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What if this is how we reported on sexual violence?

**Trigger alert: The video clip below contains a news story with graphic descriptions and depictions of animal abuse. The blog post itself references the incident in the video, but does not contain the specific details.**

If you had to guess, when we get calls from journalists and reporters to comment on assaults in the media, what would you say are the most common dynamics of those incidents?

Well, spoiler alert: It’s what we might call “stranger assaults”. More specifically, men who are strangers to young adult women, and who assault them on the street.

I have a few theories as to why this makes up the biggest chunk of our media inquiries. For one thing, our name is the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center. The dynamics above are what Whoopi Goldberg and Todd Akin might describe as “rape rape” or “legitimate rape.” We’re a natural next call.

I often joke in trainings (and if you’re ever sitting in one of my trainings and I make this joke, I’d like to ask you to please laugh like you’re hearing it for the first time), that if we were the Boston Area This Thing Happened to Me Awhile Ago and I’m Not Even Sure If I Should Even Be Talking To You But I Think About It A Lot Center, we’d be inundated with contacts from folks who are out there now but, because of our name, aren’t sure if what we have is appropriate for them. (It is.)

The name is one thing, but the proportion of news stories covering situations where a male assailant assaults a female stranger to stories of situations of sexual abuse within families or social groups creates a feedback loop: the more we hear about one kind of assault, the more we come to associate those dynamics with assault generally and the harder it is for us to think about the whole spectrum of things that constitute sexual violence.

And I’ll be honest: one of the most challenging interactions that I have with journalists is being asked to comment on these stories. I have to believe that it’s a frustrating experience for them, as well. I would liken it to wanting to talk to someone about oranges, and calling a place called "The Orange Coalition" to do so. Everything starts off strong, until you realize that one of you is talking about the fruit and one of you is talking about the color, and they are both orange, but...well...

Most of our shared frustration centers on what the focal point of the piece ought to be. In all fairness to the many journalists I've worked with, it's a completely reasonable angle to want to stop something bad from happening by offering information that is useful. Where we usually land first is on whether we at BARCC can comment on safety tips, especially for women.

And, to be sure, there are legions of “tips” that get circulated which contain, often in the same list, advice like: “Pretend to talk on your cell phone so as to give a potential attacker the impression that someone would hear if something happened to you,” and “Never take your cell phone out as it’s a distraction.” Or “Never wear your hair in a pony tail because it can be easily grabbed,” and “Always wear your hair in a pony tail because it conveys assertiveness and athleticism.” Meg Stone, Executive Director of IMPACT Boston, wrote a great piece on safety tips, and why focusing on them makes it a challenge to ever get to sexual violence prevention.

We also get asked a lot to talk about the actions of the person who was assaulted. For example, “What should women watch out for when they’re hailing taxis?” or “What should people know about going running alone?” My response is always  this: the behavior we want to be watching out for is the behavior of the person doing the assault. That is, how do the people around us respond when they see someone hailing a taxi, or going for a run, or walking home?

Let me highlight an example of how I think we could talk about sexual violence. (This is where the trigger alert comes in.) Recently, in the Greater Boston area, police and one of the DA’s offices have been looking for the person who very severely abused a young dog. Law enforcement officials have been clear to articulate the strong links between people who abuse animals and the likelihood that they will subsequently harm more animals or other people.

Fox25 Boston did a story on the case and interviewed Jack Levin, noted criminologist at Northeastern University:

Boston News, Weather, Sports | FOX 25 | MyFoxBoston

Here’s the segment that jumped out at me, at 2:08 in the video:

Megan Mahan (reporter): What should folks look out for if you’re trying to find this person, and what other warning signs might be out there?

Jack Levin: Well, you know, it’s interesting about warning signs, and hopefully we’ll catch this person. But we can also use animal cruelty as a red flag for children who feel powerless and are being treated in a cruel way themselves. This is a red flag that means there are young people who are crying out for help, for assistance. So we ought to get in touch with youngsters who are troubled before they become troublesome to others.

Can you spot the differences between the coverage of this story, and the coverage of so many sexual assaults?

Here’s what didn’t happen: we didn’t talk about safety tips for pet owners, we didn’t talk about the risks to young dogs of playing outside alone, and we didn’t see suggestion that bear suits could make dogs less attractive to abusive humans and by not wearing a bear suit, the dog in some ways invites abuse. In fact, to suggest any of those options begins to sound ridiculous, right?

Here’s what did: All of Mahan’s questions focused on why the behavior of the abuser was unsafe and worrisome, and what kinds of abusive behaviors people should look out for.

And I want to highlight two of Levin’s responses in particular:

First, a dog was the victim here, but the concern is entirely focused on the issues of power, control, and dominance. Second, and perhaps more importantly, he’s stressing that we might not catch this particular individual, and that’s a frightening thing to think about, but it does give us a really critical access point for how to address behavior that’s problematic in others, even if they weren’t involved in this specific incident or haven’t yet done something horrible themselves.

That’s where I’d like to get to with sexual assaults. In the same way that people do not all of a sudden snap and escalate from behaving in completely appropriate and safe ways to grievously and intentionally hurting a dog over a long period of time, people do not snap and escalate from behaving in completely appropriate and safe ways to attacking and sexually assaulting someone on the street or in a home.

We often lose sight of the fact that inappropriate sexual behaviors and assaults are not safe behavior for the person doing those behaviors, either. We owe it to our families and communities to make our best effort to look for and stop those behaviors as soon as possible, before someone is harmed by them, and one of the ways to start doing that are to tell stories of behaviors that are concerning. Hopefully, we can count on journalists to help us with these opportunities.

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Posted by Meg

Meg formerly served BARCC as its coordinator of Community Education and Outreach. Prior to that, she was involved with various aspects of sexual violence prevention, education, and response at Northeastern University and Williams College. Her work focuses on mobilizing communities to prevent sexual violence.

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