While "cyberviolence" has been a hot topic for the past few years, recent months have put a spotlight on the misogynistic and racist sexual violence and harassment enacted online. More than two-thirds of Canadians who report cyber crimes to the police are women, according to Statistics Canada.
We spoke with Anne Thériault and Julie S. Lalonde to learn more about media reporting on online sexual violence.
Anne Thériault is a Toronto-based writer and blogger who manages The Belle Jar.
Julie S. Lalonde is an Ottawa-based social justice advocate who works with various women's organizations on the issues of sexual violence prevention, community accountability and bystander intervention. You can follow her rants about the patriarchy, Canadian politics and classic cars @JulieSLalonde.
Interviewer: What are the challenges you have seen in mainstream media reporting on sexual violence, including online sexual harassment and violence?
Julie: "The media is the number one education [source] on sexual violence. Even though I am a public educator, I don't have the same reach or credibility. When the media reports with what they call an 'unbiased point of view,' they insidiously teach that sexual assault [against women and] girls is inflated, that innocent men are being prosecuted, and that women claim sexual violence to get back at and get money out of men."
Anne: "The media... uses language that minimizes sexual assault and rape. There was a story about an assailant giving 'unwanted kisses,' [not] 'he was assaulting women.' Don't make it sound like he was being romantic. The language we use needs to change. We need to centre survivors rather than centre the accused."
Interviewer: How have seen feminists online creating consent culture?
Julie: "Feminists have taken over Twitter about rapes that have been reported and [started hashtags like] #SolidarityisforWhiteWomen and #AmINext. [Twitter] is a major tool of the Men's Rights Advocates backlash. No one that creates a hashtag is naïve about the consequences of doing so. So it's powerful for people to do that.
"We tweeted at news sources to say 'Actually, he was sexually assaulting young women, that's the way it should be framed.' In some cases, the media changed the headline as a result."
Anne: "The proliferation of trigger warnings contributes to consent culture. Something that seems small and trivial to someone, for others really lets them get a sense of what they are about to read."
Interviewer: Often survivors are portrayed as white, straight, cisgender, able-bodied women. How can the media avoid minimizing stories about sexual violence against survivors that don't fit this narrative?
Anne: "Something that's been pervasive is infantilizing white women and making young women of color seem like adults who can consent to sex, when they are actually teenagers. When the media talks about young women of colour, especially young black girls, they make it sound like they're adults and able to consent. [We need to] increase reporting on assaults against women of colour and trans women and splash that over the media... Where's the galvanizing moment for trans women of colour? Why don't we care? People are not reporting it on their front page."
Julie: "To solve that problem, it's about who is in your production meeting. I've been to those meetings, and they are very white and 'dudely'... If you are doing a story about Indigenous women, who is leading it? Who's on the production side to frame it?"
Interviewer: Statistics show most survivors do not report. Why is it important to have diverse representations of survivorship in media reporting?
Anne: "The risk women run by reporting, even anonymously, is so high -- socially, economically and emotionally. We need to challenge the idea that a good survivor reports and a bad survivor doesn't. Instead of criticizing survivors for whether or not they report, let's look at our system that only convicts a tiny percentage of reports."
Julie: "Media [always ask] 'do you know survivors that want to talk to us?' Survivors should have a voice if they want, but I am cautious of the way media loves the first-person survivor story, how dangerous and exploitative it can be. Survivors don't have much ownership over their story. I've had that conversation with journalists; the motivation is 'I want gory details,' 'I want a picture of a crying woman.'"
Anne: "The media wants to talk to one type of survivor. They might talk to someone and scrap the story if it's not sellable. It's traumatic to survivors to hear, 'I don't know if that's going to get viewers, sorry.'"
"There are many reasons why women don't report, and it doesn't make those women at fault if the rapist does it again. That is such a disgusting and pervasive idea... It's not a survivor's job to make sure her rapist is brought to justice."
Interviewer: There has been a swell in media coverage of rape culture in recent months. What conversations are you glad to see happening, and what do we still need to address?
Anne: "I would love to see sites with [sexual assault] reports protect the people speaking out, watch the comments [section] for threats, and keep an eye on their Twitter. A lot of sites throw on an article and walk away; meanwhile, the person the article is about, or the writer, is left to deal with horrible threats."
Julie: "There's no need for a comments section 90 per cent of the time... It's such a simple solution. The fact that it's not being done tells you they don't care."
Anne: "Something I wish would never happen again in the media is when they invite someone to 'have a discussion' and invite someone with the opposite viewpoint to be a 'Devil's advocate.' When I hear 'there are both sides of the story,' [I think,] it's going to be me and a rapist? Cool, I am debating a rapist, so we can expose 'both sides' of the story."
This blog is part of a series of interviews femifesto is publishing on media reporting and sexual violence in diverse communities across Canada.
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