A WRITER who was raped in a park in Belfast seven years ago is an initiator of a festival held in Lambeth, south London, this month, to discuss sexual assault.
Winnie M. Li, an American writer and producer, co-founded the event with Dr Nina Burrowes, a psychologist specialising in the study of sexual abuse. Ms Li was brutally attacked in 2008 by a 15-year-old boy, who was later jailed.
At the festival, she said that she hoped to enable survivors of rape to tell their stories in more complex ways than the mainstream media might allow.
During a panel discussion exploring how the media reported sexual assault, she described the “surreal” experience of hearing herself referred to a “wee Chinese girl whose life is now ruined” on a local-radio talk show. She recalled the most lurid headline she read: “Sex Beast on the Loose”, and an interview in which she was asked whether her rapist was a monster.
“I was very conscious of the fact that they were trying to get an extreme statement from me. . . I am not going to call someone a monster, because everyone is a human being.”
Her reluctance was borne of a conviction that “divisive language is not productive”, she explained. An attack by a stranger in a park was rare, she suggested; many “less sensational” crimes were not reported at all. Her plea to the media was that they “try to capture the humanity of the people involved”.
Dr Burrowes, who works closely with the Crown Prosecution Service and the police, also spoke of the monster “myth”. An idea had taken hold, she said, that “we cannot possibly understand them: they are so far removed from us.
"So, if the offender looks nothing like a monster, we are perplexed; so we think it must be something the victim did.” A rapist treated another human being like an object, she argued. When the media also turned the perpetrator into an object, they got it wrong.
Her question, “Are we courageous enough to humanise the perpetrators?”, proved difficult for some in the audience.
One woman working in the area of child sexual exploitation was worried that such an approach “empowers further a person whose crime is about taking power from another human being.
“So many people who commit crimes end up in some way getting what they want: more attention and more power. Many victims and survivors would not have the slightest problem calling the perpetrator a ‘monster’.”