The Dawn Chorus

Fresh Australian Feminism

Sex Crimes: How Much Does The Public Need To Know?

Posted by Mel Campbell on January 29, 2009

I hope we’d all agree that it’s better for crimes against women – especially sexual crimes – to be vigorously prosecuted, and for the details of these shocking offences to be made public so that the perpetrators are publicly shamed and in general these issues are talked about rather than swept under the carpet.

That said, there’s also a line between reporting a sex crime and finding its details titillating. I found the extreme detail in this report about the 2007 gang rape of a 13-year-old Sydney girl pretty upsetting to read:

Over the next few hours, the boys took turns entering the toilet cubicle, where they had oral sex with her.

One 15-year-old announced to the others “I’m going to root her”, but it took several unsuccessful attempts before he penetrated her while she experienced a tearing sensation that she said felt “terrible”.

When council workers interrupted them, they moved to a different public toilet in a nearby reserve where the activity continued, while outside the cubicle the boys made comments such as “smile like you’re enjoying it”.

They made her take off her clothes and watched one another violate her, causing her to bleed.

The issue here, I think, is to what extent journalists are obliged to report the particulars of a crime, especially if it involves children. (The victim in this case was 13; the perpetrators’ ages were not specified but at least one was 15.) I feel uncomfortable with the possibility that reporting of court cases like these is deliberately lurid because that way, the story is considered more ‘newsworthy’.

It’s illegal to name minors involved in court proceedings, but I can’t help but feel that the anonymity of both victim and perpetrator, coupled with the detailed description of the crime, dehumanises the crime. Does this then desensitise readers to horrific crimes in general? Elsewhere in journalism, it’s becoming common practice not to refer to the method of a suicide in case you give depressed people ideas, but what about giving potential sex offenders ideas?

This is an ethical issue I haven’t really worked out for myself yet, and I’m keen to hear your thoughts.

8 Responses to “Sex Crimes: How Much Does The Public Need To Know?”

  1. Nina said

    I would think the detailed description actually helps to humanise the crime. One is better able to imagine themselves or someone they love in this poor girl’s terrible situation, and so feel more disgust and horror at the actions of the perpetrators.

    As for desensitisation, though, I’m not sure.

  2. shades of blue said

    I wish the papers would stop calling it $%^&# sex. It’s not sex. Sex is consentual. If I read one more article in the age or the SMH that skirts around using the words ‘rape’ I may scream.

    I have a major issue with the titillating reporting that goes along with rape. I agree that it dehumanises the crime – I think it helps add to the shame and victim blaming that society heaps upon the victim. Not only are they forced to endure the attack itself, but the dissection of their dignity in a national newspaper. If the victim is over 18, their privacy goes out the window with it.

  3. Natasha said

    I do think that this style of journalism veers away from standard reportage, and I must admit that I am terribly cynical about it being employed as a means of selling more newspapers that are full of ‘stories’ in the narrative sense, rather than ‘reports of the news’. I think that this applied to the way the tragic incident of the little girl thrown from the Westgate Bridge was recounted in The Age also.

    The role of newspapers is changing at a fast pace, but I’m not sure I want to read more dramatic or sensational versions of news stories in The Age. But then, I am disappointed at all the ‘tabloid’ leanings that are taking place at The Age, The Sunday Age, and so many of its deplorable supplements.

  4. tina_sparkle said

    I agree with nina. to me the story evokes empathy for the victim. there’s only so many ‘ideas’ a sex offender can have and I think the importance of reporting on and making public the nitty gritty of sexual assault cases outweighs the “we have to keep the details quiet so it doesn’t fill boys’ heads with ideas” perspective.

    there is such a fine line though between reporting “the facts” and crossing over into titillation. where this line is or should be I’m not sure.

  5. whyimbitter said

    I agree with what others have said here, but wanted to add that the details may help the next person. I don’t think that hearing about one story should mean that if it happens to someone else in the same way it’s their fault, I just think if there’s anything we can do to help girls get out of this situation, we should.

    And having punishments published in newspapers (assuming hopefully they are rightfully punished and not just slapped on the wrist as Aus courts tend to do in these situations) could help boys think twice. And yes, it sucks that it would take punishment to stop them from doing this crap.

  6. Ajlouny said

    Upon reading the report, I was very disgusted in the detail that the writer included. It made me uncomfortable, but that wasn’t what struck me as wrong. There has always been detailed descriptions of some wrong doings all over our newspapers and the internet, but what was lacking was a direct indication that would say that the teenagers were doing something wrong. We all know it’s morally wrong and gross and violent…but when you read “When council workers interrupted them, they moved to a different public toilet in a nearby reserve where the activity continued”. Did they drag the girl there? Why would she go with them? Was she at gun point? Did they scare her into doing in it, or threaten her life? Nothing about that was written. So it reads like a dirty nasty porn letter.

  7. blue milk said

    I think this is an incredibly good point, and I often wonder about it when I am reading these kinds of news reports.

  8. au revoir said

    I have been thinking about this article for some time now. I believe that the details of the above newspaper report are unnecessarily graphic. I think that it does offer ‘ideas’ to other assailants or provide fodder for their fantasies at least. In fact, it reads more like a letter to penthouse than a news report about a horrific rape. I think publishing information about such crimes should be limited. It would be a nice day if the words ‘gang rape’ were shocking enough on their own.

    Thank you Dawn Chorus for this provoking article. It has caused me to question some fundamental values I hold in regards to reporting and free speech.

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