How the media & justice system re-traumatize sexual assault survivors
Their irresponsibility continues to fuel the issues behind sexual assault, bringing forth the language and tactics used to silence survivors
Editor’s Note: This Sexual Health and Awareness month, we will be exploring related issues at BYP, and we are interested in publishing works that address these topics. What does sexual health look like outside of cishetero norms? Where does the #MeToo movement go from here? What can we do to better support survivors, including survivors of childhood sexual violence?
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By Amber D. Dodd
In 2017, I was outraged when reading about how the Austin Police Department ignored rape cases so much that their backlogged rape kits grew mold. But when I took a moment to let reality settle in, my outrage immediately simmered down, because America’s ability to turn the other cheek toward one of the most heinous acts in mankind is not out of the ordinary.
The #MeToo Movement, which, according to the website of organization it is named after, holds a mission to “reframe and expand the global conversation around sexual violence to speak to the needs of a broader spectrum of survivors.” Their work helped assault survivors maintain credibility across the world and spread like wildfire the same year the APD news broke. And the rape kits growing mold, months before the #MeToo Movement took off, was just another example of how America lazily deals with sexual assault with no intent to make a healing space for survivors.
The APD’s neglect in 2017 is taught, nurtured and manifested throughout America’s overall carelessness around sexual assault. How the American justice system and media frame and interact with sexual assault remains a reckless and endangering act against survivors, blocking the healing necessary to move past traumatic events.
According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, out of the 1,000 reported sexual assault cases that occurred from 2013-2017, only 230 were reported, 46 lead to arrest and just five become felony convictions.
The biggest hypocrisy of maintaining American truth for its people is at the hands of those who run it. President Donald Trump has been accused of sexual assault by 17 women. ABC journalist Meghan Keanally compiled a list of all his public accusers from his most recent, E. Jean Carroll, who spoke up in May 2019, to Jill Harth who filed a sexual assault lawsuit against President Trump which Keanally reported ended in a cash settlement in an unmarked time.
In a press conference on June 25, 2019, President Trump dismissed Carroll’s accusations by saying she wasn’t his “type,” which the media called out for its “clapback” undertone more than they did that it was disgusting example of America’s tarnished helm.
Just like the liberal media cited Trump’s as inciting dangerous hate crimes like those of Patrick Wood Crusius, who published an eerily similar manifesto using President Trump’s anti-Hispanic language before the El Paso shooting on August 3 2019 that took 22 lives, President Trump’s actions and language toward sexual assault survivors is just as endangering. But his reckless approach to sexual assault is just a reflection of the American approach toward the topic, and it trickles into some of the most vulnerable spaces.
College campuses are breeding grounds for sexual assault. Female students are three times more likely to be assaulted than the average woman. College predators understand the lack of care and justice they’ll never face. Rape and sexual assault accusations actually vilify the survivors more than its culprits, and the social reprimands of sexual assault are usually dumped onto survivors. Survivors are the ones who have to drop out of school or live on campuses where their PTSD is heightened and victim blaming haunts them. And instead of protecting them, many abusers never receive any consequences from their schools.
American media is reckless with its treatment of sexual assault. News stories often describe a case at hand without warning, which could potentially bring survivors back to their damaging moments, erasing meaningful work they’ve done to pick themselves up after their incidents. Some of these reminders were sprinkled throughout the Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing, when Christina Blasey Ford testified against his Supreme Court nomination.
Classic victim blaming language dressed as interrogation, such as Texas GOP Senator John Cornyn’s “memory gap” disparaging comments, to South Carolina senator Lindsay Graham’s polygraph comment, spewed out regularly. The Hill’s opinion writer Lisa Boothe dismissed Ford’s testimony as “he said, she said,” though Ford vividly remembered Kavanaugh groping her at a preparatory high school party. The New York Times’ Opinion Twitter page also posted a poll which read, “Christine Blasey Ford is testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee today. Do you find her testimony credible?” inviting hateful attacks against Ford’s testimony before it even began. (The Columbia Journalism Review compiled an entire list of media bullying tactics from huge news outlets throughout the incident.)
The irresponsibility of social media and other gatekeepers of news continues to fuel the issues behind sexual assault, bringing forth the damaging language and tactics used to silence survivors.
Sexual assault survivors could not turn on the TV nor open an app without hearing negatives of the situation and guilt tripped Ford and survivors alike. I was one of them. The Kavanaugh debacle surely put me in a lasting trance of reliving my sexual assault incident in 2014. It was the hot topic of many college classes of politics, television, and philosophy, three of my college classes during my senior fall semester.
No matter where I went, it trapped me back into the helpless mental cycle of depression and anxiety that plagued me before. The constant triggers not only destroyed myself, but polluted other aspects of my life like work, school and personal relationships. If the media were careful in how they approached this situation, maybe I could’ve saved myself from the second depressive episode that occurred during that time.
Ford did inspire me to go to authorities with rape charges, but the mental toll of reiterating the incident, eventually meeting with my rapist and having unwanted attention smothered me. I decided to drop the case for my wellbeing, taking care of myself before I allowed the justice system to fail me as it does, and will, others.
Ongoing disputes such as former NFL wide receiver Antonio Brown’s assault case, where his former trainer accused him of multiple sexual assault incidents, reminds me of the neglect of sexual assault survivors again. As this Brown’s debacle heats up, there is a lot of damage yet to be done. But the only bright light left on this topic is that there is also time to build spaces to protect our survivors.
I suggest we use it wisely.
Amber D. Dodd is a recent graduate from Mississipppi State University, earning a Bachelors of Arts in
both Journalism and Broadcasting and a language minor in Latin. She is a sportswriter for
Hoopfeed.com, covering the WNBA’s Washington Mystics since 2017. She writes non-fiction, poetry
and produces short films. Her work can be seen in the New York Times Journalism Institute, The
Student Nation, and Hostwriter’s book Unbias the News: Why Diversity Matters for Journalism.