By David S. Prescott, LICSW, Kieran McCartan, Ph.D., & Kasia Uzieblo, Ph.D.
On October 13, 2021, a woman was apparently sexually assaulted on a Philadelphia subway. The typically non-partisan Reuters stated that the attack was “witnessed by as many as 10 passengers, some of whom appeared to film the attack, (and) could have been stopped quickly if one had called 911, police said on Tuesday. The story garnered national attention and was discussed widely in social media. The problem was that it wasn’t entirely true. Within a few days, the Philly Voice stated that:
On Thursday, Delaware County District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer flatly denied that any witnesses filmed the woman's rape with their phones, calling such claims "misinformation" as he tried to refocus the investigation… There is a narrative out there that people sat there on the El train and watched this transpire and took videos of it for their own gratification," Stollsteimer said. "That is simply not true. It did not happen. We have security video from SEPTA that shows that is not the true narrative.”
While the first account emphasized the importance of calling 911 to report crimes, many concluded as a result of the second that law enforcement officials in this instance had proved themselves to be untrustworthy.
Also recently, Loudon County, Virginia, has been the scene of all manners of disputes that are beyond the scope of this blog. The Washington Post described “culture wars” on October 5. Within a week, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell had referred to the district while expressing concerns about FBI involvement in situations involving threats against school board members. Within this context were allegations of sexual abuse. The details are complicated and beyond the scope of this blog. There were contradictory reports of whether the school board members were aware of the abuse allegations, and by October 24, 2021, media reports indicated that there was plenty of blame to go around. In this instance, if sexual assaults were in fact taking place, the systems in place were either failing outright or courting the worst appearances of failure possible. It is difficult to tell whether the young people involved were being cared for by any sober authority.
The above are not isolated events. Elsewhere in the US, the University of Vermont (UVM) was in the news. Student protests contributed to setting up a review of the institution’s Title IX implementation. There had been concerns that UVM was not handling sexual assaults on campus effectively; the number of large-scale protests was difficult to keep track of. In August, UVM had stated that the results of an outside examination would not be made public. By October 25, 2021, UVM did release a report which largely affirmed their practices, but noted that:
(R)eviewers found that UVM students who interacted with the office “did not fully understand the investigation process, found it confusing, and felt unprepared… In some cases, students misunderstood elements of the reports because of the complicated and legalistic manner in which reports were written,” the report read… Reviewers also noted that the Title IX office failed to complete “almost all” investigations within its goal of 60 days, “most often due to requests from a student’s outside advisor… The report also highlighted gaps in understanding between school officials and students about the nature of consent and culpability.
Finally, and also during the past month, Liberty University was in the news for reportedly discouraging sexual assault reports. According to National Public Radio, “In a lawsuit, more than a dozen women say Liberty University put them at risk in part because of its code of conduct emphasizing sexual purity. Their lawyer says more women are coming forward.” These media accounts speak for themselves.
It’s difficult to know where to start with all these accounts. These are situations that have occurred across many sides of underlying political, social, and cultural divides and in many corners of the US. They have occurred in contexts where many media outlets are explicit in espousing their various biases. In short, it’s a mess.
These situations highlight that sexual abuse is a complex and challenging issue that strikes at the heart of our communities as well as our sense of self. We often want someone else to blame rather than standing up and owning the issue. More to the point, we are often willing to believe dubious information when it fits our beliefs, attitudes, and stereotypes. As professionals involved in ending sexual violence through effective policy and practice, we have had to conclude after many hours spent poring over media accounts that students, young people, and other vulnerable citizens are themselves being exploited in broader media circuses.
A major bias of the media, especially news organizations, is apparent in the statements that, “If it bleeds it leads” and, “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story,” both of which cause us to consider the truth and neutrality of the media. While there are certainly good reports and honest news stories out there, there are also problematic ones that have a loose affiliation with the truth. Therefore, it’s important that we always question, cross reference, and consider the reality of any story. As professionals we need to be a barometer to good ethical practice and in doing so, we must
-Provide insight and critique to media and public narratives
- Work with other colleagues to make sure that the reality of sexual abuse and nuances of events are not lost.
- Engage with media and new sources over the reality of the story that they are looking to tell.
- Always fact check and provide evidence in discussions
- Prioritize giving assistance to those who have been harmed.
- Continue to design and study interventions that will prevent further harm
- Implement effective policies to accomplish all the above (as well as advising and working with those involved in policy formation).
We want to be clear in our assessment that during recent months these goals have been in short supply in the events that we have witnessed, reported, and evidenced. To respond to sexual abuse and prevent future abuse we need to have honest, truthful, and realistic conversations.