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Do sensational media reports reflect the realities of sexual assault?

In recent months, several high-profile sexual assault cases have been widely covered in the media. These have included particularly brutal assaults in India, as well as sensational cases in North America involving multiple assailants in which images of the assaults have been distributed through social media.

Women’s Health Matters spoke to Dr. Janice Du Mont, a scientist in the Violence and Health Research Program at Women’s College Research Institute, about the implications and potential impact of this type of media coverage.

“There was a sense initially in much of what was written, especially in the Western world, that this was a problem that was confined to developing countries,” Dr. Du Mont says of the coverage of the rape cases in India. “There was little recognition that sexual assault is a very common, insidious human rights and public health issue that affects women all over the world, regardless of geography, socioeconomic status, age or race.”

Dr. Du Mont and her colleague Dr. Deborah White of Trent University recently published an editorial in the Journal of Public Health that discussed the media attention paid to cases such as the gang rapes on buses in India, and incidents such as the sexual assault of a teenager in Steubenville, Ohio. They noted that although they are headline-makers, these types of assaults are relatively rare, and the media coverage may not represent a full depiction of global sexual assault.

“The headlines focused in on these most atrocious cases that were extreme in nature,” Dr. Du Mont says. “Cases that involved a stranger or multiple assailants and that were very brutal – or, in the North American context, centred on humiliating public violations that were further exploited through social media.”

It’s not that those shocking experiences aren’t the reality for some women – clearly they are, and those cases need to be recognized. But the conversation about sexual assault should not begin and end there.

“When you look at the data worldwide, the majority of sexual assaults aren’t like that,” Dr. Du Mont says. Most sexual assaults are committed by a single male assailant, typically by a man known to the victim, including husbands, ex-husbands and common-law partners. “We don’t want those other, more common victimizations totally being eclipsed by these sensationalized cases.”

Typical sexual assaults that do not involve factors such as gang rape, stranger assailants, severe physical injuries or further victimization via social media often do not attract much public attention. Overlooking these stories contributes to the perception that they are less serious, even in the eyes of the victims, who may then be less likely to report such assaults.

Dr. Du Mont and Dr. White also note in their editorial that although most sexual assault victims do not have serious physical injuries, they do frequently experience significant harm, such as sexually transmitted infections, unwanted pregnancy, and psychological symptoms including depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.

“You shouldn’t have to be so brutally raped and murdered for the world to care. These other types of victimizations that are so prevalent and widespread also have a huge detrimental impact on women,” says Dr. Du Mont.

“The point we were trying to make is not that we shouldn’t acknowledge these appalling experiences – of course we should,” she says of the high-profile cases. “But that these other types of sexual assaults that are more common and that occur globally also have serious and devastating consequences.”


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