Speaking of Women's Rights...: Survivor Stories:Education, Entertainment,or Public Investigation?

Monday, April 13, 2015

Survivor Stories:
Education, Entertainment,
or Public Investigation?

Law & Order: SVU Rips Story From Dozens of Campus Rape Headlines
By Alex Kory

Including the voices and real life experiences of survivors can personalize issues like domestic violence and sexual assault in ways that statistics cannot. Stories educate, inspire, and connect people. Because of this, survivor stories are frequently told on the news, at public events, and even in movies and television. But has our demand for survivor stories come at the expense of survivors themselves?

While some survivors choose to share their stories on their own accord, many others are approached with speaking opportunities or interview requests. When I worked as a domestic violence advocate it was not uncommon to get inquiries from media or event planners looking for a survivor to share her story; Legal Voice, too, frequently receives similar requests. As advocates, we can help survivors decide whether to share her story by weighing the intent of a request against the impact on the survivor. In the end, the survivor is our number one priority.

But in other circumstances, that isn’t the case. Even with seemingly good intentions, education can quickly become exploitation by journalists, event planners, or panel moderators who are simply looking for the shocking details. Survivors may face disbelief in their stories or be pressed for explanations of very intimate, personal, and traumatizing events. Put on the spot, survivors may not have prepared for certain questions or considered the potential impacts of taking their story public.

Journalists who report on violence against women have to balance the demand for stories with scrupulous fact-checking. In the aftermath of Rolling Stone’s discredited story on an alleged gang-rape at University of Virginia, journalists are even wearier of believing a survivor’s own words. And as more stories are reported, including stories that become discredited, the public is weighing in on the issue in disturbing ways—playing out the role of investigator and adjudicator in news article comment sections and on social media.

Survivor stories that are told without the input or permission of the survivor can create risk, unwanted attention, and scrutiny for the survivor. I cannot count the number of times I saw the video of Janay Rice (Editor’s note: link does not take you to actual video) being dragged unconscious out of an elevator—not once because I sought it out. When she did decide to speak about her experience to ESPN, over 650 people weighed in in the comments section, with varying degrees of victim-blaming and misogyny.

It becomes even more problematic when we try to reconcile the demand for survivor stories in the news and at public events with the entertainment industry’s use of violence against women. While some stories are told to educate and engage people, others employ violence against women solely and indisputably for the purpose of entertainment. The wildly successful Law and Order: SVU—a show that dramatizes, reenacts, and profits off of stolen sexual violence survivor stories—has been feeding our insatiable desire for “real-life” survivor stories for over 16 years. And like the entertainment industry, most news media outlets are also driven by profits, which can lead to sensationalist reporting, gratuitous violence, and even highly sexualized depictions of victims and survivors.

Survivor stories at public events such as conferences, fundraisers, and even hearings on proposed legislation allow for live interaction between survivors and the audience, opening up the dialogue in critical ways. But it also creates the potential for invasive questions or offensive assertions by people assessing credibility, judging stories, and picking out the survivor’s mistakes. All of this may leave survivors feeling exhausted, angry, and exploited.

The goal of sharing survivor stories should be to empower women affected by violence and inspire others to take action against it. But when survivors are scrutinized, blamed, and used for entertainment, we’re only adding to the myriad reasons for the gross underreporting of rape and domestic violence.

So how can we engage with survivor stories in a way that is respectful, educational, healing, and empowering? There is no bright line rule and we can’t always anticipate the full impact of sharing a survivor story. But we can take steps to carefully consider the survivor speaker, the audience, and the purpose.
  1. Survivor speaker: Choosing a speaker should be done thoughtfully. As an advocate at an emergency domestic violence shelter, I always turned down requests from people seeking survivors to speak because my clients were homeless and living in crisis, and often in the process of seeking legal protection or child custody. Survivors should be given space first before being asked to take their story public, and should not be asked to decide immediately. The survivor should be able to choose her own identifiers or labels, if any (i.e. dv survivor, victim of trafficking, etc.) and should be able to decide beforehand what topics will be discussed.
  2. Audience: The particular audience may impact who the speaker is, what topics will be covered, and whether the audience will be able to engage with the speaker or not. Some survivors may be invigorated by speaking to potentially hostile or uninformed audiences like lawmakers or batterers groups. Others may prefer sympathetic audiences already knowledgeable about and committed to ending violence against women.
  3. Purpose: Generally, survivor stories should be shared with some intention of educating people about the problem of gender-based violence and inspiring them to take action—rather than to entertain or instill fear. It may also be important to consider whether the story is put into context, related to larger societal issue, or accompanied by a discussion of the root problems and possible solutions, or a call to action.
Public speaking is scary enough. Asking a survivor to share a traumatic story with strangers should always be facilitated with care and respect. For more insight, check out the Survivor’s Guide to Public Speaking by the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence.


Alex Kory is an intern at Legal Voice and 4 short weeks away from graduation. She is a Scholar for Justice at Seattle University School of Law; and like a true north westerner, she camps in the rain.

Photo courtesy of Jezebel (Gawker Media).