In today’s environment, we all have access to a wide variety of media that touches upon countless topics using numerous forms of expression. From TV shows, movies, and documentaries, to books, magazines, podcasts, music, artwork, social media content, and news, there is a never-ending supply of media at our fingertips. For adult survivors of child sexual abuse, media material can be helpful and inspiring, it can be disturbing and retraumatizing, or any variation in between.
Impact of Media
The media we consume impacts all of us in both obvious and subtle ways. It stirs emotions, sparks conversations, and reflects our cultural norms and struggles. Survivors of child sexual abuse may be especially impacted by:
- Reports of widespread abuse within an institutional setting, such as within a Catholic Archdiocese or within a youth-serving organization like the Boy Scouts
- A public figure who suffers a sexual assault or discloses past abuse
- A public figure who is accused of sexual assault or abuse, or is in legal or civil court related to sexual assault or abuse
- A new law impacting survivors that has been proposed or enacted
- A mass casualty event, such as a mass shooting, major accident, or natural disaster
- A movie, television show, song, or other media portraying sexual abuse or other violence
Reactions to sexual abuse in media
Every survivor’s experience, preferences, and perspectives are different, however there are several reactions to media about sexual abuse that survivors may experience, including:
- Traumatic memories or reminders of the abuse
- Heightened emotions, including sadness, anger, or anxiety
- Difficulty concentrating on daily tasks
- Wanting to disclose past abuse for the first time
- Wanting to seek supportive services and/or explore legal options
- Feeling validated and/or not alone
How sexual abuse is described or portrayed in media can also impact survivors. For example, news reports about a high-profile case may include terminology, as well as statements from the abuser or their representative, that may be upsetting. When sexual abuse is featured as part of a TV show, documentary, or movie, it can be either empowering or traumatizing, depending on how it is portrayed. The fact that sexual assault and abuse are common parts of the plot in “entertainment” can itself have an effect on survivors.
Self-care strategies around media consumption
Survivors are the experts on their lives and what feels helpful or hurtful. But since media of all kinds surrounds all of us and is difficult to ignore, survivors may find it challenging to maintain an environment that promotes their health, safety, and healing. Self-care strategies around media consumption may include:
- Reducing unwanted exposure to traumatic material in entertainment by reading overviews of it prior to reading, watching, or listening to the material in full
- Choosing reputable news organizations or individual journalists who are trauma-informed in their approach to reporting about sexual abuse and other forms of trauma or violence
- Asking other survivors for their suggestions or opinions about various media options
- Identifying and mobilizing supportive resources when material is upsetting or traumatizing
- Choosing not to read comments or engage with commenters online related to media surrounding sexual abuse
- “Unfollowing” or “silencing” sources of material on social media that are upsetting
Tips for engaging with media as a survivor
Survivors may choose to actively engage with various forms of media (or create their own) surrounding sexual abuse as a means to feel empowered, to feel connected with other survivors, and/or to educate others about sexual abuse. Methods for doing so might include posting to social media, joining or hosting a discussion group, or participating in an interview with the news media, among others.
Some helpful tips for actively engaging with media surrounding sexual abuse:
- Research how other survivors have engaged with media and note the pros and cons of pursuing a similar type of engagement.
- Remember that no one can predict or control how other people react to any form of media. It may be helpful to put safeguards in place in terms of how others can interact with the material. It’s also important to consider how loved ones may react.
- Keep in mind that nothing shared in a public domain is ever entirely confidential. Anything that identifies a person as a survivor in a public space is potentially accessible to abusers and to people in the survivor’s life who don’t know about their abuse.
- Be careful about publicly naming abusers who have not been convicted of a crime or held liable in a civil proceeding.
- Identify and mobilize any support that is needed in order to engage safely and in a way that supports physical and emotional health.
- The content or quality of media material cannot be guaranteed when others control it, as is the case with news media interviews. Misquotes and omissions of important context are common. Prepare for and expect that this could happen.
- When engaging with other survivors, remember that everyone’s experience and perspective is different. Not all survivors engage with, or react to, media in the same way.
Various forms of media enable ideas to be shared in creative ways. Whatever types of media survivors of sexual abuse choose to consume or engage with, they deserve to feel safe and supported in doing so. The trauma of sexual abuse and other forms of violence makes survivors uniquely vulnerable to the ways in which these crimes are portrayed or addressed in media material. Developing and adhering to self-care strategies regarding media can help survivors to experience a greater sense of empowerment and healing.