Why Journalism Is Afraid Of Sexual Assault
I am a fake journalist. By which I mean that I am a humor writer who writes fake news for The Whiskey Journal as well as Reductress and Above Average. I am by no means an actual journalist. I’m a comedian. I write satire and I perform stand up and sketch comedy across the country. But there was always one true story that ate away at me. It was the deeply personal story of the confusing time my ex-boyfriend forced sex with me. I struggled with what really happened there for years, terrified that no one would believe me and that this might tarnish my career before it really began. I had dated that guy. Our sexual history together was consensual, but I broke up with him and he retaliated by forcing sex as some crazed attempt to get me to want to be with him. Was that an attack? Was that rape? Was he actually allowed to do anything because if I consent once, then I consent forever? Can things like this happen in the confines of a relationship?
I asked these questions nearly every day for years. After therapy and with the Bill Cosby scandal rocking the comedy world, I felt the need to come forward with my story. Perhaps I could help other young girls and women who had struggled with similar confusing and hurtful experiences. Maybe all they needed was to be told they were not alone.
It all started with a piece I wrote for Xojane. Once it was on their website I felt relieved knowing the story had been released into the universe. It was now officially gone from me, my final step to moving on.
Strange things happened shortly after. For example, I was asked to appear on a Dr. Phil-like daytime talk show that sounded very exploitative. They wanted me to come on and talk about “what I learned” from my experience like it was just a backpacking trip that broadened my horizons. Many strangers reached out to me to tell me their stories which was truly touching and made me feel that TV appearances were out of the question. The article lived online to help other women and that was all it needed to be. I didn’t need to milk this for all it was worth and have some humiliating YouTube clip haunt me forever.
Then about a month later I got an email from a major women’s magazine. This wonderfully kind editor e-mailed me asking me if I would rewrite and expand on my story for an issue they were working on. This would be the first time my name would be in a print magazine! A big magazine! This story would reach a very wide audience and it would undoubtedly affect more people. I thought it sounded like something I should do. TV? No. More writing? Why not?
I worked on the story with the editor that week. She sent me a few notes and I incorporated them into my personal story which was admittedly a strange experience. This time this wasn’t just about me getting my story out like a great weight off my shoulders. I was writing like a journalist with notes and statistics that I had to be careful to add in. It felt no different than my Whiskey Journal articles in some ways, but here I was utilizing my own trauma. I wondered if I was franchising my pain by tweaking it and using it on multiple mediums like a true capitalist, but ultimately I felt that the good outweighed the bad. This would help some women and it wasn’t likely to damage my comedy career. I wrote the kind of piece that I had wanted to see for so long when I was struggling with my own rape.
But then, maybe two weeks later, I received an e-mail from this editor explaining that their legal department had gotten involved. Legal was scared of this story. They had a few questions for me and wanted to speak to me in a phone meeting.
Let me be clear – I have never pursued legal action. We live in a culture that silences victims and holds their stories in question. The line of questioning that comes after telling your story can feel like you are on trial for witchcraft. I knew that if I brought this to a court that it would be thrown out and that my attacker could potentially sue. That happens to many women unjustly. It’s horrendous. I knew my evidence was circumstantial and would never hold up against him in our rape culture courts.
The questioning was very ironic. Even the editor emphasized over and over again that she recognized how ironic this was. She apologized by saying, “After that Rolling Stone piece everyone just has to be a lot more careful with topics like this.”
They asked me if my attacker ever pursued action on my previous piece. Did we speak? Did I want to pursue action against him? Can we get that in writing? I wasn’t even sure which answers they were looking for. I felt like I had a best-case scenario here. The piece was vague on details to the point where you would only know who I was talking about if you knew us in our relationship at that time. Otherwise, it was anyone’s best guess. The piece mostly focused on statistics affecting women in abusive relationships and how many of these women fear being treated with suspicion. Yet, there I was.
Sadly, a week after that I received an email from the editor explaining that legal felt that the piece was too risky. A fellow writer told me that essentially once legal gets involved, it’s all over. What they say goes. The piece was going to be killed and would not be published by the magazine. I was given a kill fee for the piece – much lower than what I had been expecting for the piece itself.
I was pretty upset, for multiple reasons. They reached out to me! I didn’t pitch this story. Why didn’t they think about the possible consequences from the beginning? Also, I was pretty upset that the Rolling Stone piece was mentioned as much as it was during these conversations. It was essentially cited as a reason to be scared to publish this.
That is bullshit.
If you are not familiar with the Rolling Stone piece and its fallout, here’s some background. A journalist ran a story about a college rape and among all the actual cases of college rape, she focused on the one girl on campus who was faking her story. It’s a slap in the face to any actual victims of rape. On of their biggest fears is being treated like they are making this up and here a national outlet was showcasing a made up story. The journalist, however, is the one who really made the mistakes. She didn’t thoroughly examine or cross reference the story with anyone else. She essentially took the college girl’s word for it which, honestly, is a kind-hearted and empathetic thing to do. But that isn’t journalism. Journalism requires a certain amount of skepticism. You have to be certain that this story is true. Even I know that and I write fake stories for a living.
It is not fair that this one example of poor journalism silences the sexual abuse stories around the world. A major women’s magazine should absolutely publish stories affecting most women. They should not be afraid. Rolling Stone should have retaliated with actual stories of assault on campuses or in the entertainment industry or in relationships or anywhere. It’s such a prevalent problem that one poorly-reported story shouldn’t make society sweep all of them under the rug.
I hate that I and others like me will not be treated with double-the-caution from legal departments in magazines terrified of having their reputations tarnished in the way that Rolling Stone was (and, by the way, it wasn’t. We remember the story, but the magazine is doing just fine).
Society doesn’t believe victims and now neither do journalists. Then where are we turn? How do we let our voices be heard? This silencing is only perpetuating the very cycle that makes victims of abuse afraid to come forward.
I can’t help but see a double irony here. Now magazines are as afraid to come forward about sexual abuse as victims are because they have been made the victims, too. They were betrayed and hurt just like I was years ago and just like so many other victims have been. Magazines and publications around the world hear me: you are stronger than this. Rise above the fear, tackle real bravery, and give voice to these important issues. I am not afraid and neither should you be. None of us are victims. When we share these experiences, we are bosses.