My Story is Not Your Trauma Porn: How Not to Interview Survivors of Sexual Assault

TW: This post contains references to sexual abuse

Artwork by Sa-Art for Thai Consent.

Since I first wrote my story of being sexually assaulted by a trainer at a Muay Thai gym back in 2011, several organizations have approached me to share it on their platforms. Universities, journalists, documentary makers, The British Embassy and even the UN have invited me to retell it. They each used my story as a means to raise awareness of gender-based violence and rape culture and discuss potential solutions. When a well-known English language Bangkok news outlet approached me for the story recently, I thought it would be more of the same. Instead, it was a traumatic experience that serves as a valuable lesson in how not to treat survivors of sexual assault. 

The news outlet, which I won’t name, produces media coverage all across South-East Asia. A producer from the Bangkok branch dropped into my inbox on my Facebook page earlier this month, inviting me to be interviewed on camera as part of a new video project they were launching, modelled on the successful YouTube series Soft White Underbelly. I’d never heard of Soft White Underbelly at the time, but some quick research told me that it produces raw, intimate interviews with people living on LA’s Skid Row. The founder, Mark Laita, takes vulnerable people who have been marginalised by society and humanises them by asking them to tell their stories on camera. The channel displays an impressive catalogue of piercing black and white portraits of its subjects. 

Soft White Underbelly videos include ‘Crystal Meth Addict’, ‘Homeless Schizophrenic Man’, ‘Sexual Abuse Victim’, and ‘Incest Survivor’. These titles are certainly clickbait, but videos themselves delve beyond these labels, interviewing the subjects about their lives and the experiences that lead them to their current circumstances. At first glance, doing a similar interview seemed like a good opportunity to tell my story in a new way. 

Before I agreed to the interview, I had to ask myself some questions. “Is this something I’m ready to revisit right now?” “I’ve already told this story several times, what’s the point of doing it again?” This was an unpaid collaboration, something that has become a gripe of mine since speaking for several high-profile organizations which certainly had the means to pay me for my work, but never offered to. I’ve always done this for free, and promised myself I would stop. However, I understand that this is generally how it works in journalism, and was once again drawn in by good intentions. I decided that while being so public about this experience is always difficult, my passion for using it to create change makes it worth it. If my voice can reach one person who needs to hear it, I always want to use it. Upon coming to that conclusion, I agreed. 

If I had known then what I was really walking into, I would have declined immediately.

Harmful Mistakes to Avoid When Interviewing Survivors

The producers made several egregious errors in the process of trying to obtain this interview. I hope that discussing them here will help others to make better choices.

Rushing or Pushing the Survivor

The producer explained that my interview was to be the first to be published in the series, and was eager to complete the filming as soon as possible. We scheduled a three-hour slot for the following week, and I asked her to provide some talking points ahead of time so that I could prepare. I needed to know what the angle would be. Did they want me to speak in the context of Muay Thai, and of the marginalization of women in the sport? I told her that now was an exciting time to talk about female Muay Thai, since a moment in history is about to be made with Lumpini Stadium preparing to allow its very first women’s fight. She responded “that’s interesting..but we really just want you to talk about the sexual assault”. That was red flag number one. Any journalist or producer worth their salt would have jumped on such a story, but this one brushed past it to focus on my sexual trauma alone.

I gave her the benefit of the doubt, and waited to receive the talking points I would use to tell my story under this new lens. At 7:30pm, the evening before the 9am scheduled interview, I was still waiting. “If it’s going to be rushed, could we reschedule?”, I asked. “It’s all good”, she said, describing how they “just wanted to clean things up a bit before shooting”. I had to clarify by saying “I meant for my benefit, not yours”, before she agreed. Giving me a matter of hours to prepare to talk about such a traumatic experience was insensitive and disrespectful. On top of that, not once had I been thanked for agreeing to let them use my story, and I felt as thought it was being taken for granted. At that point, we decided to postpone the interview until a couple of days later, but I was feeling uneasy about it. Later, my gut feeling would prove to be right.

Asking Insensitive Questions

Shortly after that exchange, I received a list of questions, which the producer had written with her Head of Content. Upon reading them, my stomach dropped.

The questions I received ahead of the interview

“Tell us about the night of the sexual assault (set up the scene and the people involved)”, it began.

It was a jarring way to introduce the topic, but was nothing in comparison to what followed. 

“Describe your mental and emotional state during the assault”

“When did you realize you were being assaulted?”

They went on to go into specific details about what my attacker did to me.

“Why do you think he stopped?”

“Why did he want you to hit him?”

“Why do you think he laid with you and held you?”

No one had ever asked me such pointed and intrusive questions about this experience before. While I have previously written about my story, I had never offered up these details to the producer, and she’d never mentioned that she intended to ask me about them. These were details that I didn’t want to think about, and the questioning of them gave me an immediate visceral reaction.

Then it got worse.

“Did you think there was a language barrier?”

Were they suggesting that my assault was a matter of intentions being lost in translation? The idea was insulting.

