Research Series 1: Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict 13th March 2020
Sexual violence is an issue that, in recent years, has become the center of attention among advocates, the media, policy makers and the public. Many have argued that attitudes around sexual violence and its prevalence are influenced by norms and values at the individual and societal level.(1) It is generally thought that these norms and values are affected by social agents, such as family, education institutions and mainstream media. The media has the power to shape conversations about gender and violence in communities. When it comes to representation of sexual violence, mainstream media has a major role in affecting the way the audience understands the issue. Examples of problematic media portrayal in this essay show that reinforcement of rape myths and victim blaming, feeds into the continuous practice of violence against women and leads to exclusion and stereotyping of women in the public sphere. Hence, I argue that representation of sexual violence in the media reinforces patriarchal norms, which in turn impact sexual violence against women.
Sexual violence is prevalent throughout the globe, both in conflict and in peacetime. When sexual violence is pervasive in peace time, it continues to be systematic because of state failure to prevent widespread discrimination and violence against women. This is the backdrop against which rape and other forms of gender-based violence in armed conflict must be understood. It is a continuation of the various discriminatory and violent ways that women are treated in times of relative peace.(2) Some themes that appear in the media’s portrayal of sexual violence incidents globally will be explored in this essay, with a focus on media coverage in Egypt. Since the 2011 revolution, Egypt has been under the spotlight when it comes to sexual violence, the work combating sexual violence intensified and more women started to speak out, yet it is still widely socially accepted.
In my time working as the head of Communications at Egyptian NGO, HarassMap, I created campaigns to raise awareness about sexual violence, which enabled me to identify themes that reinforce the normalization of sexual violence in the media. For example, the mainstream media, that had claimed women could avoid mob assaults in Egypt by staying at home, had an impact on reinforcing victim blaming against women who did not follow these “instructions”. Accordingly, my research uses Egypt as a case study and will use content analysis of news to identify themes in the coverage. Some themes that I identify are: sensational coverage, overrepresentation of false allegations, victim blaming, and objectification. Further identifying how biased reporting, rather than nuanced and fact-based reporting, affects the narrative on sexual violence worldwide.
Narratives around Sexual Violence
Public perceptions of sexual violence often come from false views about rape which have become accepted rape myths. Problematic narratives circulated in the press suggest that survivors of sexual violence provoke the harasser through the way they dress or their actions. Reinforcing victim blaming and myths usually extends to specifically focusing on the survivor’s dress, to claim ‘she was asking for it’. These assumptions, reinforced by the media, perpetuates rape myths. These false beliefs (3) are significant, because if newspapers highlight promiscuity or unacceptable behavior of the survivor, it can result in readers perceiving the person inaccurately and blaming the victim.
Reporting on an incident of group sexual harassment in Egypt’s Cairo University, a news website labelled the survivor, a blonde woman, as the “Barbie of Cairo University”. Throughout the news piece, the authors share personal opinions on the way she was dressed. For example, the analysis showed use of sentences, such as “tight clothes, heavy makeup, she masters the art of seducing students on campus”.(4) Adding to this idea Benedict (5) argues that reporters and editors denigrate women survivors with words such as "girl" and "bubbly"; and quote the alleged rapists' defense lawyers, which are relying on the "she was asking for it" line of argument.
Evidently, the media can purposefully narrate stories of sexual violence from certain angles, using negative terms that either appeal to already existing patriarchal norms or reinforce myths that come from patriarchal attitudes, which in turn has an influence on the audience’s perception of the incident, often resulting in blaming the victim.
Often, media depictions of rape are presented in a manner that sensationalizes the crime. The media uses a “soft pornography appeal” by reporting on how the sexual violence happened “in action” with graphic details or footage, which in turn sells more papers or increases traffic to news-websites.(6)
For example, the observation of the coverage of sexual violence on Egyptian online news website “Youm7” showed that the videos focused more on showing footage of incidents of street sexual harassment “in action”, using sensational language as headlines for the videos to attract viewership. For example, one video is titled "Watch Full Sexual Harassment Clip on public bus in Cairo'',(7) which has a soft pornography appeal. It is important to note that this type of video often reaches 5 and 6 million views.
