Much has been said about victim-blaming. However, a neglected dimension of the phenomenon is how the media represents ‘blameless’, vulnerable victims — including but not limited to small children, elderly women, and the mentally or physically handicapped — in contrast to how it portrays those in other categories, in particular adult women.
In the case of violence against ‘vulnerable’ victims, there are often graphic and detailed descriptions of the horrors inflicted and interviews with their distraught family members.
The attacker’s ‘monstrousness’ is highlighted in such articles and there is often an elaboration of the harsh punishments he is eligible for.
On the other hand, cases involving adult women are often treated quite differently (unless she has been extremely brutalized or killed, in which case she is treated like a ‘vulnerable’ victim). There is less focus on the injuries sustained by the victim and more on her background and the context in which she found herself with her attacker(s). ‘Reasons’ are also often provided for the attack, and there is a degree of empathy expressed for the rapist — for example, “45-year-old woman was allegedly raped and attacked with acid…after she told him that she wanted to end their five-year-old affair”. The headlines also hint at more scepticism: for instance, “Gurugram woman alleges rape, blackmail, rape by a colleague” or “Mumbai actress alleges rape, assault by ex-boyfriend”. There is also disproportionate coverage given to cases of “fake” accusations and “honey-trapping”, in some publications more than in others.
Amid frequent reportage of this nature, it was depressing but not surprising to see Tamil filmmaker Bhagyaraj — whose recent film Karuthukalai Pathivu Sei is believed to be inspired by the Pollachi sexual assault case (or “scandal”, depending on the mindset of the newsroom) — saying at an event, “Women create a situation that allows mistakes to happen… You can’t always only blame boys.” His words were reportedly greeted with cheers from the audience.
While Bhagyaraj’s views are being greeted with typical outrage on social media, the fact remains that he and others are largely informed about the nature of sexual assault from the media, which draws a distinction between ‘good’ victims and ‘bad’ ones (generally adult women) who are portrayed as playing an active role in the violence done to them — this is done by invoking their sexual history, their presence at the wrong place at the wrong time, or by their ‘unfortunate’ choices, such as drinking.
While no long-term study has been done on the subject of how the media shapes perceptions of victims and offenders in India, a 2018 paper by Rebecca A. DiBennardo, based on a content analysis of 323 Los Angeles Times articles (published between 1990 and 2015), had interesting findings: “[News coverage] overemphasises crimes against children under age 12, both relative to crimes against adults in the sample and relative to the incidence of crimes against children reported statistically. Articles frame the protection of children as a type of ‘collective’ responsibility… In contrast, the media discuss adult women less”.
DiBennardo goes on to conclude, “Articles use child victims as a rhetorical tool to emphasise the ‘predatory’ nature of offenders and justify retributory violence or harsh legal punishment against sexual predators. Narratives about adult victims focus mainly on women, framing them as responsible for their victimisation and minimising their importance relative to child victims.”
This messaging in the media is often insidious but that does not make it any less harmful — not only in influencing public perceptions of victims but in shaping how victims/survivors see themselves and their right to seek justice.