THE BLOG

The Media Needs To Stop Reinforcing The Stereotype Of What A Sexual Offender 'Looks Like'

21/09/2016 18:07 | Updated 21 September 2016
Martin Novak via Getty Images

Sexual violence has nothing to do with educational background, career, salary or belief. There is no fitting description of a sexual abuser, other than sexual abuser. Pretending otherwise can cloud our views and even create a dangerous narrative that somehow sexual predators can be profiled because of their profession or what school they went to, and consequently, stopped.

On Wednesday, a number of media outlets reported that an Oxford University student had been arrested for allegedly sexually assaulting a woman and actual bodily harm (ABH). Articles about the arrest carried quotes from a source who described the accused as "brilliant" followed by "shock" over his arrest.

The first two words of one headline described the accused as "highly intelligent", painting a picture of a very smart and educated individual. A degree of respectability is established before the allegations of sexual assault are even revealed to the reader.

Incidentally, we do not know whether the alleged victim in this case is also "highly intelligent". If both are students at Oxford University then it could be a safe assumption to make.

But what today's articles about this arrest show is how we in the media are still reporting outdated and, as some experts have called it, "toxic" stereotypes of sexual assault suspects and alleged victims.

Fay Maxted, CEO of The Survivors Trust, which supports those who have experienced rape and sexual assault, said that the UK is still battling stereotypes that have been in place for decades.

"Reinforcing stereotypes is really unhelpful," Maxted told me.

"I think it continues the general feeling that people have, that perpetrators can be separated out someway from ordinary people, so they couldn't possibly be intelligent or have good jobs."

She adds: "We make it safer for ourselves by pretending the offenders are some kind of breed, and that it's impossible for a normal person to behave in that way."

Rape Crisis estimates about 85,000 women and 12,000 men are raped in England and Wales every year. When a woman is the alleged victim of a rape or sexual assault, what she was wearing and how intoxicated she was are details that often hit headlines.

In contrast, the achievements of the suspect - usually male - are often reported ahead of the alleged crimes.

Earlier this month, convicted sexual offender Brock Turner was released from jail in the United States after serving half of his six-month term. But how did media outlets choose to introduce him? First and foremost Turner was a "Stanford swimmer". That was the most important detail in the eyes of editors in my profession.

This description of Turner did not go unnoticed, with many lambasting the publishers for not immediately identifying Turner as someone who had committed a sexual assault.

Time and time again we in the media build up the suspect - or even convicted criminal - and assassinate the character of the alleged victim.

Katie Russell, spokesperson for Rape Crisis England and Wales, told me that there is a common and widespread problem with the way sexual violence, and indeed sex and gender, are discussed and portrayed in the media in general. Women and girls are so often described primarily according to their looks and presentation, while men's and boys' intellectual abilities or sporting prowess or achievements are foregrounded.

"In stories about alleged sexual violence, focussing on the accused's positive attributes first and foremost can insidiously imply their innocence or mitigation, while disproportionate interest in the complainant's clothes or alcohol intake is used to discredit them or imply their culpability."

Just as there is no 'typical' rapist or sexual offender, there is no 'typical' victim.

It may sell papers and gain more hits but if we in the media don't reassess the language used when reporting on alleged sexual assaults then we will continue to reinforce stereotypes that should have been left in the last century.