“Do you think the other guys knew what was going to happen?”

Here, they were asking me to consider the possibility that the men around me colluded to allow one of them to rape me. I’ve never suggested this, and while I understand why some readers may wonder this themselves, it’s inappropriate and hurtful to ask me this directly. The producer was applying her own narrative to my story, rather than allowing me to tell it myself.

Other questions had a distinct undertone of victim blaming.

“Why didn’t you go to the police?”

“If you could go back in time, how would you react to those situations?”

“Are you wary about being in certain situations now?”

“How has your personality and behaviour changed?”

I wasn’t expecting to have to justify not reporting my assault, let alone talk about how I should have done things differently in order to avoid it happening in the first place. Was I being asked to say what I’d ‘learned’ from the experience? To advise others how not to be sexually assaulted like I was? This went against everything my work and my writing stands for.

The next question floored me.

“One of the guys sent you horrible messages. Please read them”.

This is in reference to sexual harassment I received online from a man who had been at the gym with me during the time of the incident and present on the night it took place. I included screenshots of some of these messages in my original article when I first went public with my story in 2017. I’d almost forgotten about them, and having them dredged back up was a particularly unpleasant surprise. What most disturbed me about this part of the interview was that I was being instructed, not asked, to read those messages. Prior to this, the journalist had never mentioned them or asked if I was comfortable discussing them, let alone reading them word for word in front of a camera. The idea of doing so was incredibly upsetting and felt voyeuristic. Whose benefit would this be for? It certainly wasn’t for mine. I wasn’t interested in giving a voice to any of the men involved in my assault, and would never have agreed to this.

They went on to ask about my feelings towards my attacker.

“Have you forgiven him?”

I was confused as to why this question was relevant to ask, and why they wanted to highlight the notion of survivors forgiving the people who’ve abused them. I began to wonder about their intentions in publishing this interview.

Then, came the worst question of them all.

“Is intimacy difficult for you now?”

That’s right. They were asking about my ability to have sex. This is so unapologetically invasive, and while intimacy is something that can be affected by past experiences of abuse, it should be the survivor’s choice whether or not to raise the issue themselves. 

“Tell us about some of the PTSD/Trauma you went through”.

It’s hard to say what’s more ridiculous about this question – the lazy choice of words or the audacity to ask it at all. They might as well have said “relive your trauma for our entertainment”. They were gesturing vaguely at my trauma and asking me to explain it, and I had no idea how to answer that. The most ignorant thing about it was that they were inflicting further trauma on me themselves with their line of questioning.

After first glancing at the list of questions, I immediately told the producer that many of them were triggering and made me uncomfortable. She didn’t seem fazed, and offered no apology or acknowledgement of how problematic they were. “Mark the question and we’ll sort something out”, she said. But the damage had already been done.

I called several friends that night and talked it through with them, and each one was more shocked than the next. They urged me not to take the interview, and raised concerns about how the video would be edited and how I would be represented. I felt a surge of rage that stayed with me for several days, and I was lucky to have empathetic people around me who helped me work through it. The producers seemed to have no compassion or respect for my boundaries or feelings. Thankfully, my friends have that in abundance. Other interviewees might not be so fortunate. 

The day after I received the questions, I was unable to work. In fact, I barely moved from my bed for most of the day. I was experiencing an episode of retraumatization, something I’d never encountered when working with other organizations about my story. 

Previously, whether I’ve written my story online or said it out loud in front of a room full of people, I’ve always felt like I was taking my power back. This time, I felt the opposite. I felt as though I was a specimen to be put on display, being poked and prodded to stimulate a shocking response for the viewer. Their questions felt like interrogation, and they were clearly written with the aim of getting me to reveal the most raw and personal details I had to offer. This video was to be nothing more than trauma porn. They were exploiting my experience for content under the guise of edgy journalism, with no clear intention of having any positive impact. It was voyeuristic, purely for shock value, and of no benefit to anyone except the media bosses themselves.

Changing the Narrative 

After spending some time collecting my thoughts and recovering from the initial shock, I decided to respond. I sent an email to the producer, cc’ing her Head of Content, the founder, and any other contact I could get for the organisation. They all needed to know how inappropriate and unethical this was. Rather than just declining the interview, I wanted to make sure they would never put any other survivor through this experience. It was long, sparing no detail of how wrong they’d been, how their actions had affected me, and what they should have done differently. I attached a copy of UNHCR’s Gender-Based Violence Media Guidelines, which lists details of how to interview and represent survivors in a sensitive way, and urged them to read it. It had previously been shared with me by Busayapa ‘Best’ Srisompong, a friend who is a survivor and activist herself. I gladly attached it to my response. 

“The fact that I have previously been public about my assault does not make every detail fair game for you”, I wrote. “I will not allow you to sensationalize my story and turn it into ‘trauma porn’ content, as is so clearly your intention.

