Monday, May 02, 2011

Trigger Warning: Female Journalists and Sexual Assault

Lara Logan's 60 Minutes interview is not going to get much attention because of bin Laden's death. But it should be discussed. The video of the interview, available here, deserves a strong trigger warning about detailed descriptions of sexual assault.

To put this heinous crime into a wider perspective: Female journalists face a heightened risk of sexual assault, especially when reporting from chaotic places and areas of warfare. Women journalists seldom talk about this risk, and the reason is an obvious one: The cure they would be advocated is worse than the disease, because the cure usually consists of urgings not to send women out to those types of assignments. Yet if a woman is a war reporter, how can she carry out her job if she is not going to be sent to war zones?

All journalists covering dangerous events face greater risks of death and violence, of course, and it is not clear to me that men wouldn't face the risk of sexual assault. But if the talk is about sexual assaults, the concern is about women.

Did you note something interesting about the way I wrote those paragraphs (other than my usual first-draft clumsiness)? Did you notice the passive tense that crept in? How I wrote about women "facing a heightened risk of sexual assault", as if "sexual assault" was something like a tornado? This way of writing is the common one on the topic. For example*:
Logan was attacked by a mob near Cairo's Tahrir Square on Feb. 11, the day that President Hosni Mubarak was finally driven from power. At the time, CBS News issued a statement saying that she "suffered a brutal and sustained sexual assault and beating before being saved by a group of women and an estimated 20 Egyptian soldiers." Her attack reverberated around the world and highlighted the dangers of sexual assault and harassment that women face while reporting.
With the exception of that active attacker, "the mob", the quoted paragraph turns things upside down. It is Logan who suffered a brutal attack, it is female reporters who face the dangers of sexual assault and harassment. The people doing the harassment become a simple mob and then fade away altogether.

This may sound trivial. But once we begin focusing on the victims of the assault and on how they affect their own odds of being attacked, we are well on the way towards solving the problem by focusing on the victims, too. That means limiting their abilities to live the lives they wish.

It also feeds into a wider problem. As Logan mentions in the video interview, street harassment of women by men is a way of life in Egypt, as it is in many countries of this world, and when it happens the blame is often placed on the women. They shouldn't go out alone or they shouldn't dress "provocatively."

If we focus our solutions only on the victims of sexual assault, who is it we are ultimately protecting here? And whose lives we are limiting?
*The quoted article does continue with a (too-gruesome-to-quote) paragraph which puts the blame where it belongs.