Salacious, voyeuristic, insensitive: How the media harms one survivor of rape

By — February 27, 2013

Context. It’s a simple word that requires its own set of words to make clear: Context, according to Merriam-Webster, contains “the parts of a discourse that surround a word or passage and can throw light on its meaning.” Everything has it. But that doesn’t mean it’s in great supply, whether in how we speak about the world or in how we are presented with the news.

And that is dangerous. A story without context can cause harm.

Especially when you are writing about rape. Rape is a word that can hurt its survivors—it is a reminder of the terrible act that was perpetrated upon her or him. Rape survivors spend time, even a lifetime, trying to understand why this violence occurred and accepting it in their own ways. One such survivor I know is Amanda Lindhout.

Lindhout had been in Somalia in August 2008 as a Canadian journalist when teenage boys kidnapped her along with Australian journalist Nigel Brennan; Somali translator Abdifatah Mohammed Elmi; and driver Mahad Clise as they were returning on the Afgoye-Mogadishu road from interviews with Somali refugees at a camp called Celasha Biyaha. After 462 days of torture, the boys freed the two. They had already freed the translator and driver after 150 days.  

Amanda Lindhout in Dhobley, Somalia, in 2011. As the founder and executive director of the Global Enrichment Foundation, she brought a famine relief program called the Convoy for Hope into southern Somalia, providing more than 2 million meals to women, men, and children. (Jared Moossy)

Since her sudden release, Lindhout has been building a foundation that promotes peace and development in Somalia. She also created a program called SHE WILL, which supports survivors of rape and gender-based violence in Somalia because, she says, “I know firsthand how critical support systems are.” Hers is the most rare story of a woman actually thriving after living through horrors nearly beyond comprehension.

This, however, does not stop the media from hounding and demeaning her.

Lindhout says she has been “besieged by media requests to disclose the salacious details of the of abuse I experienced at the hands of my teenage captors.”

The media has wanted her to label things, she says, but “I never felt any obligation to share with the public the specific ways that I was hurt. I felt that it would suffice to say I had suffered ‘unimaginable abuse’ and that I was focused on healing and recovering. As time went on other details came out. I was chained. I was starved. I was held in an animal shed, kept in the dark. But I avoided language that labeled the abuse, particularly the sexual abuse.”

She has chosen to keep quiet many details of the suffering she endured at the hands of her captors for the sake of focusing on her life as it is now—for the sake of surviving, of creating a world she wants to live in. The media though, despite Lindhout’s requests to curb “sensational details” of her ordeal in its articles about her foundation, has gone ahead with stories that highlight her pain by using details she considers unrelated.

“I accept that my kidnapping story establishes context and I do not challenge that,” Lindhout told me. “But the details of the kidnapping are not relevant to a story about my foundation’s programs.”

The media diminishes and re-victimizes Lindhout again and again by disclosing unnecessary details she has asked them not to share. There are reasons she has requested discretion.

In her many public talks over the last three years about what she experienced, Lindhout herself never actually used the words “rape” or “torture”—until now. She says she knew that it would spur imaginations in ways she felt were invasive and unnecessary. Exactly how was she tortured? How many times was she raped?

Poorly presented stories have had real, terrible consequences for Lindhout. A February 5 story titled “Woman of Vision” in the Calgary Herald mentioned the tantalizing detail that she was sexually abused “daily”; it spurred two men to send her frightening messages asking if she “enjoyed the daily rapes.”  

I have gotten to know Lindhout over these years and am deeply inspired by her strength and success, which includes talking about her work helping women, such as at the Clinton Global Initiative in 2012. On February 14, she chose to speak out for One Billion Rising, the campaign organized by Eve Ensler’s V-Day that encourages women to “rise up” against violence. She also chose to use the word “rape” publicly for the first time. Her speech was remarkable. Here is an excerpt:

Spending such a long period of time as a hostage in Somalia gave me a window onto violence forced upon women. I experienced in captivity the brutal way women are treated when they are considered unworthy of equality and respect.

I experienced many things during those 15.5 months in captivity. Hunger, isolation, abuse of many kinds. The room I was kept in was so pitch black that I could not even see my own hand. I couldn’t move. My captors had wound a thick metal chain around each of my ankles and secured it with two heavy padlocks, which would remained until the day, I was released. I had lost everything. My family, my freedom, movement, the sunshine.

People ask me sometimes what the hardest part of it all was, and while it might be impossible to choose, being raped is something that I felt changed me forever. The first time it happened it was a like a line was drawn in the sand, my life before and my life after. And no matter how many times I suffered that abuse, it never got easier.

After this 10-minute speech, a reporter asked Lindhout if that was the first time she’d used the word “rape” in regard to her ordeal. In the next couple of days, she was fielding requests from media outlets around the world wanting interviews.

“I was baffled, truly,” she says. “I had not described being raped or said much more then I had in the past. I had simply owned that word as part of my experience.”

On February 16, however, the media coverage reached a true low. The Huffington Post published the following headline on its Canadian homepage:

“Reductionist” is the kindest word I can apply to this headline. “Awful,” “tasteless,” and “voyeuristic” are a few others. Note also the caption, which describes her as an “Alberta Girl”—Lindhout is a 31-year-old woman. Then there’s the subhead that says “Her Focus Today,” when all of this is decidedly not her focus, and you would know this if you took a minute to ask her. The story itself was merely a paste of a straightforward article by the CBC about the One Billion Rising speech.

Because I don’t want this headline to get more of the kind of attention it doesn’t deserve, I have posted it at the end of this story. And because Lindhout is a woman who has earned our respect as well as our attention, I will give her the space here to explain why this headline is particularly repulsive:

“My aversion to the words is not because I am ashamed of what happened to me,” she says. “But I am not just a woman, the ‘ex-hostage’ who was kidnapped, raped, and tortured. That diminishes me. That is not my identity. It is something that happened to me but it is not who I am. I am Amanda Lindhout. I am a survivor. I have survived rape and I have survived torture.”