Madeleine Davies

Of Men and Monsters – how do we report sexual assault?

In Uncategorized on August 1, 2015 at 4:14 pm

SEVEN years ago Winnie M Li was brutally raped by a stranger while hiking in Belfast. Within a few hours, she had the “surreal” experience of hearing herself referred to as a “wee Chinese girl whose life is now ruined” on a local radio talkshow.

Four years after her attacker was jailed, she received a phone call from a journalist informing her that he had breached his probation and was missing. The journalist wanted to know how she felt. “Sex Beast on the Loose” is the most lurid headline she can remember. She couldn’t look at the page that placed their photographs alongside one another.

“I was very coWinnie-at-Paradise-Yardnscious of the fact that they were trying to get an extreme statement from me,” she told the Clear Lines festival on Friday night. “I was asked ‘Is he a monster?’. I do not know this person. I am not going to call someone a monster, because everyone is a human being.”

An American film producer and writer, “fascinated but also repelled” by the telling, by others, of her story, Li has since written a novel – Dark Chapter – based on her experience, and is about to start a PhD at the London School of Economics, researching the impact of digital media on the public discourse about rape. Clear Lines, which she co-founded with Dr Nina Burrowes, a psychologist specialising in the study of sexual abuse, is a way to help other survivors tell their stories in more complex ways that the mainstream media might allow.

The four-day festival includes talks, films, art, theatre and comedy – both Bridget Christie and Josie Long have signed up – and is mostly free to the public. “We want to the replace shame and silence usually associated with this issue, with insight, understanding and community”, the website explains.

I went along on Friday night to hear Li and others discuss how to improve media coverage of sexual assault and abuse. Since joining the Church Times I’ve written regularly about abuse perpetrated within the Church, and with the Goddard Inquiry now underway, it is expected that many more survivors will come forward to tell their stories. What is the media’s role in enabling the telling? When do we get it wrong? How can we get it right?

Burrowes, who works closely with the Crown Prosecution Service and police, admitted that she went through “a long period of throwing newspapers across the room, because what I would read had nothing to do with my world”. What they contained was, in fact, making her world harder. The “lucky lad” narrative which can accompany stories of women having sex with underage boys, for example, is reflected in courts. “It was not just a bit of fun: that young man could be traumatised.”

The biggest of the rape myths that permeate the courts, she believes, is that sex offenders are “monsters”. An idea has taken hold that “we cannot possibly understand them, they are so far removed from us. So if the offender looks nothing like a monster we are perplexed – so we think it must be something the victim did.” A rapist treats another human being like an object, she argued. When the media turns the perpetrator into an object, it gets it wrong.

Her question – “Are we courageous enough to humanise the perpetrators?” – proved difficult for some in the audience.

“A conversation that gives the perpetrator a voice – I worry that that empowers further a person whose crime is about taking power from another human being,” said one woman working in the area of child sexual exploitation. “So many people who commit crimes end up in some way getting what they want: more attention and more power. Many victims and survivors would not have the biggest problem calling the perpetrator a monster.”

Burrowes believes that no alternative exists but to seek to go beyond this language.

“You can try to understand a person without having any compassion for the choices they have made,” she explained. “We need to understand why it happens so we can make it happen less. There is no other way around this. I want the media to start to flesh out that person who is currently just a monster. Not to say that what they have done is not monstrous. That does not mean we are giving them 30 minutes to justify why what they did was okay.”

Asked by a man in the audience – one of just five in a room of women – about whether the current culture deterred men at risk of acting on dangerous fantasies from seeking help, she suggested that the UK was “rubbish” at helping such men. “The ideal person to work with is someone who does not want to offend. Why must that person struggle on their own?”

But we heard too about the closure of clinics supporting survivors. Burrowes reported that some of the best clinicians she knew are spending about half their time fundraising, when “we should be giving them a fat cheque and a big thank you.” She suggested that journalists conduct a Freedom of Information inquiry to find out how much is spent on therapy for perpetrators and contrast it with how much is spent on victims.

Interestingly, she suggested that she often heard the most compassion for perpetrators from victims: “an understanding that this person is ultimately a broken but a human being”. She has found “a lot of sophistication from survivors because they know they have encountered the human at some point.”

Li is a case in point. Her reluctance to call her attacker a “monster” is borne of an awareness that rape is “a very prevalent crime” and that “divisive language is not productive”. Her attack by a stranger in a park is “rare” she suggested and many “less sensational” crimes are not reported at all. Her plea to the media is that it “try to capture the humanity of the people involved”.

Another area of discussion centred on the seeking of informed consent from survivors. It was described by Marcus Ryder, head of BBC Current Affairs Scotland, as “a very grey area”. Were producers seeking permission or simply informing their subject, fearing that “no” might be the answer to a genuine inquiry?

Alison Holt, the BBC’s social affairs correspondent, has reported on sexual abuse many times, including the terrible crimes that took place in Rochester, Oxford and Sheffield.

“I think you have to be really, really careful that the journey is one they want to take,” she said, of seeking consent from survivors. “That person needs to be ready, able, and really want to do it. We try to spell out the possible downside; to be really clear about the pluses and minuses.” It is the survivor’s right, she pointed out, to change their mind. Burrowes suggested that a similar approach should apply to seeking consent in sex: “It’s a journey . . . constantly checking in”.

After one audience member reported that women’s organisations were acting as “gatekeepers” to survivors, and are not always willing to provide access to those that might be willing to tell their stories, Burrowes defended their hesitation.

“I do not think it is a good choice for everybody,” she said. “It can be a good choice when you make it but a terrible choice two years later.”

Radhika Sanghani, who writes for the Daily Telegraph’s Wonder Woman online section, explained that the comments section is turned off when an individual tells a personal story, because it is now inevitable what sort of response will poison the page: “It is going to be misogyny. It will be horrible. It will be rape threats.”

But with the internet comes power, too. Li pointed out that survivors are cutting out the middle man altogether, and telling their stories directly. Over the next two days, at the end of a tunnel in Waterloo, light will be shone on a dark topic through art therapy, talks, comedy, and poetry. I thoroughly recommend you join the conversation.

http://clearlines.org.uk/

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