Challenging rape culture in the media

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Challenging rape culture in the media

Farrah Khan and Shannon Giannitsopoulou are Toronto-based feminists and co-founders of the grassroots organization Femifesto. Scott Neigh interviews them about Femifesto's work to transform rape culture to consent culture, particularly Use the Right Words: Media Reporting on Sexual Violence in Canada, a free guide for journalists that provides language and frameworks to report on sexual violence in ways that do not normalize it and that do not shame and blame survivors.

The phrase "rape culture" names the many ways through which sexual violence gets normalized and trivialized in our society. Recent years have seen an encouraging upsurge in public conversation about sexual violence and an opening of greater space for at least some survivors to name what they have experienced and at whose hands. But for the moment, at least, gender oppression and sexual violence remain pervasive, and the impulse to frame sexual violence as normal, inevitable, and the fault of the victim/survivor, remains dominant.

One half of the phrase "rape culture" is, of course, the word "culture." Part of what that word is meant to convey is that the source of this normalization of sexual violence and the associated shaming and blaming of victims is not some monolithic external enemy that can be easily identified and then denounced and opposed. Rather, this normalization is embedded in culture – in a million little ways that people talk and act every day. It's not external to us, but rather is integral to the scenes of everyday life that have shaped who we are and is often, in turn, reproduced by many of us as we move through the world – not infrequently, whether we are aware of that fact or not.

Challenging sexual violence and gender inequality involves many different kinds of work, including addressing the material conditions that allow and encourage them to happen, and supporting survivors. Another important aspect, though, is pushing back against rape culture's constant reproduction in all of these everyday ways of this sense that sexual violence is normal and inevitable.

Farrah Khan and Shannon Giannitsopoulou met years ago when both worked at a feminist organization focused on issues of gender-based violence. They developed a friendship through talking feminism across a wide range of issues and topics in their spare moments. Given the work they were doing, though, that conversation constantly returned to questions related to the coverage of sexual violence in the media. Such coverage is often done in ways that embody the worst of rape culture. Because of the reach of the mass media, such coverage not only harms the survivors who are the subject of the stories, but does a great deal to spread and reproduce rape culture in society more broadly.

At some point, the two of them plus another friend and collaborator of theirs, Sasha Elford, decided that they needed to do something about it: They founded Femifesto and got to work on the Use the Right Words guide. The initial draft was written by the three co-founders of Femifesto, but the version that is currently available has been developed over the course of years through consultation with feminists from across Canada, including journalists, survivors, and advocates.

Femifesto's work has also included doing a range of workshops and trainings, which they have often used as an opportunity to deepen and diversify conversations about how to challenge rape culture in the media and beyond. Since the launch of the guide a few years ago, the hashtag #usetherightwords periodically crops up on social media, with feminists making visible corrections to headlines and stories that reproduce rape culture. And as both media and the larger conversation around sexual violence continue to evolve, Khan and Giannitsopoulou hope that the Use the Right Words guide can continue to evolve as well.

Image: The image modified for use in this post is used with permission of Femifesto.


Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada, giving you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out its website here. You can also follow them on FaceBook or Twitter, or contact [email protected] to join our weekly email update list.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton (formerly Sudbury), Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

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