Rape Culture in Journanilsm and Recommendations For Representing Survivors

By Karen Rain

There’s no regaining that special type of innocence peculiar to those of us who grew up trusting institutions to act rationally and in the public interest, trusting that once injustice was seen to be done, it would be remedied.

 ~Laurie Penny

The journalists, they thanked me for my courage, but what they really should have thanked me for was my naivete. This article is a version of “Understanding Sexual Violence in Context: Tips for reading, writing, and talking about sexual violence,” from April 2020, abridged and edited exclusively for The Disobedient Survivors Blog. The original article discusses how journalists, specifically The New Yorker and The New York Times, misrepresented my story and failed to cover the culture of  bystanders, enablers and beneficiaries who empowered Pattabhi Jois, Ashtanga Yoga “guru,” to sexually assault many yoga students in plain sight for several decades. 

I now reframe my piece revealing language and structures that maintain sexual violence to help other survivors who are considering going public minimize their distress and to offer starting points for journalists to do right by survivors when covering sexual violence. A journalist may very well be covering a survivor’s story out of an ethical inclination, they may even believe that they are doing the survivor a favor, but make no mistake, they own the narrative. They will craft it with their name front and center, and according to their own interests and ignorance. At the very least, journalists should offer survivors financial compensation for our time, emotional labor, and the costly repercussions of speaking out. Unfortunately any survivorship visibility is fraught with retraumatization.

The New Yorker had a fact checker call me before publication. I told the fact checker that how she described the evolution of my understanding of events was not correct. I called the journalist immediately, she was a combination of intense impatience and attempts to be receptive. The New Yorker went ahead and published their misrepresentation of my experience, which begs the question of why they bothered using a fact checker. They even got something as simple as my age incorrect. After reading the article, I called the author, crying. I asked her how long she had been researching this story, because it seemed to me she really didn’t get the constant and pervasiveness of Pattabhi Jois’ abuse. She responded that after that question she did “not feel safe” with me. 

I also begged the New York Times writer to include my witness testimony and the ubiquity of Pattabhi Jois’ abuse, for which there are a plentitude of witness testimonies and video evidence. She never directly told me these factors would not be included, perhaps it wasn’t her choice, but rather told me how important and influential her reporting was going to be and how much she appreciated my bravery and honesty. 

Not all my experiences with the press left me feeling betrayed. Nancy Dillon from New York Daily News was very careful to make sure that she represented my thoughts and story to my satisfaction, especially considering the article, “Ashtanga yoga guru Pattabhi Jois accused of sexual assault in new photos,” had a turnover of just a few hours. 

Many publications have policies restricting journalists from showing subjects any part of an article prior to publishing. However, Dart Center For Journalism and Trauma, Chicago Taskforce on Violence Against Girls & Young Women, Know Your IX, and National Sexual Violence Resource Center recommend changing or making exceptions to these policies to allow survivors of sexual violence to read portions of the article and provide feedback before publication.

Offering survivors a preview of their stories prior to publishing also makes practical sense for preventing inaccuracies. And since amending an article can undermine the publication’s credibility, after publication they will often choose to ignore a survivor’s concerns. 

I believe there are journalists who want to be respectful of survivors and protect us from further harm, as well as wanting to help bring justice and prevent sexual violence. Besides creating policies that allow survivors to view what might be published about them, journalists must learn to cover sexual violence with unique sensitivity. Likewise, consumers of journalism should keep in mind that journalists follow the policies of their publications that prioritize avoiding defamation suits. Journalists often use the word “allege,” and its variants, which cast doubt on victim testimony. However, that doesn’t mean the testimony merits doubt, or that the author or publisher doubts it. It’s a way for publications to sidestep the risk of defamation suits.

Other journalistic conventions have become the norm without an understanding of their purpose or impact. Jim Clemente, former FBI supervisory special agent and host of the podcast Real Crime Profile, says that Michael Jackson’s lawyers popularized the practice of referring to victims as “accusers” to frame the victim as the attacker (Episode 180 — Grooming the Victims of “Leaving Neverland ”). Now, even well-meaning journalists often use this language in reference to victims of sexual assault.