Overrepresentation of false allegations & the perfect victim theory
Another issue regarding the narrative of sexual violence is the overrepresentation of cases involving false allegations and moving the discussion away from reporting about the case objectively, to claiming that survivors are in a relationship with the harasser or rapist beforehand. In their research, Gavey and Gow, analyzed a number of media texts from New Zealand regarding their mentions of supposedly false rape allegations.9 They conclude that these kinds of articles perpetuate the myth that women tend to lie about sexual assault.
A theory that is connected to this type of problematic media narration is “The Perfect Victim Theory” where the media wrongly assumes that a “victim” should be able to readily identify perpetrators, reveal details of the events clearly and in order, or go to the authorities immediately after the assault.(9) If not, the media will consider that her story doesn't add up. This extreme stereotype of victimhood disregards the emotional and mental trauma that comes with rape, which doesn’t guarantee a clear narrative for someone who has experienced it.
The problematic media portrayal presented in this paper shows that reinforcement of rape myths and victim blaming, as well as the sensational coverage of sexual violence, feeds into the continuous practice of violence against women and leads to exclusion of women in the public sphere. The evidence in this essay shows examples of how the narrative and representation of sexual violence in the media can influence and be influenced by patriarchal norms in society.
For this reason, it is important to start a global discussion on the responsibility of the media and the way they report by initiating discussions on sexual violence against women and the importance of reporting on the issue of sexual violence in a nuanced, engaging and fact-based manner. The media should work with feminist organizations in order to ensure consistent portrayals across all media and increase the media’s ability to depict incidents of sexual violence without causing harm to the survivor or reinforcing myths about the crime. This can happen through the involvement of women’s rights organizations working with mainstream media to counter this phenomenon and help them present gender-sensitive content in an engaging and creative way. Examples of this approach include the Toronto-based feminist organization, FemiFesto, that developed guides on ethical reporting of sexual assault for reporters. Additionally, in Egypt, HarassMap NGO works towards ending the social acceptance of sexual violence, delivering trainings for media professionals and media students on reporting and producing documentaries about sexual violence. Further to this, it is paramount that the media adopt an editorial policy that ensures inaccurate portrayals and language that avoids blaming survivors for sexual violence.
Alia is an Egyptian Women Rights & Gender Advocate. She holds a Masters Degree in Gender & Development from Cairo University and has a background in the intersection between Gender and Media. She was previously the communications manager at HarassMap, an award-winning initiative that combats sexual violence. She uses social media to raise awareness about women rights and prior to that, she worked as a reporter and trained media professionals and Media students on gender-sensitive reporting.
Follow Alia on twitter: @aliasoliman
(1) Luthar HK, Luthar VK. A theoretical framework explaining cross-cultural sexual harassment: integrating hofstede and schwartz. J Labor Res. 2007;28(1):169–188.
(2) Jefferson,L. “In War as in Peace: Sexual Violence and Women’s Status “ In: Human Rights Watch world report 2004. Human rights and armed conflict. New York, NY, Human Rights Watch, 2004:325–350.
(3) Worthington, Nancy. “Negotiating News Representations of Rape; Reporting on a College Sexual Assault Scandal.” Media Report to Women 33(2005): 6-13, as cited in Fountain, Amanda (2008). It's All in the Words: Determining the Relationship between Newspaper Portrayal of Rape Victims and Reader Responses. Undergraduate Review, 4, 33-38.
(4) VetoGate NewsWebsite. (2014), “Video: How Cairo University Students were seduced by Barbie”. Retrieved on March 6th 2020 from: https://bit.ly/2PZ3Lqp
(5) Benedict,H.(1992), Virgin or Vamp: How The Press Covers Sex Crimes. By Helen Benedict. New York: Oxford University Press.
(6) Sacks, M., Ackerman, A. R., & Shlosberg, A. (2017). Rape Myths in the Media: A Content Analysis of Local Newspaper Reporting in the United States. Deviant Behavior, 39(9), 1237–1246.
(7) VideoYoum7, “"Watch Full Sexual Harassment Clip on public bus in Cairo",YouTube video, 1:56 minutes, published on December 21,2013,
(8) Gavey, N., & Gow, V. (2001). `Cry Wolf’, Cried the Wolf: Constructing the Issue of False Rape Allegations in New Zealand Media Texts. Feminism & Psychology, 11(3), 341–360.