• Cheek

The Australian Media is Undermining Sexual Violence Survivorship

Updated: Dec 9, 2020

This article contains details of alleged aggravated sexual assault and may not be appropriate nor suitable for some readers.

Australia is going through two pandemics. The first doesn’t need to be named, and the second is the number of famous football players being accused of sexual assault and other violent crimes and activities. Take a look for yourself at the ‘sport’ section in the news today. Two out of the top four headlines are about assault. But according to MamaMia founder Mia Freedman, there is a third pandemic that could be responsible for the second: pornography.

Screenshot from ABC

For many, this won’t be shocking, but there are a number of sexual assault cases against football players happening as we speak. Jarryd Hayne denied the charges against him by a Newcastle woman who alleges their encounter was not consensual. Hayne said it was, telling the court that “she never said no”. Co-accuseds Jack de Belin and Callan Sinclair pleaded not guilty to five charges of aggravated sexual assault each. To contextualise the heinous nature of their alleged acts, under Section 61J(1) of the Crimes Act (NSW), ‘any person who has sexual intercourse with another person without the consent of the other person and in circumstances of aggravation and who knows that the other person does not consent to the sexual intercourse is liable to imprisonment for 20 years.’ These charges consist of four counts of aggravated sexual assault in company and one count of aggravated sexual assault in company inflicting actual bodily harm.

A responding article posted on MamaMia on 27 November titled Jarryd Hayne, Jack de Belin and the sports players who never learned how to have sex, insinuates just that. That these men simply lack sexual education. The piece contains no mention of the fact that sexual assault doesn’t have anything to do with sex. Sexual assault is about power and violence. The article contains the following:

"There was no verbal or physical resistance, it was just normal, Mum. I just can't believe it," de Belin said in a text message. And therein lies the problem. "Normal". Normal sex shouldn't leave a woman feeling distressed.

The author Jessie Stephens makes many efforts to mention that it is not up to her to decide whether the accused is guilty or not. And there’s no problem with that of course - it’s the mark of an ethical journalist. But guess what she’s saying with the above quotes? She’s saying she believes him. That she believes Jack de Belin does not think he committed the assault. That the real problem is that de Belin didn’t receive proper sex education that taught him what normal sex should look like. It’s disturbing to read the messages to his mum, the article says. Here’s a thought: maybe Mr de Belin didn’t want to admit to his own mother that he [allegedly] assaulted someone? Of course he’s telling her it was your run of the mill normal sex. When was the last time you saw a convicted criminal confessing a crime to his beloved mother before a trial?

In a MamaMia Out Loud podcast released three days following the article, the three hosts: Jessie Stephen, Holly Wainwright, and Mia Freedman double down on this interpretation of the issue. The issue, they say, is that sex education doesn’t teach young people the important role of pleasure during sex. Freedman goes so far as to imply that porn is to blame for men not understanding what women enjoy in the bedroom (which, in this case, is alleged assault). She says “this is a generation of men who have been brought up watching things that are not pleasurable for women. We know that female pornstars are paid twice as much as male pornstars, and for things like… A whole lot of things they have to experience, they are paid extra because they are so unpleasant to do.”

“We are living in a pandemic of porn”

Mia Freedman on MamaMia Out Loud

Now this article is not a deep dive into the porn industry, and there’s no question that there are unfair working conditions and lots of people getting taken advantage of in the industry. But to blame porn for alleged assault? To attribute a generation of men to this problem? As if men haven’t been assaulting women since the very beginning of time, before the word assault existed? To say that any man, every man, who watches porn will go on to draw blood when engaging in sexual activity? What a horrendous over-generalisation to make on a public platform. She does go on to explain that some women may enjoy those things, then constructed a metaphor correlating enjoying rough sex to eating liver and she lost me. But you can listen for yourself.

Possibly even more disturbing than the article and podcast themselves are the responses and shares. The article has been praised by a number of openly progressive, usually young, women in the public eye. It has been shared, accompanied by some clapping hands, on Instagram stories. It is praised in social media comment sections. The comments on the article themselves talk more about how astonished they are that women ‘stick by’ these men. How does a growing body of progressive, educated and empowered women perceive this headline to be anything other than traumatising for victims? Why does public discourse seek to forgive and justify the violence perpetrated by prominent men, whilst concurrently cancelling women for a Facebook status made in 2008?

Let us be clear: do we think that some terrible journalistic choices from MamaMia is worse than an alleged aggravated sexual assault? Of course we fucking don’t. What these men are being accused of is disgusting and horrific and if they are found guilty, they deserve whatever punishment they receive. But the way we report on these issues has to stop. We unfortunately have low standards for the likes of The Daily Mail and Fox Sports who are focussed only on the amount of time it’s going to take their star players to get back on the field. And we know it’s not fair to hold some outlets to a higher or different standard than others. But a misogynistic headline from The Daily Mail is just a regular Tuesday. An article so careless from a media company whose self-proclaimed purpose is to make the world a better place for women and girls. That’s a stab where it hurts.

The media influences society in a significant way. If we hope to change the conversation around sexual violence and begin holding perpetrators accountable in society as well as in a court of law, we need the media to do better. We need consumers and readers to demand better. Good enough is not good enough. We wanted to think that the article by MamaMia was an oversight, however the subsequent podcast didn’t reassure us of this. To MamaMia: if you read this, and we hope you do, we would like to hear from you. We founded Cheek Media Co. for a purpose. We aren't afraid to ask questions and we aren't afraid to push back when we know something isn't right. And we won't stand for this rhetoric around sexual violence.

This article is an expression of opinion on a matter of public interest and is not to be taken as fact but instead as a critique of a communication to the public.