The following are seven non-exhaustive recommendations for journalists and others when considering sexual violence:

1.Give Survivors Autonomy Over Their Story

If you are a journalist interviewing survivors of sexual violence, one of the best questions you can ask is: “What message would you most like people to take from hearing your story?” Respect and include the responses, which might help the general public learn how to prevent and respond to sexual violence in the future. As stated above, when possible, allow survivors to read what you propose to write about them, and be open to amending it.

2. Use precise language and avoid euphemisms

Be as specific as warranted about the action of the perpetrator. Avoid making sexual violence sound like a “consensual” activity.

In the article “How the Cosby Story Finally Went Viral — And Why It Took So Long”, Nicole Weisensee Egan, who had reported on Cosby almost a decade before the story went viral, examines why public interest peaked when it did. She suggests that one of the reasons was because comedian Hannibal Buress was not burdened by the same constraints as journalists. “As a comedian Buress could just flat-out call Cosby a rapist instead of hedging and using protective language like journalists did.”

Euphemisms minimize and obscure sexual violence. Both “inappropriate touch” and “unwanted touch” may indicate sexual assault or harassment, but are vague and don’t necessarily denote sexual violence. People might not want to be touched for any number of reasons. Without a clear description of a perpetrator’s actions, we can’t know the pattern or extent of the harm. For example, “The middle school teacher groped a student’s genitals,” and, “The middle school teacher pulled a student’s hair to get his attention,” are both examples of inappropriate and unwanted touch, but only the former is sexual assault.

“Sexual misconduct” is a common euphemism that doesn’t tell us anything about what the perpetrator did. It sounds somewhat mischievous or deviant, but doesn’t convey abuse of power. It could refer to adults enjoying sex in the back row of a movie theater.

Another ineffective and harmful phrase is “non-consensual sex.” It’s an oxymoron. Sex is a consensual activity, whereas non-consensual means that one person coerced or abused another — the correct term for this is sexual assault or rape. In the same vein, an adult cannot have “sex with a minor,” because a child cannot consent — the correct term for this is child sexual abuse, or rape of a minor.

Sexual violence is primarily about entitlement or desire for power. The adjective “sexual” in terms like sexual harassment, sexual abuse or sexual assault refers to the exploiting of sexuality, sex organs, or sexual acts to subjugate, intimidate, or violate. It describes the type of harassment, abuse or assault; violence is the essence.

3. Use the active voice, avoid the passive voice

When describing sexual violence, people frequently use the passive voice, which emphasizes the object (the victim) and may omit the actor (the perpetrator). Rather than saying, “John Doe sexually assaulted Jane Doe,” we frequently hear “Jane Doe was sexually assaulted by John Doe.” In the latter construction, the assault is more about Jane than about John. That sentence is easily reduced to “Jane Doe was sexually assaulted,” as though there were no perpetrator at all.

Phrases like “what happened to Jane Doe” or “what Jane Doe went through” bypass the subject of sexual violence and falsely convey a sense that there was an action with no actor; something happened, but no one was responsible.

Instead of referring to abuse without signaling a perpetrator, if you don’t know the name of the perpetrator or can’t use it, you can say, “Someone sexually assaulted Jane Doe.” Or if you know the relationship of the perpetrator — a friend, relative, employer, etc. — you can use that identifier; for example, “Jane Doe’s soccer coach sexually abused her.”

4. Choose photos carefully

Reconsider the common journalistic practice of using photographs, particularly portraits or positive depictions, of sex abusers along with articles about sexual violence. First and foremost, photos of offenders may be triggering to survivors. Moreover, there is a pernicious myth that sex offenders are monsters not capable of doing anything good — and that a “good man” could not possibly be an offender. A photo of Weinstein accepting a Golden Globe award next to an article about his abuse minimizes his sexual violence and reinforces the power and respectability that gave him impunity. 

That’s not to say that photos should never be included. Good reasons to use a photo of an offender might be if it provides evidence or to increase visibility in order to protect others.

