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Media representation of violence against women: why we need to talk about the Navy

This blog is the second in a series in which Claire Simpson, PhD student at the University of Stirling discusses the results of her media monitoring project. Read her first blog here. Over the next few weeks we will publish blogs from Claire where she takes in an in depth look at some of the results of her study. 

As part of a series of blogs based on a week’s monitoring of Scottish newspaper coverage of VAW I can safely say: we need to talk about the Navy. The Royal Navy featured prominently during my focus week attracting both positive and negative press relating to different forms of VAW. 5 articles reported on an alleged rape by a Navy sailor and a further 3 discussed the Navy’s ban on the display of pornographic images in cabins.

A male sailor was accused of raping a woman whilst she slept. Four of the five columns mention that the woman was drunk, doing little to dispel myths and stereotypes surrounding rape and the culture of victim blaming. Every article begins with the phrase “A Royal Navy officer/sailor...”1-5 instantly making the focus of the article the perpetrator and not the survivor. Defining him as part of the armed forces from the start instantly shows the man in a positive light as he fights for our country.

Only one article4 provides a statement from the woman involved, where she explains due to shock and fear she was unable to pull up her pants and pyjama bottoms after the attack. The newspaper could have included testimony from Rape Crisis Scotland (RCS), or another woman’s organisation, at this point to validate the survivor’s behaviour. RCS6 recently launched their “I Just Froze” campaign which aims to distinguish freezing as a legitimate and instinctive response to an attack, challenging the presumption that fight or flight are the only correct reactions to trauma. The newspaper missed a valuable opportunity to highlight this little-understood fact.

All of the stories focus on the actions and background of the perpetrator and all mention how apologetic and remorseful he was afterwards by referencing his texts to his mother detailing his regret. Some of the articles reference the apology he sent to the survivor in a bid to “placate”4 her. Not only did this apology form part of his defence in court but it was presented by the press as an attempt to repair the pain and damage he had inflicted. An apology won’t undo the action. An apology does not mean justice has been served. An apology does not mean the attacker is really a good person who made a mistake. Three articles appeared to further ‘excuse’ the rapist noting he is a sex addict and has attended addiction meetings. This inclusion perpetuates the myth of rape as an act of lost control. Rape is about exerting power and control over the victim. Providing any justification for rape, especially if it suggests it was due to provocation or loss of control, benefits the rapist as it implies the rape was unplanned and accidental therefore shifting blame on to the victim.

In the same week The Royal Navy instigated a ban on pornographic images on its vessels and bases to promote a more inclusive, less intimidating work environment for its sailors. If a sailor disobeys the restriction they may face charges of sexual harassment. The use of gender stereotypes is prevalent in reporting on this issue. Only one column, that in The Times7, specifically mentions the ban is for both male and female images whilst the articles in the Daily Mail8+9 only discuss the prohibition with reference to female photographs. The ban is presented as only being for the benefit of women. None of them acknowledge that men could be equally outraged, or threatened, by pornographic images.

The gender inequality is further demonstrated by the press through female sailors never being referred to as such. The word 'sailor’ is used when discussing the ban on images strongly suggesting that sailors are men whilst women in the Navy are only ever referred to as “recruits”7, “comrades”, “staff”8 or “colleagues”9. This reinforces the notion of the Navy as a masculine profession and to some extent casts a shadow over the positive step towards equality. Each article portrays the display of pornographic images of women on Navy vessels as a long-standing tradition being brought to an end in the name of gender equality. Indeed one column in the Daily Mail9 justifies the presence of nude pictures as a form of companionship during the difficult time at sea and states if a woman takes issue with such then she is not fit to serve in the Navy. Pornography is not a necessity for sailors to be able to do their jobs. To ridicule those believing in gender equality, fighting for an end to the sexualisation and objectification of women is insulting and belittles the issues. These attitudes are why media monitoring is crucial in the fight to dispel myths and stereotypes regarding VAW and for the equal representation and treatment of women by the media.

 1. West, A., 2017. Sailor’s Text from Mum of ‘Rape’ Girl. The Scottish Sun, 22 Feb. p4 https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/2922872/royal-navy-sailor-accused-of-rapin...
2. Taylor, C-A., 2017. Sailor is Cleared of ‘Rape in Sleep’. The Scottish Sun, 23 Feb. p11
3. Mirror., 2017. ‘Rapist Told Mum of Guilt’. Daily Mirror, 21 Feb. p4
4. Camber, R., 2017. She was Asleep and Drunk…I had Sex with Her. Scottish Daily Mail, 21 Feb. p5
5. Times., 2017. Texts ‘Admitted Rape’. The Times Scotland, 21 Feb. p4
6. Rape Crisis Scotland, 2017. I Just Froze. [online] Available at <http://www.rapecrisisscotland.org.uk/campaigns-projects/i-just-froze/> [Accessed 8/4/2017]
7. Kenber, B., 2017. Royal Navy Bans Pin-ups Below Decks. The Times Scotland, 20 Feb. p24 https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/royal-navy-bans-pin-ups-below-decks-m...
8. Mail., 2017. Navy Orders End to Sailors’ Sexy Pin-ups. Scottish Daily Mail, 20 Feb. p24
9. Vine, S., 2017. N/A. Scottish Daily Mail, 22 Feb. p18

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