Why communicating about sexual harm can be a challenge for the public sector


If sexual offences are so common in our society, why can it be so difficult to communicate about them and the broader issue of sexual harm? We think there are many reasons which include:

  • We do not always ask individuals who have been affected by sexual offences/harm and the trauma associated with it, what they need from our communications or to help us with our plans. (If and when we do, we must always ensure that their contribution to our work is not exploitative and is also safe and beneficial for them).
  • Individuals who have experienced sexual offences have a legal right to lifelong anonymity which may cause us to feel that we cannot or should not approach individuals to help us with our plans.
  • Sexual harm is a frightening subject which can have devastating consequences so rather than risk getting our communication wrong or risk causing distress, sometimes we do a little, or nothing at all.
  • We may fear being ‘cancelled’ or criticised through comments on social media or formal complaints to our organisations if our messages are perceived to be ‘wrong’ or only aimed at one ‘group’ of people.
  • We may be anxious about encouraging individuals who have been harmed into a criminal justice system that is demonstrating a low level of convictions for sexual offences.
  • We may be anxious about encouraging individuals to seek help and support for the trauma they are experiencing as a result of sexual harm, if and when we know that there is not enough support available, and they may have to wait to receive it.
  • We may not feel that we have a good enough understanding of how sexual crimes and sexual harm impact specific individuals or groups of people to be able to communicate appropriately.

societal & cultural reasons

There are also some broader societal and cultural reasons including:

  • Sexual offences are ‘gender-based’ crimes and women are girls are significantly more likely to experience it. Some perceptions of that term are that ‘the sexual harm agenda’ is an attack on men and boys. It is not, or it should not be, but those perceptions are a reality, so we need to listen to them, understand them, and try to challenge them in a respectful and constructive way.
  • Because more women and girls experience sexual harm than men and boys, campaigns and communications are often more focused on women and girls. Where there is not a balance of communications this can compound the stigma and challenges that other individuals may experience (which will be different in part to those experienced by women and girls). If not delivered appropriately it can also send a message to those individuals that they matter less because they are in a minority.
  • People who sexually harm other people are often known to those they harm which means they can be our friends, members of our family, and other people in our lives and that can be an uncomfortable, complex and intimate issue to openly address.
  • Families and ‘family business’ are often considered to be private and generally many people do not want to get involved in other people’s private lives. Back in 2013, YouGov research for the NSPCC found that fewer than one in five adults would report suspicions of child sexual abuse straight away [1]. Of these people 59% said that their rationale was that they feared being wrong about their suspicions.
  • Sexual offences and sexual harm involve intimate parts of the human body. Talking about those things in any way, including about sex and our sexual or general health, and particularly in relation to sexual harm, can be culturally difficult (and considered uncomfortable or even offensive by some).
  • Some individuals simply do not want to talk about, read or hear stories about sexual harm because it’s abhorrent and/or they find it too distressing.
  • Many communications about sexual harm focus on media reports of arrests, court proceedings and the devastating consequences of sexual harm for specific individuals. What is less communicated are stories of inspiration, hope, support, grit, and resilience for those who have rebuilt their lives following sexual harm. Stories about individuals who are born as a consequence of rape, or those who are related to someone convicted of a sexual offence and the impact of that to them and their futures are less told. All of this means there are big parts of our communications and stories, that are simply missing.

As a society, sexual harm is happening ‘on our watch’ and until we openly and bravely confront the cultural and deeply embedded societal reasons as to why that is, it will continue, which has to affect how we communicate about it.

There are undoubtedly other reasons and recognising them as the truths that they are, even if that is uncomfortable for us or others who work in the public sector, is required if we are to truly improve the way we communicate about sexual harm.

Understanding these things, which are the things that stop us communicating well, can help us get our communications right; when we get this right, we believe we can change lives and maybe even save lives.


[1] The barriers to reporting child abuse – YouGov

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