Centering Youth Voices in Media Coverage of Sexual Violence
Children and youth under the age of 18 are the most at risk for sexual assault in Canada, followed by young people aged 18-24 (Statistics Canada).
This issue is critically important to young people, but so often, older adult voices are prioritized. We spoke with Tessa Hill, Lia Valentis, and Destiny Laldeo about what youth are doing to shift rape culture to consent culture, and how media coverage of sexual violence can better support youth survivors.
Destiny Laldeo is the cofounder of Bad Subject, which provides workshops on consent, rape culture and media literacy to high school students.
Tessa Hill and Lia Valentis are the teenage activists behind the We Give Consent campaign and Allegedly the movie.
Interviewer: What conversations have you heard about media reporting on sexual assault and rape?
Tessa: “In our [school] community there’s been a lack of conversation about how the media reports on sexual assault and rape… If you are not comfortable and exposed to the issue of rape culture and sexual assault, then you don’t pick up on what’s insensitive about using words like ‘allegedly.’”
Lia: “When there’s [cases like] Jian Ghomeshi or Bill Cosby, they are talked about a lot, but after a while [discussions] die down… It should be a continued conversation… Even if you are not a survivor or perpetrator of sexual assault, the conversation is about everybody, and that’s what’s missing.”
Destiny: “I’m happy that in the university setting, there are a lot of workshops and people speaking about rape culture but these conversations need to happen earlier on so we can have more complex and nuanced conversations about how colonization, gender identity, sexual orientation and race inform how we engage with consent and how we understand consent.”
Interviewer: How are your communities creating consent culture?
Tessa: “Our project is helping to talk about consent culture and the new update to the curriculum about creating consent culture… More people in our school are aware of consent and that it is important.”
Destiny: “Our project also has a part in creating consent culture because we teach consent in all of its complex and nuanced ways. We go into high school classrooms and we engage with consent as a framework to mitigate the harm we may cause our current/future partners and/or friends.”
Tessa: “I feel like so many people don’t have access to this information. This is why we did our project and why we wanted the curriculum to change [so that] everyone has access to this information.”
Interviewer: What are the challenges you have seen in media reporting on sexual violence and rape enacted against youth and what changes would you like to see?
Lia: “Instead of [talking about] ‘This is how you can avoid it,’ acknowledge that… it doesn’t only happen to white, cisgender, able-bodied women. It doesn’t only happen to people of a certain age, but it also happens to youth. And it doesn’t matter what you’re wearing!”
Destiny: “I think the media doesn’t have a solid understanding of sexual violence. They are continuing to perpetuate age-old myths about sexual assault which re-victimizes [survivors]. I would like for the media to create a way of reporting on sexual violence which respects the person who has been harmed and humanizes their experience.”
Interviewer: Often survivors are portrayed as white, straight, cisgender, able-bodied women. How can the media avoid minimizing stories of survivors that don’t fit this narrative?
Destiny: “If the media turned to more grassroots nonprofits who are creating a dialogue in this discussion based on their experience working with folks who have experienced violence, I think it would minimize the stories which do not contribute to the conversation.”
Tessa: “It’s necessary that the media look into finding people that will give them more of a variety of information, finding different stories and talking about different parts of the story.”
Interviewer: Statistics show most survivors don’t report. Why is it important to have a diverse representation of survivorship in media reporting?
Destiny: “It’s important to recognize that everyone heals and shows emotions in different ways. There’s no correct way to heal or access support… Also, we have limited access to those resources; if we aren’t covered by our parent’s health insurance as young people we may not get the counselling we need. If you do disclose as someone who has experienced [violence] at school to [someone like] a VP or a counsellor, legally they have to tell your parents and they have to contact child services and the police. Some young folks do not want their parents to know about the violence they have experienced because they fear their family’s reaction. The whole process can be quite traumatizing when all one wants to do is figure out how to take care of themself.”
Tessa: “I think another part of it that I thought of is creating an understanding that somebody doesn’t want to report it on the legal level or on the internet, but they might want to disclose to a relative or to a friend.”
Interviewer: There has been a swell in media coverage of rape culture in recent months. What do we still need to address?
Lia: “What’s important is the understanding that a lot of people who are part of the discussion right now are people that deliberately sign up for it and the people that go take their time and find the events [to attend], or they connect with people who work on consent and rape culture every day. Maybe bringing [consent education] into school [would help].”
Destiny: “I am loving the conversations that have been happening in the community, not so much what’s been happening in the media…As youth we have been filling the gap about what’s been left unsaid by adults… Let’s go beyond ‘yes means yes!’ and ‘no means no!’ And let’s make sure that everyone has access to conversations about consent.”
This blog is part of a series of interviews femifesto is publishing on media reporting and sexual violence in diverse communities across Canada.