerous other examples demonstrate thinking that upholds the implication that rape can ever be even the slightest responsibility of the person raped, rather than completely that of the rapist themselves.  This insidious and harmful trend of victim-blaming is not ok at all, and has got to stop.  Rape Crisis Scotland’s site offers a good example of how rape safety advice should be done.

There is no place whatsoever for diminishing rape, and no justification at all for presenting it as something other than it is is.  The words that we use, the names that we give to things, the descriptions that we make – accuracy is vital in ensuring the truth is presented.  Snappy soundbites and hook bait headlines are no excuse for such a damaging disregard for the actuality of events.

I do not ask that the BBC or the Evening Standard (or any other media outlet) state allegations as anything other than that (unless/until proved).  What I do demand, though, is that rape is always given its proper name, and never presented as anything that could be even remotely mistaken for consensual sex.

Wasi Daniju

Wasi Daniju is a counsellor, photographer, and sometimes blogger.  Her photography has featured in numerous publications including The Occupied Times and Time Out. She tweets at @knox_o.

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