Sexual Assault and the Media
last updated 13 July 2009

Although sexual assault is currently understood as an act of violence which reflects the unequal power between men and women, many theorists also emphasize cultural and social factors that contribute to a society that condones sexual assault and violence against women. For example, many argue that sexual assault is connected to the desensitization that occurs through the portrayal of violence in the media and popular culture. A study showed that fifty-two men experienced a number of changes after being exposed to one extremely violent film a day for five days. After this exposure, men found the violence less anxiety-provoking and depressing; they evaluated the injury experienced by female victims of sexual assault as less significant; and were less able to emphathize with real victims. Images of masculinity and femininity in the media also encourage the association of masculinity with violence, dominance and power. From: Myriam Miedzian, How Rape is Encouraged in American Boys, in Transforming a Rape Culture 155, 157 (Emilie Buchwald et al. eds., 1993).

Theorists have also argued that the media contributes to the perpetuation of sexual assault because it commodifies women's bodies. One theorists argues that "[w]e live in a culture that rarely discusses sex as anything other than a commodity. . . . Instead, youths, particularly young men, are bombarded by a culture that sexualizes commodities and commodifies women's sexuality." The result of this is twofold:  First, commodification of women's sexuality teaches that sex is something to be consumed and to which men are entitled. Second, because sex is something that can be bought and sold, taking it by force is theft, not a violation. "[P]recisely because men can and do pay for sex, taking it without consent becomes less morally reprehensible than other violent crimes." From: Katharine K. Baker, Once a Rapist? Motivational Evidence and Relevancy in Rape Law, 110 Harv. L. Rev. 563 (1997), excerpts available from the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School.

In 2006, a website entitled Take Back the News was launched to work to raise public awareness about sexual assault, in order to foster greater public dialogue and  greater public responsibility.  The website includes the formation of a Media Response Project, a streamlined system to track and archive media articles regarding rape and to contact editors and reporters regarding concerns on how rape is misrepresented or underrepresented in the media.

The 2008 United Nations expert group meeting on "Good practices in legislation on violence against women" reported that "[t]raining journalists and other media personnel on women's human rights and the root causes of violence against women may influence the way in which the issue is reported and thereby influence societal attitudes." The expert group recommended that legislation encourage the sensitization of media personnel. From:  "Good practices in legislation on violence against women," p. 33. For the Russian version of the recommendations, click here