Rowena Chiu gets asked the question by journalists regularly. “Why did you agree to meet with Harvey Weinstein in his hotel room?” The answer, to anyone who knows the context, is obvious. Rowena was a 24-year-old assistant and her boss was one of the most powerful producers in Hollywood. She was on assignment with him at the Venice Film Festival and hotel room meetings were part of her job. Weinstein was notoriously hard to please and likely to fire employees on a whim in order to underscore his power. And yet, the question from journalists indicates that it is somehow Rowena’s responsibility to explain why she was not consenting to sex when she complied with a commonplace request from her older, married boss. The irony was not lost on Rowena when the press asked her the question even while interviewing her in —you guessed it—a hotel room.
Questions like these, which are posed to sexual assault and abuse survivors as a matter of routine, are not only victim-blaming and insulting, they are not excusable anymore. Not just because they overlook prominent elements of the story as in Rowena’s case, but also because journalists should know better.
Rowena told us about reporters who voiced their intention to conduct ‘survivor-centric’ interviews that did not, in fact, feel survivor-centric to her. In fairness, she says “I think that journalists sometimes, in an effort to, I suppose, relate to the listener or relate to the reader and put themselves in their shoes, will ask you to…justify what you were doing.”
The problem is, journalists (and law enforcement, the courts, and the general public) have had ample opportunity to better understand how sexual victimization works. This includes common, well-studied responses to trauma. And yet, it’s still standard for survivors to be treated as suspects themselves in press interviews, in courtrooms, and by people in their private lives. A victim’s credibility is not assumed, far from it. This, even though the incidence of false reporting of sexual crimes is extremely low, a basic fact that all journalists should know.
“Why were you out so late? Why didn’t you fight, run, or scream? Why didn’t you report right away? Why are you smearing the name of such a beloved man? Why did you email him, have lunch with him, work with him, act politely toward him, Why? Why? Why?”
Because we have a right to socialize at night. Because when humans are attacked, our brains and bodies respond reflexively and we switch into survival mode, manifesting in responses from dissociation to self-protective acquiescence and more. Because we know that victims of sexual crimes, especially women, are almost always doubted, retraumatized, or revictimized in some way. Because it’s common to minimize and deny our own sexual violation, at least at first. Because we don’t want our livelihood or social support network taken away from us too, often at a time when we need it most.
This is all highly accessible, well-understood, and thoroughly researched information. And yet, with some notable exceptions (Rich McHugh, Nicki Weisensee Egan, Megan Twohey, Ronan Farrow, Jodi Kantor, and others), journalists regularly pose victim-blaming questions to sexual assault and abuse survivors. They put the burden of proof on the victim which is not only unfair but also deeply hurtful and traumatizing. This also discourages survivors from coming forward, which can have disastrous consequences for both the individual and society as a whole. It takes a huge amount of courage for survivors to come forward publicly, in a court of law, or to anyone at all. Partly because these retraumatizing responses are completely predictable.
They shouldn’t be. So let’s talk about turning the tables. Survivors have every right to point out the ignorance of these questions when confronted with them if they choose. A survivor might respond in any of the following ways, for example. “Why are you questioning the natural and normal responses of someone who has been violated and traumatized? Based on all the information that’s available, why don’t you know more about this issue? Do you understand dissociation? Do you know how grooming works? Why would you doubt a survivor’s credibility when the incidence of false accusations is so low? Are you unaware that serial offenders frequently appear to the public as sensitive, generous, lovable people? Have you done your homework?”
And while we’re at it, let’s see the press start regularly grilling reported perpetrators, putting them in the hot seat for a change. “How do you explain your aggressive behavior? Why did you follow her home that night? What made it okay to violate the rules of your workplace? What gave you the right to touch him? Aren’t you aware that an intoxicated person cannot consent? Why did you get them in your room under false pretenses? Why did you violate their trust? Why did you commit rape? Why don’t you seem to care that you hurt her?”
It’s telling that we rarely see this type of questioning.
Rowena Chiu summed it up well during our recent podcast interview when she described the victim-blaming questions she regularly receives, “Clearly the aggressor has no agency whatsoever. That’s barely mentioned. It’s kind of staggering, how the imbalance is so much on the survivor.”
Staggering is right. Victims deserve the benefit of the doubt far more than reported offenders. That is a fact backed by research. Facts and research are a journalist’s wheelhouse, so there are no excuses. It’s time for the press, and society as a whole, to stop perpetuating this harmful and ignorant approach toward survivors and start making offenders and victim-blaming journalists answer for their behaviors instead.