From Bias and Blame to Balance
Sensitive Style for Covering Sexual Violence
By Karen Yin • June 7, 2017
News stories about sexual violence demand greater sensitivity in their details, portrayals, and narratives than do stories unrelated to trauma. Much has been written about the retraumatization of victims and survivors who, when they come forward, are subjected to blame, suspicion, and dismissal by the healthcare and criminal justice systems supposedly advocating for them.
When misconceptions prevail about what constitutes rape, who can be raped, who rapes, and who can prevent rape, editors can minimize unfair and inaccurate media coverage of sexual assault by flagging biased reporting and words that shift blame to the victim.
Editors can minimize unfair and inaccurate media coverage of sexual assault by flagging biased reporting and words that shift blame to the victim.
Watch out for:
Excluded portrayals. Start by asking why the story is being told. Does it fairly represent women of color, trans people, and bisexual people—the communities disproportionately affected by sexual violence? Does the story break or preserve an existing pattern of unbalanced coverage?
Dehumanizing language. Instead of portraying offenders as monsters and creating a false separation between real rapists and the stereotype, acknowledge that they look and act like everybody else. However, don’t characterize someone accused of sexual violence as a frat boy who made a mistake, a respectable do-gooder, or “the real victim” whose life will be altered by a conviction. Along with trivializing the crime, it erases the victim and the impact of the trauma on their livelihood.
Victim-blaming language. Question irrelevant or gendered descriptions of the victim; being attractive, drunk, flirty, promiscuous, or all of the above doesn’t make the victim deserving of sexual assault. Neither does being a sex worker, being the perpetrator’s spouse, or having a criminal record. Also, beware of overuse or poor use of alleged. Because it casts doubt that a crime took place at all, some writers and editors avoid alleged victim altogether.
Loaded language. Saying the victim admitted or confessed something assumes shame or secrecy. Use said.
It is never appropriate to say that a child engaged in or participated in sex with an adult or to use the term child prostitute.
Passive language. Passive constructions—She was raped—emphasize what’s being done and either omit mention of a perpetrator or tag it on at the end (by her father). Instead, use active voice to assign responsibility: Her father raped her.
Euphemistic language. Choose appropriate words for conveying the severity of the crime, and don’t shy from stark language to describe sexual violence. He forced his penis into her mouth, not She performed oral sex, which suggests that the victim initiated the act voluntarily. Domestic dispute calls to mind a squabble between equals, whereas intimate partner violence involves a primary aggressor and a pattern of aggression. When in doubt, use legal, clinical, or police-report terminology (see Resources below).
Vague or ambiguous language. Be specific without being gratuitous. Readers benefit from comprehending the gravity of the offense. Instead of molested or sexually assaulted, clarify: She forced him to penetrate her.
Pleasurable or consensual language. Don’t make sexual assault sound fun or erotic—it’s not consensual. Rape, not sex. Oral rape, not oral sex. Underwear, not panties. Forcibly touched, not fondled. Because minors can’t legally give consent, it is never appropriate to say that a child engaged in or participated in sex with an adult or to use the term child prostitute.
Entertaining or sensational language. Calling a crime of a sexual nature a scandal or controversy ignores the violence at its core in the interest of clicks and sales. Avoid sensationalizing.
Don’t accuse victims of triggering their own assaults.
Lastly, resist automatically replacing victim with survivor. Some victims don’t survive, and some survivors prefer victim. Reflect their chosen terminology whenever possible, including using pronouns and different names for publication purposes. The through line in reporting rape must be that it can happen to anyone and that rapists are responsible for their actions. Don’t accuse victims of triggering their own assaults.
- Chicago Taskforce on Violence against Girls & Young Women, Reporting on Rape and Sexual Violence [PDF]
- Femifesto, Use the Right Words [PDF]
- Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma
- Minnesota Coalition against Sexual Assault
- Writing about Gender-Based Violence & Title IX: A Guide for Journalists & Editors
- Poynter News University, Reporting on Sexual Violence (free course)
Karen Yin is the founder of Conscious Style Guide, a resource for inclusive, empowering, and respectful language, and AP vs. Chicago, an irreverent language blog for anyone who “gives a dollar sign, ampersand, exclamation point, and pound sign about style.” Winner of the 2017 Robinson Prize for furthering the craft of professional editing, Karen writes the style column for Copyediting and has given presentations on LGBTQ terminology, sexist language, racist language, and androgyny.