Sexual Violence: Women in Media and Donna Ferrato’s photography

TRIGGER WARNING: Mention of domestic violence

One of my final papers this semester is about sexuality. It is also a really open paper- we get to define sexuality as we understand it. It should be easy, but it is really not. I am beginning to understand why Prof. P asked us if we wanted this blog to be private or public. It is very difficult to define being a woman in our society without trauma and pain. I have found that I cannot even describe “sexuality” in my paper without going into bad places.

About a week ago, International Women’s Media Foundation and the International News Safety Institute released a report on harassment and violence among media workers. It is from an online survey where women working in media submitted responses anonymously. The survey is still ongoing, but the results are not shocking (2/3 of female journalists have experienced abuse) . This piece by Amanda Hess about the issue in Slate is really good.

If you’re a female journalist, these numbers are unsurprising. Pervasive sexual harassment and violence against female reporters, editors, and writers is rarely aired publicly, but it is an open secret in the field. The majority of incidents of sexual harassment and physical assault detailed in the IMWF survey were not reported to employers; 76 percent of women who met physical violence on the job did not report the assault to police. That’s partly because bosses and cops are the ones responsible for threatening and assaulting us. A small portion of abuse and intimidation reported in the study came from government officials (7 percent of reported incidents) and police officers (3 percent); 23 percent of women who said they had experienced physical violence on the job were assaulted by cops. The majority of these cases involved men we work with.

Female journalists are not any different from other women, although their access to information and contacts should set them apart. Of course sexual assault is not an experience victims can run away from. I worked as a journalist for a bit and in a meeting an idea to write about sexual harassment in the workplace was pitched. As we discussed the idea, every  woman around the table had a story. Some had more than one story. Experiences in the very building we were occupying, in bathrooms we used, on assignments, at social activities. And everyone said, “You’d not believe it if I told you who it was.” We doubted our bosses would believe us either- the assailants tramped us in seniority, male privilege, work experience with company, hell even the stories they wrote were front-page and sold the paper. At the end of the day, if someone were to leave, it would have been the woman. The men knew it too. (One woman said her assailant had dared her to report, said “Who do you think they’ll believe, you or me?”)

It is a dehumanizing profession, I believe. Reporting everyday about bad things happening in the world. Editing out bulky sentences, making word choice for effect, using people’s terrible experiences to sell the paper. If anyone should know how horrible the world can be, it should be them, right? There are people that we worked with that have one private opinion about women and a different one in the public space. It should be okay, but when you think about how they only use women’s issues to further their byline and in private, own their male privilege, it is sickening. 

To a certain point, and I have been thinking a lot about this, men have been victims too. The path that I was set on after this has been one where I mostly want to tell them “This is why harassment is wrong.” I wanted to show the woman’s side, to tell the woman’s story- but not as a victim, as an equal. If there was enough agency on the woman’s camp, maybe then we will all be able to have a constructive conversation about why society’s understanding of sexuality is problematic. It is a difficult long journey that I sometimes don’t have energy for.

The problem for media workers is the same as non-media people: social constructions. You can choose to report about sexual violence everyday for the rest of your career, but your editor will likely tell you that that is not a new story anymore and the paper needs to be sold then send you to another assignment. You would also have to be prepared to deal with the fact that prisons are filled and prison officers are happy to take a bribe to let one free, the judiciary (in my country, at least) has a backlog of cases and is too poorly paid to care. Same with the police force. It cannot be studied in isolation, and maybe you’ll end up writing about a need to have a major upheaval in the system. This, alongside the added burden that today’s paper needs to be different from yesterday’s because media moves on. Also, credibility of stories is affected by coverage. (I have a friend who has trouble believing most of the stories of assault that followed Angie’s editorial.)

Of course there are journalists like Donna Ferrato who devote their lives to effecting change. She came to Amherst earlier this semester. She said that she’d watched a man beat her wife and taken photos. This was America in the 1980s, so I can only imagine how brave she must have been to start taking these pictures of abused women. It is 2013 and still those are not pictures that we want to see anywhere. Ferrato in her talk, told us about meeting Hillary Clinton when Bill Clinton was voted into power. It was a dinner that they had to fundraise to buy, but Ferrato felt that this was important money to spend because when they got to meet Hillary, they would stress how important it was to have the State prioritize gender-based violence. She said Hillary instead asked the women- the survivors that Ferrato had carried along with her- why they had not left.

We have asked ourselves about who is responsible, when talking about women actors in the entertainment world. The questions can be the same for women in TV media. And for me, in confronting sexuality and its problems, I have asked the same questions of women in print media and women in political authority. Who is responsible? I think no one is responsible, and I think everyone is responsible. We cannot ask women journalists to write their stories for the media, to lay themselves bare. We cannot ask women editors to reserve space on the front page everyday for GBV stories. We cannot ask Hillary Clinton to understand the plight of the women Ferrato was championing. Because we would be asking this of all these women only because they are women, and I feel that in a way, this furthers the problem. It would be nice though if they did all this, wouldn’t it?

*All the pictures used in this post are by Donna Ferrato. You can access more of her portfolio, on her site.

December 29th: This post has been edited to remove all reference to personal stories of the author. She is not so brave, after all. 


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