5. Investigate and report the network of power that protects the perpetrator

Frequently, stories of sexual violence rely on survivors’ recounting how the perpetrator violated and traumatized them and what their response was at the time, which incites a vicious and relentless scrutiny of their credibility, character, motivations, and response — “She was asking for it,” or “Why didn’t she fight back?” or “Why didn’t they speak up sooner?” As a result, people shift the responsibility away from the perpetrator and the enablers onto the victim and we learn nothing about how to prevent sexual violence in the future.

The breaking of the Harvey Weinstein story as investigated by Jodi Kantor and Megan Towhey for The New York Times and by Ronan Farrow for The New Yorker gave historic momentum to the #MeToo movement. Both of those articles focused heavily on exposing how a network of people protected Weinstein, including lawyers who repeatedly arranged Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs), settlements where the perpetrator pays victims in exchange for their silence. These NDAs are toxic, isolating victims as well as enabling perpetrators to continue harming others.

The model used for those investigations needs to be applied to all investigations of sexual abuse, and journalistic radar should be attuned to the reality that perpetrators carry out sexual violence through networked power, as well as dominant romantic, gendered, and hierarchical narratives wherein abuse is deemed acceptable. Perhaps it’s easier to investigate sexual violence as though it occurs in a vacuum, with only a perpetrator and victim. And perhaps it’s more comfortable to think of only one person being responsible. But the paradigm regarding sexual violence must evolve to reflect that whatever the size of the system, be it one small family, school, or church, or an entire industry, groups of people structurally facilitate sexual violence. 

Without understanding, investigating, and exposing how enabling and systemic oppression sustain sexual violence, it will remain as tenacious as ever. A narrative of sexual abuse is inadequate when the bystanders, enablers, and beneficiaries — people who didn’t hold the perpetrator accountable and facilitated the abuse — are omitted.

6. Consider backlash

Along with asking survivors what message they want people to get from their story, also ask what they want people to know about them and if there is anything they don’t want you to share, like where they live or work. If a platform has commenting capabilities, they should be turned off or the comments should be closely monitored for trolling and vitriol.

The New York Times syndicated “Yoga Is Finally Facing Consent and Unwanted Touch,” the article they interviewed me for, to Yahoo, and within 24 hours there were over 1500 comments, most of which were attacks on victims. Fortunately, two months later the Yahoo link was dead. 

7. Don’t reduce the survivor to a violent or traumatic event

We are greater than that. Most of the women who spoke out about Harvey Weinstein had the benefit of previous recognition. All survivors deserve the recognition of having more to offer than the recounting of a traumatic experience. In the Cosby article mentioned above, Nicole Weisensee Egan portrayed the survivors as full human beings and closed the article with a quote from one of them.

Another huge disappointment for me regarding The New York Times coverage is that both my friend, Jubilee Cooke, and I were reduced to what Pattabhi Jois did to us, with only patchy descriptions of our immediate responses and why we didn’t resist at the time. There was no mention that both Cooke and I have strong activist voices regarding sexual violence. Together we co-authored an article for Yoga International entitled “How to Respond to Sexual Abuse Within a Yoga or Spiritual Community,” which was well received by experts in the field, including being added to the library of the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.

Given the limitations of journalism, a more autonomous and reliable option for survivors, who feel drawn to speaking out publicly, might be to self-publish our own accounts. Putting the horrors into the context of our narratives can provide keys for how to prevent and respond to sexual violence on both an individual and systemic scale. While it is crucial to ask for support and assess personal and legal risks, needs, and options with qualified help, authoring our own stories gives us the opportunity to regain some agency in a situation where others often co-opt our stories and diminish and dehumanize us.

My personal narrative of Pattabhi Jois’s abuse doesn’t dwell on what he did to me or how I tried to rationalize it at the time, but instead how I escaped from boosting his impunity and enabling his crimes. Rather than building my reputation, career, and savings on the fiction that he was a living yoga master, as many others did, I managed to get out early.

I picture myself as an escape artist: I’m not unscathed, but I’m very glad that I left. While I was a victim, and I am not ashamed to use that word, it simply describes my innocent role in an abusive situation — it’s not a fixed identity. In the future, it’s possible that I’ll be the victim of some other violence. But right now, I’m just sitting in my room writing and enjoying the sun streaming in through my window.

By Karen Rain