Forum: Be sensitive in reporting of sexual violence cases

Sexual violence is a complex topic, involving power dynamics that can be hard to parse. As such, the language we use to depict sexual violence needs to be up to the task.

We appreciate the efforts of Singaporean media to cover sexual violence cases diligently and comprehensively. However, we often see news stories with language that upholds - sometimes subtly - inaccurate and irresponsible beliefs about sexual violence.

One such practice: referring to child sexual abuse - "sexual penetration of a minor", per the Penal Code - simply as "having sex".

Just this month, there were a number of reports with this. One example is "Jail, caning for tutor who had sex with 11-year-old pupil" (Feb 6).

"Having sex" colloquially refers to consensual sexual activity. However, because by law minors cannot ever consent to sex, to say that an adult "had sex" with a minor is misleading.

It would be more accurate to say that these men "sexually assaulted" their victims, and thus convey the violence and violation inherent in their actions.

Some other practices that bear consideration: Including graphic information about an assault.

Even though the identities of the parties cannot be revealed in the press, reading about assault in detail can be traumatic for other sexual violence survivors. A more balanced approach might be to omit some detail for their sake.

Media coverage of sexual assault has an impact on the knowledge, beliefs, attitudes and behaviours of the public. So the media has a responsibility - as do we all - to counter sexual assault myths, avoid insinuating consent in cases of child sexual assault, and prevent the retraumatisation of survivors.

News outlets could develop guidelines with suggested terminology, advice on how to sensitively interview sexual violence survivors and other best practices.

Kelly Leow

Communications Manager

Association of Women for Action

and Research