Sexual Violence in the Media Essay

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The media are key players in both the promotion of, and efforts to combat, sexual violence and have been subject to critical inquiry in two main ways. One strand of research explores whether scenes of sexual violence (e.g. in films or computer games) might trigger sexual aggression; this sort of research is often pursued under the umbrella of psychology. A second strand, more often pursued by communication scholars, focuses on exploring how the media represent the causes of, and solutions to, such violence, and how this might help to shape public and policy responses. This approach also includes an interest in the everyday representations of sexuality that infuse popular culture and how these might romanticize sexual aggression.

Research into sexual violence blossomed from the 1970s onwards alongside the emergence of the women’s liberation movement, Feminist activists highlighted a continuum of abuses, including rape, sexual harassment and the sexual exploitation of children by men in positions of trust and authority and challenged the salacious reporting of attacks as titillation and the promotion of the idea that women enjoy rape or victims provoke abuse.

Although there have been major changes in media representation since the 1970s, some problems remain including trivialization and a disproportionate focus on stranger-danger (Kitzinger 2004) alongside victim blaming and the promotion of (often racist) stereotypes about abusers (Moorti 2002). Journalists sometimes seem to prefer to sensationalize the details of an individual attack than reflect on the patterns of sexual violence, orchestrating outrage about sentencing, or the release of individual convicted sex offenders, rather than looking at the social changes within the dominant culture that are needed to make rape and sexual abuse a thing of the past There is a failure to confront the widespread nature of ‘mundane,’ everyday, sexual violence and the cultural attitudes that support it and when journalists do connect sexual violence to endemic cultural attitudes, it is usually in considering ‘sub-‘ or ‘foreign’ cultures.

Some of the most interesting critical work in this field is emerging from parts of the world such as Asia. Issues such as the use of sexual violence in ethnic cleansing and genocide have increasingly gained recognition, as has military sexual slavery and the growing trade in sex trafficking. Commentators stress the importance of including a gender-sensitive perspective in thinking about disarmament and reintegration, and the importance of linking issues such as trafficking to the breakdown in social structure. The connection between academic analysis and activism in much of this work is often very strong. Media monitoring groups challenge bad reporting, as well as providing support and advice to journalists to improve their practices (Lloyd & Howard 2005).

Technological changes also present new sites of research. The ways in which sexual violence can be facilitated by the Internet (including ‘Internet pedophilia’ and trafficking) are gaining attention and key questions are being raised by the routinization of sexual objectification, bullying and harassment on platforms such as  Facebook and  Twitter. At the same time questions are being raised about how the Internet might help to challenge sexual violence, creating an avenue for alternative discourses and challenges to the status quo, and supporting international dialogue – a dialogue. Such areas can provide productive new directions for research in a field of inquiry that is constantly evolving in response to social, political, and technological changes


  1. Kitzinger, J. (2004). Framing abuse: Media influence and public understandings of sexual violence against children. London: Pluto Press.
  2. Lloyd, F. & Howard, R. (2005). Gender, conflict and journalism: A handbook for South Asia. Paris: UNESCO.
  3. Moorti, S. (2002). Color of rape: Gender and race in television’s public spheres. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.

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