‘Survivor, Not Victim’ And 7 Other Rules To Follow While Writing About Sexual Violence

Dear writer, it’s time we talked about how to talk about sexual violence.

As writers, we are charged with the task of drawing society’s attention to instances of sexual violence that often get normalised or ignored in the mainstream. But there are various ways that our writing also contributes to the problem.

In a presentation for the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault (TAASA), Tonia Cunningham and Haleh Cochran write: “Language is one of the key components of secondary victimization.” To address that, we’ve put together this helpful list of things to keep in mind when writing about this subject.

1. Survivor, Not Victim

When we attach the word “victim” to a person, we take away their agency. We reduce them to helpless and distraught individuals, instead of empowering them. The immediate outcomes of this are trauma, mental health issues, diminished self-esteem, and diminished trust in the legal system. Swap this word with “survivor”.

2. Use Active Voice

“She was attacked.”

American educator Jackson Katz describes how using passive voice like this focuses on a person’s identity as ‘the abused’, the object of the attack, without putting the onus on their attacker. To break away from that, try sentences that put the assailant in the doc: “He attacked her.”

Similarly, the TAASA presentation shows how a phrase like “he forced his mouth on hers” is far more impactful and honest than “he kissed her”. In fact, sentences like the latter conceal the violent nature of the assailant’s actions.

By using passive voice, there is a tacit suggestion that survivors have contributed to the crime; that it takes two hands to clap. But in instances of sexual violence, we know this to be false.

3. ‘Asking For It’

Nothing in your reporting should indicate that a survivor was inviting trouble. It doesn’t matter what time of day it was, what clothing was worn, what substances were consumed, or what the survivor’s sexual history is. 90% of these crimes in India are committed by persons known to the survivor, but the nature of their relationship should not matter. All that matters is that the act was non-consensual.

4. Protect The Survivor’s Identity

Do not reveal the survivor’s name, address, or current whereabouts. Some survivors like Suzette Jordan openly talked about their experiences, but the choice to do so is in their hands, not yours. The people you’re writing about are real, and have a right to privacy and safety.

5. ‘Rarest Of The Rare’

Following the December 2012 Delhi gang-rape, many people condoned the death penalty for the rarest of the rare cases of sexual violence. Avoid writing that endorses the idea that different forms of sexual violence have a hierarchy. Remember that all forms of violence are equally reprehensible, and deserve the same swiftness of justice.

6. Quote Carefully

To present an unbiased view of an incident, it’s a good idea to include multiple perspectives through quotes from witnesses, neighbours, families, police or bystanders. However, the TAASA presentation argues this must be done with tact.

“She was frequently bringing men home”. “She was dressed skimpily”. “She had been drinking” .“She was in a relationship with her abuser”. Phrases like these are a kind of character assassination and reinforce the act of victim blaming and shaming. And it happens all the time. Earlier this year, the Times of India made a massive faux pas in a report about a “Nagaland woman”.

7. Be Aware Of The Gender Spectrum

There has been a borrowing and lending relationship between the law and the media when it comes to framing what qualifies as a case of sexual violence. Take Section 375 of the Indian Penal Code. It opens with: “A man is said to commit ‘rape’ who, except in the case hereinafter excepted, has sexual intercourse with a woman, against her will, without her consent,” and goes on to mention six other clauses. Without gender-neutral laws on sexual violence, the media can only perpetuate the idea that men are seen as the perpetrators, and women the ‘victims’. While this may describe most of the cases we come across, these are not all of them. A 2007 report by the Ministry of Women and Child Welfare found that 52.94% of male minors (surveyed by Prayas and Save The Children) had experienced sexual abuse. Writers need to actively destabilise this assumption by giving equal importance to survivors who are not cisgender women, such as trans, gay men, or male-identified persons. Is it any wonder that transphobic hate crimes and intimate partner violence in same-sex relationships are so underreported?

8. ‘Men Are Raped, Too’

Report on the violence men face. But get rid of the “too”. It’s enough to say that sexual violence is targeted towards men, and end there. All too often, this phrase comes up as a response to instances of VAW to de-legitimise female oppression. Saying “Well, men have it just as bad” completely excludes patriarchal power dynamics and male privilege.

The next time you sit down to write, remember these eight points. It will ensure your reporting is sensitive, non-discriminatory. After all, our writing shouldn’t rely on negative stereotypes, or disempower survivors of sexual assault.