“Sex scandals” and citizen journalism: How to change the media narrative on sexual violence

Another week, another male journalist giving sexist, violent men a platform in mainstream media.

Media coverage on Roosh V, the rape advocate whose hate speech invoked a 46,000 person petition calling for him to be denied entry into Canada, has been dismal. The Toronto Star’s headline described him as a “blogging Casanova” , the National Post said he helped men “convince women to have sex”, and CTV called him anti-feminist, which is sort of like calling the Ku Klux Klan pro-racism: it misses the point entirely. The CBC had guest host Stephen Quinn interview Nico Lang from The Good Men Project: a man interviewing a man about a third man’s business where he teaches men how to treat women like objects.

Nearly all the major media outlets have described him as a “pick-up artist” in quotation marks, letting him frame the narrative around his interactions with woman. He has mostly refused interviews, so the media posts his videos uncontested without comment or a neutral interviewer. They quote his books, “textbook(s) for picking up girls” (a Change.org petition to ban them from Amazon currently has over 50,000 signatures), instead of browsing his blog, where he calls for rape to be legalized on private property, or his web forum, where sample discussion threads include “The Modern Harem Thread: How to Build, Maintain, and Expand your own Group of Girls” (“to bang on demand”) and “The Fat Shaming Success Stories Thread.” One of the only commendable mainstream articles came from a female journalist: the National Post’s Sarah Boesveld, who drew the links between the outrage against Roosh V and other notorious incidents of violence against women; the increasing “prominence of feminist and social justice issues” and the “aggressive pushback by those who see the rise of feminism as a direct threat to men.” On television, CTV News anchor Tarah Schwartz gave airtime to demonstrators and organizers at a protest, including Member of Parliament Cheri DiNovo.

Earlier this summer, Luke Howard, another self-described “pick-up artist” and fake doctor, was harassing women in downtown Ottawa while wearing a hidden camera. He wouldn’t take no for an answer, trying to get their phone numbers by blocking their path, grabbing their arms, and following them down the street. The videos were posted on YouTube to advertise his coaching sessions teaching men how to convince reluctant women to give them their number. At its peak, he had nearly 80 videos, with titles like “Day Game Number Close Asian Fun” and “Drunk Girl.” The goal of the daygaming is to Find, Meet, Attract, and Close, “hooking” women using techniques like “lock-in props” (giving her something to hold so she can’t easily leave) and getting her phone number.

In its initial article, the CBC (Canada’s public broadcaster) gave Howard equal air time to two women who had been harassed by him, trivializing the impact of the interaction, and providing him a national platform to defend himself. “99.9% of women love this, they enjoy it, they realize there’s a beauty in this,” said Howard in the article, which noted that “several women are warning others to be on the lookout for a self-proclaimed “pickup artist” who talks up women on the street.” “The frustration is really only coming from two or three specific women,” Howard added. “Not everyone’s going to like me.”

Unimpressed with the coverage, a small group of Ottawa women started talking on Twitter and Facebook, debating online with the journalist researching the story, flagging misrepresentative quotes, and organizing a meet-up that afternoon. Looking around the room, there were already more than “several women” who had been harassed by Howard, and including one who had reported it to the police — how many more were there? The media had allowed unchallenged hyperbolic claims and framed the issue in a way that made Luke Howard’s behaviour excusable, even welcomed. The women who’d run into him left shaken and annoyed, feeling both physically and verbally cornered. Their plan was to reclaim the conversation and shift the focus: from the so-called “hypnotist” preaching “beauty and love”, to a conversation about the prevalence of street harassment and the feeling of “being cornered” by men.

They set up an email address, a Twitter account and hashtag (#corneredinottawa), put up posters around the neighbourhood, used their personal Facebook accounts to get the word out, and started gathering reports. Women wrote in describing how they’d been cornered by Howard, and sometimes another man, who physically blocked their path so they couldn’t leave the conversation. One woman tweeted that he’d followed her into her apartment lobby and had to be pushed out the door. Another said that when she didn’t graciously accept his compliments, he got aggressive and shouted things like “you’re a fucking rude cunt and you’re not that pretty anyway” (she was 17).

And women started writing in about other times they’d been #corneredinottawa. A cab driver who locked all four doors and drove very slowly, asking his passenger if she was single, if she liked to party, if she wanted to party with him. A guy who took a woman’s phone out of her hands and forced her to take his number. A stranger who grabbed a woman’s arm so hard it left bruises and told her she should be grateful for the attention. They described how sometimes, when men are belligerent and persistent, women fake friendliness and give out their phone numbers when asked as a de-escalation tactic in order to keep themselves safe. We have no plans to text back; we just want the men to leave without getting angry or violent.

All told, 29 Ottawa women reported that Howard harassed them, sometimes multiple times. At least four filed a police report. One sent in a screen caption of an online forum where Howard complained about being banned from St. Laurent Mall along with his “wingman”. Another described how students at UQAM and McGill confronted him for harassing women in downtown Montreal a year earlier. They reported that he was a TEDx presenter at the University of Ottawa (under one of his pseudonyms, Dr. Luke Michael) and had been a guest on CTV Morning Live as a “master hypnotist.” They researched Howard’s credentials and discovered that he definitely didn’t have a PhD from Belfast and that his hypnotist certification likely came from an online course that once gave a degree to a cat.

The story was picked up by Cosmopolitan, Vice, and the UK Daily Mail, where the headlines focused on women “fighting back”. In Canada, the narrative began to change. A female columnist wrote a satire about how she somehow managed to talk to her male colleagues in daytime without causing their faces to melt off; another called Howard’s daygaming “narcissism, misogyny, and delusion”. The Ottawa Citizen published an editorial calling street harassment “a blight” on the city.

The shift in media tone was built by women’s unpaid labour as citizen journalists: the women behind #CorneredInOttawa gave frequent media interviews about their awareness campaign, maintained a running total of the number of incidents reported, sent in screen captions of the Youtube channel (now labeled private), and connected the journalists with individual victims willing to describe their personal experience and experts who could speak to the broader context.

According to the International Women’s Media Foundation, in 2011 women made up 55% of executive editors, bureau chiefs and directors in Canada, 50% of senior editors and correspondents, and 54.8% of producers, writers and directors. Female journalists only lag behind when they reach the glass ceiling: 39% in top management and 26% in governance roles. So why are men writing most of the stories about violence against women, while women appear as victims (not survivors) giving impact statements, or advocates, speaking on behalf of organizations that fight the good fight for a living? Women are rarely the newsmakers, or the neutral interviewer.

In the face of all this noise, women have to organize and shout even louder to be heard. Ottawa women should not have had to do the media’s job for them and the media should not need to be taught how to report on violence without dismissing sexual violence as a “sex-assault scandal” (Toronto Star) or “unwanted kisses” (CBC). There are many credible and capable female journalists in Ottawa — and Canada — it’s time we got their perspective and heard their stories.