Choosing pictures for stories of sexual violence
Rape myth perpetuation, victimhood, and how the media can change for the better
News articles about sexual violence are usually paired with images of a lone small, faceless woman, cowering in the shadows. These images paint survivors as perpetual victims, and do not speak for the bravery of moving forward in the aftermath of violence. Countless articles are published online and in print about sexual violence with images like this.
Guidance for journalists are scant. One set of guidelines advises that images should have at least two of these three characteristics: animation, relevant context, and convey meaning (1). This advice should be taken seriously. There is ample evidence that readers can be biased towards either side of an issue depending on the image accompanying the news story (2). Images tell readers about the context of the assault and the meaning of the story, and perpetuate ideas about women in general, and how they behave during and after rape ordeals.
What do you think the story was about that accompanied this image? Read the BBC story here.
Sexual violence is written about often, and yet there has been little work setting out guidelines on what images accompanying these articles should portray. Unfortunately, the images that are frequently chosen perpetuate rape myths, reinforce beauty standards, and portray the survivor as a passive victim (2). What meaning do these images convey to readers about women, and the nature of sexual violence?
The themes portrayed suggest survivors are fearful and small, and that sexual violence happens secretly, is shameful and should not be discussed openly. Many articles do not show survivors standing up for themselves or taking up space, or nor do they even show the survivors’ faces, perpetuating the idea that this is a crime that brings about shame, and that happens to feeble anonymous women.
More troubling still is that the same image is often used for multiple articles, reinforcing the idea that rape happens to only one kind of woman or that only certain survivors deserve the media’s attention. Take Image 1, for example.
This image was used as the photo for a number of articles about rape, including
‘Northern Ireland rape crisis helpline launched’ (BBC),
‘Rape convictions fall to record low in England and Wales’ (BBC),
‘Rape victim reveals ‘dehumanising’ Police Scotland probe that left her feeling like a ‘walking crime scene’ (Daily Record), and
‘Rape action plan: investigations must ‘focus on accused, not complainant’ (The Guardian) among dozens of others.
Surely not all of the subjects of the articles looked like this woman, especially the subject in ‘Girl who falsely accused’ who was 14 at the time.
By presenting most of the rape survivors in news articles as white, able-bodied, stereotypically ‘attractive,’ and of a certain age (typically 20s-30s), the news media is failing to acknowledge the women of color, the differently abled, and the girls and older women who are attacked by sexual offenders. For a crime that is so severely underreported, care must be taken to demonstrate that there is more than one kind of survivor who deserves to have their story told.
Image 1 fits the typical western norm of female beauty (white, thin, young, and able-bodied), portrays the victim as passive (face not at all visible) and alone, expressing distress, and taking up as little space in public as possible (2). On the stock photo website where journalists can license it, a similar photo to Image 1 is labeled ‘Rape victims survey’. It is from 2007, posed by a model, and possesses many of the issues that have been noted in research about how images of rape survivors are used in the media.
Even though this photo is 13 years old, it was used as recently as 16 November, 2020 in the Evening Standard for an article titled ‘Rapists left free to carry out repeat attacks because of crisis in prosecuting, victims’ commissioner warns.’ The title of the article is about the perpetrators, yet the image chosen shows a woman portraying a victim, looking despondent in her victimhood.
Using photos such as these perpetuates the idea that women are helpless victims, and removing perpetrators from the picture also removes their accountability (3).
Feminism in India has worked with its readers on what sort of images should be used instead of those that perpetuate rape myths, and reached out to artists for suggestions which can be found here. Image 2 provides examples.
These images are a more positive portrayal of sexual assault survivors and the situation on a whole, with the first image displaying a woman who is strong and standing up for herself, the second image focusing on the perpetrator rather than the potential survivor, therefore properly indicating to the reader where the accountability should lie, and the third image showing a group of women fighting together to make change.
Image 2. Feminism in India
Sexual violence survivors deserve better than to be portrayed by the media as helpless victims who all look the same, have no agency, and are chronically scared.
Survivors deserve to be portrayed in a way that, instead of reinforcing rape myths, represents them for the strong, resilient, and powerful women they are.
Articles about rape perpetrators should be accompanied by images of rape perpetrators.
If you have any pictures you think should be used to represent rape survivors in the news, please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet them here: @CareProjectKen1 #GBVinMedia
1. Redemann J. Tip: Learn how to choose the right picture for your story journalism.co.uk: Moustrap Media Ltd; 2015 [
2. Schwark S. Visual Representations of Sexual Violence in Online News Outlets. Frontiers in psychology. 2017;8:774-.
3. India Fi. Dear Media, Use These New Stock Images To Depict Rape Instead! feminisminindia.com: FII Media Private Limited; 2020
By Sarah Rockowitz (MSc Health Policy, MSc Public Health)
Global Challenges PhD Scholar in School of Psychology and School of Nursing, University of Birmingham.
For more of Sarah's blogs on sexual violence, see - Sexual and other forms of violence during the COVID-19 pandemic in Kenya – Social Sciences Birmingham (bham.ac.uk)
For further reading see:
The print media and rape: Do the media function as disseminators of knowledge or misinformation?
Rape stereotyping and public delusion: As the Government seeks to discover why prosecutions for rape are so low, four academics argue that much of the blame is the media’s https://doi.org/10.1177/0956474809356836