Domestic violence
The titillating portrayal of sexual violence, the regularity with which it is committed, and the way in which we leap to blame and discredit victims is the real scandal.iStock

Rape is not 'a romp'. This is something we shouldn't need to say in 2016. And yet recent news coverage makes it clear that we still have a long way to go in reporting on cases of sexual violence without blaming the victim or perpetuating harmful and damaging societal misconceptions.

Just look at the response to the ongoing case in which singer Kesha has accused producer Dr Luke (real name Lukasz Gottvald) of years of sexual abuse (allegations he denies). Discussing the case, American talk show host Wendy Williams said: "If everybody complained because somebody allegedly sexually abused them... then contracts would be broken all the time."

She also suggested that because Kesha was "no spring chicken" she should have somehow taken greater responsibility for exposing the alleged abuse, asking (of the singer and her mother): "Why weren't they rolling camera on it?"

Reporting on an inquest into the circumstances surrounding the death of 18-year old private Cheryl James at Deepcut Barracks in Surrey, the Sun published an article entitled: "'Suicide' Army girl locked in for romp", in which it described a scenario that sounded like an attempted rape or sexual assault: "Deepcut soldier Cheryl James was locked in a room and chased by a sergeant trying to 'have his way' with her".

Multiple news outlets are reporting on the ongoing case of footballer Adam Johnson, with many focusing neither on the alleged victim or alleged perpetrator, but on Johnson's partner instead – one headline read: "Wag stands by her child sex abuser football star".

The consequences of such reporting are immediately apparent in the responses below the display of this headline on Twitter – criticism focuses almost entirely on Stacey Flounders, Johnson's now ex-partner, with comments such as "she's just as bad", "sick bitch", "tramp", "thick money grabber" and "she deserves every thing she gets".

The case has also been described as a "sex trial", and seen headlines such as "Daughter 'wanted to kill herself' after confessing to father", which uses the word 'confessing' to describe the disclosure of alleged abuse, seemingly implying some guilt or fault on the part of the alleged victim.

Meanwhile, coverage of the recent case of a man acquitted of the charge of sexually assaulting a woman at a train station has sparked a string of articles with headlines like: "It's time we stopped treating all men as sex pests" and "No one is safe from prosecutors' terrifying incompetence on 'sex crimes'", which risk fuelling the misconception that false allegations of sexual offences are common.

In reality, they are no higher than for other types of crime, but victims do feel disproportionately unable to come forward and report what has happened, in large part precisely because of the attitudes and stigma fuelled by such myths. Just 15% of victims of the most serious sexual offences report them to the police.

This is not a new problem – high-profile examples of problematic media coverage include a 2011 New York Times article about the gang rape of an 11-year old girl that claimed she "dressed older than her age", and "would hang out with teenage boys at a playground". It described locals wondering: "How could their young men have been drawn into such an act?" and worrying that: "these boys have to live with this for the rest of their lives."

CNN coverage of the Steubenville rape case involved one reporter at the sentencing of the perpetrators saying: "Incredibly difficult, even for an outsider like me, to watch what happened as these two young men that had such promising futures, star football players, very good students, literally watched as they believed their lives fell apart."

But the phenomenon doesn't seem to be going away in a hurry, as a recent article appearing to sympathise with convicted rapist Daniel Holtzclaw demonstrated. (Though the withdrawal of that piece, which has sparked an internal investigation at SB Nation, does at least suggest increasing protest about such coverage may be beginning to take effect.)

As well as reporting on sexual violence in a way that seems to blame the victim, melodramatic and titillating coverage is another major problem. This might involve terms such as 'sex slave' being used instead of rape victim, 'sex scandal' being used to describe a sexual violence story, stories of sexual violence being reported on the same page as glamour pictures of topless models, or the romanticised description of child abuse or rape as a 'tryst' or 'affair'.

Then there is coverage that dehumanizes and objectifies the victim, which risks making the story seem unreal or dramatized, and removes the sense that a real person has been assaulted or murdered. Reporting on the death of a woman this month, the Scottish Sun used the headline: "Man charged over 'hooker' body in flat", which it quickly changed to: "Man charged over 'prostitute' body in flat", after objections were raised on social media.

Following the death of Reeva Steenkamp, who was shot dead by her partner Oscar Pistorius, the New York Post chose the headline: "Blade Slays Blonde", accompanied by an image of Steenkamp in a bikini.

The impact of irresponsible reporting can be enormous, both directly and indirectly. The portrayal of victims of sexual abuse in the media can have an immediate and damaging influence on their treatment by the general public, who are already often predisposed to blame and shame victims, particularly in high-profile cases.

The woman raped by footballer Ched Evans was repeatedly named and targeted with abuse on social media, in violation of her legal right to anonymity, forcing her to change her identity and move house five times.

In a wider sense there is a real risk that such coverage exacerbates existing misconceptions about victims of sexual violence, leading to the potential that juries may be biased against them, as Alison Saunders, then Director of Public Prosecutions, warned in 2014.

This is not an overreaction – figures released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) recently revealed that more than a quarter of the public believe drunk victims of rape or sexual assault are either partly or fully to blame for what happened to them, and over a third believe they are fully or partly to blame if they had been 'flirting heavily' beforehand.

Meanwhile, the 'othering' of those convicted of sex offences, who are often labelled 'sick' or 'monsters' by the press, is also not particularly helpful, as it contributes to the notion that rapists are fantastical strangers and draws an unhelpful and unfounded link with mental health problems, rather than facing the reality; that 90% of rapists are known to their victims and that these are crimes committed by men who are brothers, husbands, fathers and colleagues.

The titillating portrayal of sexual violence, the regularity with which it is committed, and the way in which we leap to blame and discredit victims is the real scandal.