Nature and incidence of sexual violence

For example, in a case involving an alleged sexual attack by an 18-year-old young man on a 16-year-old schoolgirl as she was walking home after a night out, it was reported on three consecutive trial days in the local Lancashire Evening Post from 9 to 12 January 1985. The outcome goes beyond an acquittal of the accused. The verdicts are implicitly defining what appropriate behaviour is for women and suggesting that they do not have much of a safeguard if they stray into areas regarded as "male territory" whether it is a barracks room or a street late at night. Any hope that women will eventually feel safe wherever they go is not being helped by the publicity given to such cases.

Women's space is being clearly delimited. As Pain in 1991 indicated that "media and other agencies of socialization are important because they are seen to contribute to the construction of a (public) world in which the unceasing risk of sexual violence is understood to be an inevitable part of women's everyday life, or part of the natural environment." Thus, Crime reconstruction programmes, such as America's Most Wanted in the USA, and Crimewatch UK in Britain, have particular consequences for women in increasing their fear of crime and/or concern about their personal safety. This fear results in an ideology as Massey in 1994 has suggested: "women are most at risk of becoming the victim of sexual violence in a public environment, which places strict limitations on their use of space."

Crime coverage therefore, especially on violence against women, is significant – by warning women about which actions and locations are unsafe, it influences their decisions about where to go, what to wear, how to act, how late to stay out; or even by describing victim's physical attractiveness, dress, hair colour, marital status, social background and demeanour, it tells us how society views male acts of violence directed at women. It thus shapes people's minds about what may be acceptable or unacceptable behaviour for both women and men.

As we have discussed above, the media play an ideological role in shaping women's sense of the risks they are taking when entering public spaces which encourage them to restrict their movements and activities. Pain (1991) further claims that ideologies which shape our understanding of sexual violence are now the most important determinants of men's continuing dominance in public environments. Massey (1994) also indicates that the ideological and physical restriction of women's activities within the private sphere helps to both secure their continuing performance of domestic roles and exclude them from "entry into another, public world – a life not defined by family and husband".

The media then play a key role in socialising women to accept their subordinate status by way of constructing the female body as a site of risk. While Valentine in 1989 insisted that the media assist in socially constructing gendered spaces within and between public and private environments, news media research has generally failed to make use of this insight. Such an omission places a detrimental limit on understanding the ideological and material effects of media representations of crime and violence on women, who are as often depicted as victims.

Although the media has a powerful influence in setting public perceptions, it can't be seen as a prime object of blame alone, because it stands in a position of structured subordination to the "primary definers". That is to say, the media does not simply "create" the news, nor does it simply transmit the ideology of the "ruling class" in a conspiratorial fashion. Rather, the media tends to reproduce symbolically the existing structure of power in society's institutional order. This is what Becker called the "hierarchy of credibility" – the likelihood that those in powerful or high-status positions in society who offer opinions about controversial topics will have their definitions accepted, because such spokesmen are understood to have access to more accurate or more specialized information on particular topics than the majority of the population. The result of this structured preference given in the media to the opinions of the powerful is that these "spokesmen" become what we call the primary definer of topics.

These powerful people result in a "near-monopoly" situation, and it can be seen through four typical formats of crime news: firstly, the report based on police statements about the investigation of a particular case; secondly, the state of the war against crime report – normally based on a chief constable's or Home Office Statistics about current crime; thirdly, the staple diet of crime reporting – the story based on a court case; and fourthly, newspaper reports on parliamentary proceedings discussing changes in the law. Apart from these four types of crime news from which journalists get their material mostly based on the "primary definers", there is another form of crime coverage that is outside of a judicial context, which also gives the public a distorted impression of crime and society – news coverage of sexual assaults and rape.

Since 1985, there has been a significant increase in the reporting of rape cases. The number of such reportings in the Daily Mirror, for example, has increased from 26 in 1978 to 45 in 1985. In fact, it has become part of the normal "everyday" news for a large section of the population, but nevertheless, it is clear that most of the coverage focuses on the very few disturbed serial rapists, rather than typical rape. In consequences, the majority of people are given a highly distorted overall picture of the nature and incidence of sexual violence.

The manner and level of such reporting not merely "enhances women's fears" – Bart and O'Brien noted in 1985 that: "fear of rape makes it difficult for women to exist independently of men, because women believe they need men to protect them from other men", but it also leaves misleading impressions of both the crime and how it might be dealt with. For instance, potential victims could wrongly assume from news reports that rapes occur only in dangerous parts of town but not at home. In fact, it could even cause more serious damage to people's lives.

Firstly, the woman or girl who has suffered a sexual assault is made to suffer again by having sensationalist accounts of her ordeal blazoned to the entire nation, defeating attempts to forget. For instance, after the Brixton gang cases were widely reported in November 1985, the mother of one of the victims maintained that although the girls were referred to in court only by their first names in order to protect them from reprisals, she was particularly worried that people in the court's public gallery knew who the girl was. It was later reported on 18 November by London Evening Standard that the family had decided to leave the area.

Although there has been a more restricted age-range of named victims in 1971, from 12 to 60 years, than ten years ago, from 15 to 34 years, the issue of anonymity is still very much in debate in the 1970s legislation. However, there is little doubt that the detail of much of the reporting of rape cases in the early 1970s became, and has continued to be – deliberately titillating, and the theme of attempting to discredit the woman in the witness box continues.