Shamed into silence: Female journalists are disproportionately targeted for sexual harassment and assault — and I'm proof.
I exit the elevator at the wrong floor. All the corridors in this generic international hotel look identical. The lights are low, the air is muggy.
I have spent the evening with fellow journalists who were invited to accompany the World Cup champions Brazil to play a “peace match” in Haiti. We’ll fly with the football team into Port-au-Prince tomorrow from the Dominican Republic, but for tonight I’m feeling a little tired of the testosterone. I am the only female journalist, the youngest in the group, and a freelancer.
I am usually based in Latin America, a region known for its machismo, so I am familiar with being told women shouldn’t cover sports, business or politics. I am familiar with being judged on my appearance over my ability. I am familiar with laughing it off, even if some of the comments linger. I am familiar with being a woman in a man’s world.
But what happens next is not familiar.
A man wearing the uniform of the athletes suddenly pins me against the wall before I realize what is happening. He drags me into a dark corner, forces his tongue down my throat and hands up my skirt, and tears at my top. I break away, reeling in shock. I’m pretty sure he’s one of the footballers, but in the dark I can’t tell which one.
There’s one person I think I can trust; he works with the team in a support capacity. But when I tell him what happened, he suggests I should keep quiet.
In that moment, I become another silent voice in media. I know now, and research shows, that violence and harassment is rife against women journalists, although most who experience it never report it. And incredibly, the assault turned out not to be the last.
RELATED ARTICLE: How to be a better leader in the #metoo era
When I was a little girl, I dreamed of being a journalist.
At 10, when others my age were playing with their dolls, I was pretending to be a foreign correspondent. From the age of 14, I worked as an intern every summer. First in regional and then national media, I was usually the junior person in the newsroom, dominated by men in the most senior roles.
During my first few years as a journalist, I was exposed to behavior that made me feel unsafe and ashamed. I never called it out, because I believed it was all part and parcel of career progression.
I’ve felt forced to match men drink for drink, pressured into joining male colleagues at strip clubs to prove I’m “one of the guys,” and been drawn into relationships by men I thought wanted to mentor me who turned out to want something sexual.
It was hard enough being a young woman employed at a media organization in the UK, but I was about to become even more susceptible as a freelance journalist overseas.
'Uncomfortable and powerless'
I moved to Latin America in 2003. There, I faced wolf whistles and comments about my appearance. I had my bottom pinched and my legs stroked under the table at business dinners. I had to fend off suggestions from businessmen, or politicians who assumed that power came with privilege and interviews came with strings attached.
I laughed it off a lot of the time, but it affected my private life, finances and friendships.
I had been a freelance foreign correspondent for just over a year when I was assaulted by the footballer in the hotel.
His colleague, the man who told me to keep silent, was a professional contact I had met several months earlier.
When he arranged for me to interview the coach of the World Cup champions Brazil, I jumped at the opportunity. I was overjoyed when the coach subsequently invited me to join a group of other journalists travelling with the Brazilian national side to Haiti.
Even though I did have some regular organizations I worked for, I was still a freelancer, so I didn’t have an editor back at base to check in with regularly. I’ve often wondered what my colleagues and friends would have thought. But I had been advised not to tell anyone — and by someone who had a lot of power to get me my next story.
I kept in contact with this source, despite his ill-intentioned advice to keep quiet. He invited me to his hometown, a Latin American metropolis I'd always wanted to see, so when he suggested I visit, I agreed. As soon as I arrived, I realized the dynamics weren’t as I’d anticipated.
I was keen to see the city. He was keen to come to my hotel. He immediately made me feel uncomfortable and powerless.
He told me I wouldn’t be safe as a foreign woman alone in his city, and he offered to look after me. This power play set the scene for sex. Afterwards he admitted he had a girlfriend and because he claimed she was famous, he insisted we couldn’t be seen in public alone in case we were photographed. Afterwards, I felt incredibly hurt, ashamed and used, but more than that I was now reliant on a man I didn’t really trust in a foreign city that he had told me was dangerous.
His behavior had hurt and confused me. We saw each other a couple of times during my visit, but were rarely together alone after that.
Towards the end of my time in the city, I went with him and some of his friends to a restaurant in a distant district, where scantily-clad women danced. One of his friends spent most of the time leering at me. I wanted to leave the restaurant, but conditioned by my friend’s warnings, I was reliant on him to get me home safely.
We stopped at his apartment on the way back to my hotel and he said it was safer for me to come inside than wait on the street. But there in his apartment, beneath his symbols of success, this man, who had already betrayed me, forced me to have sex with him.
His friend stood over me, smirking, clearly enjoying himself.
I could do and say nothing — only wait for it to be over.
I finally got back to my hotel where no amount of water would wash away the pain and the shame.
Coming forward, and next steps
Almost 13 years have passed and until recently I had buried this experience.
What happened in that city, coupled with the events in the hotel, affected my ability to form healthy relationships for some time.
In 2010, I began working with the International News Safety Institute, advising and training journalists to be safe in dangerous places. I never explicitly made the link between my experiences and the work I was doing to support journalists who were vulnerable and marginalized. Until now.
As the #metoo movement gained momentum, there were times I considered adding my voice. But a number of things — conscious and subconscious — prevented me from doing so.
For years, I had been conditioned to put up or shut up personally and professionally, even as I advocated and advised others on how to fight harassment. I felt shamed into silence, scared of the repercussions of my words, knowing the impact that speaking out had on the careers of other women, and the vitriol that came with “victim blaming.”
But after working with a UK-based group of female journalists called The Second Source, I’ve realized the importance of speaking truth to power. I know I am in a privileged position and I hope that by speaking out I can encourage others to find a way out of the darkness, too.
What was missing for me is still missing for many women in journalism. It is crucial that all women — but particularly the most vulnerable — are able to find allies of all genders to trust, support and listen to them. They need to know their rights and find supporters to help amplify their voices and their visibility. It is also crucial that people realize the scale of these abuses of power that are being carried out across our industry by those inside, and those who we rely on to tell our stories.
After I was assaulted, I briefly considered leaving journalism. But this is a profession I remain passionate about. It’s one where we have a responsibility to shine a light in the dark, give a voice to the voiceless and hold power to account.
But this is impossible unless people of all genders feel safe and those who have been harassed or attacked feel able to speak out without worrying their careers might suffer if they do.
If there were another industry where vulnerable employees were routinely working in spaces where many of them were likely to be harassed and a substantial number were being assaulted, that would be an investigative story.
We cannot hold the powerful accountable unless we do the same for our own industry.
Editor’s note: Hannah Storm is working with The Poynter Institute and Press Forward in a freelance capacity to design and deliver training to address behavioral and cultural change in newsrooms. We are currently seeking support and sponsorship from news organizations willing to work with us on the development of this training. For more information, email Poynter Senior Vice President Kelly McBride, firstname.lastname@example.org, subject line: Healthy Newsrooms.