Everyday Victim Blaming

challenging institutional disbelief around domestic & sexual violence and abuse

Open email to BBC News online – “sexual abuse” is not “sex”

TW: discussion of child abuse, sexual abuse & rape

My original complaint to the BBC about the wording is at the bottom of this post. Above that is the BBC's response. At the top is my reply:

Dear [redacted],

Thank you for responding to my complaint, even though that response is multiple levels of wrong and you refuse to change the offending headline. Because I’m in a good mood, I’ve decided to take the time to explain why you are so completely wrong.

1. “Our headlines are necessarily short”

This is irrelevant. I checked on the BBC website and it seems from the following headlines (and the others I read), all published on the same day as yours, that the BBC is flexible about the number of characters and that 8 is the maximum number of words with 7 being the magical number.

Examples of BBC headlines:
Do children's toys influence their career choices?
Fethullah Gulen: Powerful but reclusive Turkish cleric
‘The harder we tried, the worse things got’
When an elephant walked on the frozen River Thames

So, in fact, you could have used either
“TV weatherman Fred Talbot on sexual abuse charges” or
“TV weatherman Fred Talbot on abuse charges”
without breaking any of the BBC’s rules or preferred style. You chose not to.

2. “I think that under these circumstances it is appropriate to refer to 'sex' as a way of referencing sexual abuse.”

You are wrong. It is never appropriate to refer to “sex” as a way of referencing sexual abuse. Words have meanings and their meanings have implications. “Sex” does not mean “sexual abuse” because the key word is “abuse”. The charges are for abuse. It so happens that the abuse was sexual in nature rather than simply physical abuse or verbal abuse.

By using “sex” instead of “abuse”, you are minimising the experiences of victims and the actions of their abusers. How do you think a child abuse or rape victim feels, seeing experiences like theirs described by you as “sex”? How do you think they feel society, as represented by the BBC, regards the seriousness of sexual crimes?

You do know that, in the UK, 1 in 5 women (aged 16 - 59) has experienced some form of sexual violence since the age of 16(1) and that 21% of girls and 11% of boys have experienced child sexual abuse(2)? Regarding it as appropriate to use the word “sex” to reference “sexual abuse” demonstrates that you regard an exciting headline as more important than the people who will read it.

3. “I cannot see that this would be misinterpreted or misconstrued by anyone”

You are wrong.

How do you think a rapist or child abuser interprets or construes your repeated use of the word “sex” instead of “sexual abuse”? They find it reinforcing, they interpret it as the BBC saying that what they did was not really rape or abuse but actually sex, or near as damn-it, that any accusation was a misunderstanding or someone “crying” rape or just a legal technicality. And that society, as represented by the BBC, agrees that what they did was actually no big deal.

4. “The body of the story makes the charges very clear.”

This is irrelevant. If you libelled someone in a headline but did not do so in the body of the story, would you use this as a defence? You also elide the fact that many people will read the headline but not the body of the story.

I understand that you want to use the word “sex” in your headlines. It rolls so trippingly off the tongue, it makes the headline seem so much lighter and nicer than “abuse” or “assault” or “rape”. It encourages non-victims to click through to the article and to feel they can be titillated by the story rather than distressed by it. But you also need to understand that all those reasons why you want to use the word “sex” – they’re the very reasons why any decent and responsible person would stop using it.

You have a choice here. Simply by your use of words in headlines, you can support victims or you can support abusers. Please stop choosing the latter.

Best wishes,

[Redacted]

(1) The Ministry of Justice (MoJ), Office for National Statistics (ONS) and Home Office joint Official Statistics bulletin on sexual violence (2013), An Overview of Sexual Offending in England and Wales
(2) Cawson, P., Wattam, C., Brooker, S., and Kelly, G., (2000) Child Maltreatment in the UK: A Study of the Prevalence of Child Abuse and Neglect. London, NSPCC.

In response to:

Dear [Redacted],

Many thanks for your email.

Our headlines are necessarily short and I think that under these circumstances it is appropriate to refer to 'sex' as a way of referencing sexual abuse. I cannot see that this would be misinterpreted or misconstrued by anyone given that our readers are aware that we are constrained in the number of words we can use for a headline.

The body of the story makes the charges very clear.

Bet wishes and thank you for your feedback

[Redacted], Head of Online BBC English Regions

-----Original Message-----
From: [redacted]
Sent: 27 January 2014 15:42
To: NewsOnline Complaints
Subject: Complaint Reply Required

{Location:} England
{Feedback Type:} I would like to... Make a complaint
{Complaint type:} BBC News (TV Radio Online)
{Complaint about:} BBC News Online
{Complaint category:} Factual error or inaccuracy
{Contacted before:} No
{Complaint title:} Sexual abuse is not sex

Hi there again. So twice in one day. Good going, BBC.

"TV weatherman Fred Talbot on sex charges".

Nope. These are not "sex charges". Sexual abuse is not sex. Sex requires
consent. Please stop confusing sexual abuse with sex.

I expect you to change the headline immediately. I would like you to make a
donation to charity every time we have to have this conversation. I would
like you to grasp the difference between abuse and sex.

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3 thoughts on “Open email to BBC News online – “sexual abuse” is not “sex”

  • Admin says:

    Thank you for complaining about this issue – and for being so determined in the face of (the usual) ignorance and brush-off that the BBC gives its funders.

    WE pay for the BBC via the TV licence. It’s about time that they started listening to us.

  • Redskies says:

    Thanks for giving me the tools and the confidence to demonstrate just how wrong the BBC’s email was.

    The BBC Online News went for the hat trick in the end, using “sex” instead of “abuse”, “assault” or “misconduct” in three different headlines, yesterday. I’m interested to see that there were no such headlines on the front or UK news pages, when I looked at lunchtime (before I sent the email but after my 3 complaints).

  • Sakthi says:

    Everything the first commenter said! Thank you for your eloquent, determined, and very much necessary complaints.