Abuse is not Entertainment
Journalism should not commodify sexual assault
For hours on end, I fight off the urge to delete every word as I unpack years of abuse.
My skin is burning red hot with revulsion but I need to earn a living, the timing is right, and I have a lot of material I can use. However, I’m not a celebrity but I’m hoping that won’t matter because sexual assault doesn’t only happen to famous people in Hollywood.
The dashed off rejection arrives. This is par for the course in this profession and I never assume I’m entitled to publication. When rejections come, I usually shrug and carry on.
But this is no ordinary rejection, more of a swift slap in the face. As repugnant as it is enlightening, it confirms what I long suspected yet didn’t want to believe: Writing about sexual assault was a sordid idea because I attempted to shine a light on its grim reality and destructive consequences in plain terms. That is without pandering to America’s insatiable hunger for shockers, its appetite for trauma.
In other words, I refused to pimp my pain because I still have too much self-respect to engage in the kind of confessional writing that veers into controversy just so people will click.
While voyeurism is a universal human trait, it’s not the role of responsible journalism to encourage it.
At this point, it’s obvious I also have an attitude problem: How dare I be visible while female? In this socio-political climate, the likes of me are now little more than sentient sex dolls, according to none other than the President of the United States.
You could say that I’ve forgotten my place.
In the US, the sound of a woman’s voice is as a direct affront to the patriarchy, an open invitation to belittle, deprecate, and vilify. Pouring your soul into a piece about the many instances of sexual abuse that have blighted most of your adult life while remaining as dispassionate as possible isn’t the done thing if you want to get paid.
The editor — a woman — rejects my piece not because it’s poorly written, not because it’s untimely, but due to lack of originality. I try to let it sink in but her words keep bobbing back up to the surface in their glaring offensiveness.
How is sexual assault supposed to be original when it’s such a societal scourge? It’s commonplace; it’s everywhere; it happens on the regular.
I’m afraid that lady missed the point.
My anger at receiving a thoughtless rejection in a country that elevated a sexual predator to the highest office in the land is a measure of how alienated I feel by America.
Although I’ve spent the last six years trying to understand the place I now call home and even became a citizen in the process, my relationship with it is best described as an organ transplant that will not take.
For example, rape culture has become so normalized in these United States that people need to be systematically titillated, prodded, and primed to read about it.
So it falls to writers to groom readers for maximum shock value. While this is routine in the tabloid press, the outlet I approached would balk at being described this way. What’s more, that’s not the kind of work I do. (Unless we’re talking about exceptional human feats, or pets with superpowers because those are fun, light-hearted stories that lend themselves to hyperbole.)
But if you want to be published, forget trying to preserve a modicum of dignity by leaving out the smut so prized by clickbait-loving outlets. Do not disappoint, as I did, by failing to perform victimhood for mass consumption and don’t pitch a piece expecting to finally regain control of a personal narrative abusers have skewed and hijacked too many times.
Never mind that to write about sexual assault you first need to relive it so you can document it. Depending on how harrowing your experience(s) and how quickly you write, you could be go through it all again for days until you have a finished draft.
This isn’t something a sexual assault victim willingly puts themselves through unless there’s an ulterior motive that goes beyond getting paid. I can only speak for myself here but I do it because we need to hold ourselves accountable for the attitudes and prejudices that make abuse possible in the first place.
Going back to the poor editorial standards I encountered that day, they were at odds with the trade I learned back in the UK. To me, the job of a journalist is to help readers make sense of confusing times, not to manipulate them.
Journalism is service, not self-serving.
Trying to survive as a freelancer by pegging pieces of your life to the never-ending slew of American sexual harassment news isn’t the best idea unless you have a solid support system, a therapist on call, or have superseded horror and are able to discuss it as if it had happened to someone else.
That’s not me, not yet.
At the same time, I still need to earn a living.
Wanting to blow to pieces the stocks of ordinary guilt with clinical, detached words while chipping away at the collective shame of millions is an endeavor that’ll remain doomed to failure as long as editors lack the compassion and emotional intelligence necessary to deal with such a topic.
Not that I’m difficult to work with, quite the opposite. I’m always happy to adapt, edit, reword, revise as many times as necessary and as swiftly as needed however I’m also wary of how quickly sexual assault can be trivialized through the wrong choice of words.
Sexual assault is a tricky topic because it’s a life event that only has two outcomes.
You survive it or you don’t.
If you’re still alive because your abuser(s) didn’t kill you or cause you to die by your own hand, there’s no guarantee you’ll be ever able to talk about what happened.
Many abused folks end up bound and gagged by a thick fog of self-loathing that precludes the possibility of a normal and balanced life for years on end. I write a lot about the depression that stalled my life for five years, but what’s less obvious is that mental illness is only the tip of the iceberg.
Encouraging the production of clickbait copy is morally and intellectually disingenuous and abhorrent. Journalism’s remit should be to draw attention and foster public discussion.
Not so in America where those who have the courage to write about sexual assault are thrust into some frenzied editorial Olympics and expected to outshine one another with lurid details on the innumerable ways a woman can be defiled and her life destroyed.
But besides advertisers, does this approach benefit anyone?
It doesn’t benefit writers. No one willingly undertakes this kind of emotional labor without wanting to effect change, or at minimum raise awareness.There are far less grueling ways to secure a byline and a fee, believe me.
This approach doesn’t benefit readers either. No one needs to have everything spelled out to them in minute detail, most people can read between the lines, and to assume otherwise is patronizing.
Lest we forget, abusers count on silence to keep doing what they’ve always done with complete impunity.
Meanwhile, we who’ve been abused carry on second-guessing ourselves, wondering whether we even have rights to our own bodies.
Even though such stories are what the industry likes to call “evergreen” because they’re never not relevant, putting pressure on writers to package their painful personal narratives into the perfect prurient shocker is vile.
When pitching my piece, I made a crucial mistake: Having decided I couldn’t hold any of this in anymore, I failed to take into account the kind of journalism that is practiced in America.
And the kind of journalism — and more broadly writing — America avidly consumes.
You see, the page is a mirror and we need to take a long, hard look at ourselves and at how we relate to one another. Rather than squeeze victims for details that’ll set fingers and eyes on fire, we can learn to listen, we can create a compassionate climate in which every narrative has a place, and every victim feels safe to speak up.
We can be gentle, and open, and supportive, even in the face of callous capitalism.
How we deal with sexual assault is a choice; we can and we must do better.
I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.