Source : Sara Janelle Facebook account.

AWARE’s hard hitting response to teenage magazine on its victim-shaming “advice”

“As an organisation which runs Singapore’s only specialist service for victims of sexual assault, the Sexual Assault Care Centre, we are extremely concerned and appalled by the way the article responded to the writer. This is especially because your magazine is targeted at teenage girls, some of whom might have experienced sexual assault. A survey we conducted found that one in three young people in Singapore have experienced some form of sexual violence – it is a significant part of young people’s social environment.” – Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE)

The above is part of an open letter sent by Jolene Tan,Head of Advocacy & Research, AWARE in response to an advice written on Teenage Magazine – a local lifestyle and entertainment magazine for young people in Singapore.

A reader wrote into the Dear Kelly advice column to talk about her experience of rape, saying that she is miserable and has no one to turn to. She told her story of a night she spent at her boyfriend’s house where she was finally got raped by the boy.

Instead of giving advice on how to manage the situation, “Kelly” then wrote a blaming-victim response on the column.

The way how the writer wrote the response on the victim’s pain, gave no solution to her but blamed her for giving the whole signs to her boyfriend. The poor girl must have felt shamed and despair as she had already said that she has no one to turn to.

However, at the same time, I do think that it does brings awareness to the kind of danger that females are exposed to. Whether it is strangers or people whom they know.

Below is the AWARE’s open letter in full :

Dear Editor-in-Chief of Teenage Magazine,

I write from gender equality advocacy group AWARE, in relation to the Dear Kelly column of Teenage Magazine’s November issue, which has been the subject of some social media discussion. In this column, “Kelly” responds to a victim of sexual assault, who expresses her distress over her recent experience of rape.

As an organisation which runs Singapore’s only specialist service for victims of sexual assault, the Sexual Assault Care Centre, we are extremely concerned and appalled by the way the article responded to the writer. This is especially because your magazine is targeted at teenage girls, some of whom might have experienced sexual assault. A survey we conducted found that one in three young people in Singapore have experienced some form of sexual violence – it is a significant part of young people’s social environment.

The tone throughout the column was condescending and unsupportive. Every line blamed the victim for being sexually assaulted. “Kelly” sent the wrong and harmful message that by going to someone’s house, by agreeing to stay over, or by kissing and cuddling someone, the victim had somehow automatically consented to further sexual activity. In fact, consent needs to be acquired at every stage of physical intimacy – if a person is too drunk or intoxicated to give fully voluntary agreement, they are not legally able to give consent. Sexual intercourse that happens under such situations amounts to rape – not, in “Kelly’s” minimising language, a mere “case of two teens totally misunderstanding each other”.

Secondly, “I don’t blame him for thinking you were not a virgin. You acted like a girl who has been around” is under no circumstance an acceptable response to a traumatised victim of sexual assault. After someone has experienced such an assault, why are you focusing on whether she has had any other sexual experience, and implying that this is somehow shameful or wrong? Your remarks contain the dangerous implication that it is acceptable to sexually assault someone who has had sexual experience, or that consent to one sexual encounter is a blanket consent to all others in the future. (Fortunately, our law is very clear that this is not the case.)

The title of the article is particularly disturbing. “Raped after lying to parents” focuses on the alleged wrongdoing or untrustworthiness of the victim, and suggests that the sexual assault is a kind of punishment or consequence. In reality, sexual assault happens because the perpetrator chooses to disregard consent, and not due to any other peripheral decisions made by the victim. No amount of truth-telling will stop a rapist.

In Singapore as globally, sexual assault is one of the most underreported crimes. Many victims cite disbelieving and unsupportive attitudes from their peers and family as a major reason why they choose not to report the crime. “Kelly’s” column would very likely discourage readers from reporting their own sexual assaults, as it would reinforce their expectation of judgmental and unsupportive responses. The column also role models an extremely negative mode of response which may influence whether young people offer empathetic support – or condescending judgment – to one another.

We therefore strongly urge that you publish an apology in the next issue. Rather than berate and judge victims of sexual assault, you should send the clear message that rape and sexual assault is never the victim’s fault, and encourage them to seek support and help. One potential resource is our Sexual Assault Care Centre, the contact details of which are set out below.

If you wish to learn more about sensitive responses to sexual assault, we would be happy to offer our training programme for first responders, where your team can learn more about the social and psychological realities of sexual assault, and how peers, family and authorities should respond in order to support victims and aid their recovery.

I know that it is not always easy to receive criticism, but your young readers – and society at large – deserves media outlets that act with responsibility and empathy. I look forward to hearing from you about what action you will take to address these concerns. Should you have any questions or concerns, we would be very happy to discuss them.

As this is a matter of public interest and we believe that your victim-blaming messages need to be publicly countered, we will also be publishing a copy of this email online.

Yours faithfully,

Jolene Tan
Head of Advocacy & Research, AWARE