It’s not my job to educate you on how to treat survivors and their stories with dignity, but at the very least, I want to make sure no one else has to go through this experience with redacted. I’ve attached a copy of Gender-Based Violence Media Guidelines, and suggest you do the bare minimum of reading it if you have any intention of tackling this topic in an ethical way. It’s your responsibility to avoid retraumatizing a survivor when you ask them to give you their story..”

I was going above and beyond by providing them with as much detail and advice as I did, but I wanted to make sure they wouldn’t simply find another survivor to interview and repeat the same mistakes. I received a reply from the Head of Content alone, who apologised for the way they’d communicated with me and promised to do better. He insisted that their intentions were good, but I wasn’t convinced.

“Our intention was to never make light of your story or to take advantage of it”, he wrote. “We wanted to produce a video on this issue to raise awareness and also show how your story has evolved to your activist work for survivors. However, we’ve failed to convey this in our communications.” He sincerely apologised, but blamed their lack of sensitivity on “the rush of production” rather than taking full accountability.

It was curious to me that they intended to highlight my work and activism, but hadn’t asked me a single question about it. I resented that the lessons they claimed to be learning were at my expense, but at least took comfort in the fact that they knew they were wrong. “We’ll work harder by listening, learning and becoming more empathetic to become better allies”, he promised. I’m not sure he realises that as it stands, they’re not allies at all. They’re part of the problem. It all felt like too little, too late, but I can only hope that something will come of it. The most appropriate response would be to drop the subject altogether. These people clearly have a lot of work to do, not only as media professionals but as individuals, and to use survivor’s stories to appear as allies is misleading, unethical and performative.

The Problem with Soft White Underbelly

This experience prompted me to do a deeper dive into Soft White Underbelly, and what I found gave me further cause for concern.

Soft White Underbelly is uncomfortable viewing, and that’s the point. But sometimes, it’s for the wrong reasons. In several of Mark Laita’s videos for the channel, he uses questionable and insensitive interview techniques. He makes the mistake of asking his subjects leading, pointed questions rather than giving them open-ended ones and letting them speak freely. Like the producers who wanted to emulate his work with me, he does so in order to prompt them to share the ‘juiciest’ most shocking parts of their stories. In some interviews, he’s heard pushing interviewees the talk about childhood experiences of sexual abuse, when they’re clearly uncomfortable in doing so.

Several of his subjects are minors, and others are visibly inebriated while they’re being interviewed. He often comes off as unsympathetic and judgemental in his interactions with them.

In an interview titled ‘Teenage Prostitute’, he talks to Faith, a 16-year old who was kidnapped and trafficked from the age of 14, and abused by her father. He asks her “have you ever had any sexual interactions with your Dad?” She corrects him. “He had sexual interactions with me”. The title of ‘teenage prostitute’ is problematic in itself, and it indicates that she had a choice, when she was raped and trafficked as a minor. He asks Faith if she believes in karma, and she says she does. He observes that karma seems to be a recurring theme in her life, and tells her “the decisions you’ve made for yourself also, you’ll pay a price for that down the road”.

In another interview with a stripper named Kristina who goes by the moniker Baby Girl, he asks her about her childhood, and immediately follows up with “any sexual abuse?” When she says yes with a nervous laugh that clearly shows her discomfort, he presses her for more information, asking “when did that happen?” He never asks her if she’s comfortable talking about it. He tells her “sex work and shame kind of go together, whether you admit it or not”. He then becomes even more judgmental. “Did you have dreams of doing something with your life? This couldn’t have been your goal”. Kristina was just 18 years old at the time of the interview.

Laita turns his lens to pimps and sex offenders, too. Under a video titled “Sex Offender Interview – Tracy”, the description says she “had sex with her eight year old son”. Throughout the interview, Tracy describes her childhood of sexual abuse at the hands of her father, and takes responsibility for how she repeated the cycle with her own child. Despite this, it’s never appropriate to use the word ‘sex’ for an act inflicted upon a child by an adult. It’s rape. In ‘Sex Offender Interview – Frankie’, Laita opens by asking “how many young boys do you think you’ve had fun with?” Whether he uses these terms out of ignorance or as a way of connecting to his interviewees, it’s harmful. 

When interviewing abusers, Laita attempts to empathise with and relate to them. However, he doesn’t always offer that same courtesy to survivors, and many viewers have pointed this out online. In some of the worst examples, the comments sections of the videos are disabled. 

In another video entitled ‘Incest Survivor – Star’, Laita responds with victim blaming questions after Star spends 45 minutes describing the effects of being raped by her grandfather throughout her life. She describes the guilt and shame she felt of having it happen to her not only as a child, but also as an adult, and Laita only makes this worse. “You were having sex with your grandfather, while he was also at one point having sex with your mom, his daughter”, he says. “Yes”, she responds, before adding “but I want to make it clear that was actual, honest to God rape”. She clarifies this because her mother had “fought back and said no”, while she had previously described herself as “allowing” her grandfather to “have sex” with her. All of these instances were rape, but survivors are convinced by society’s constant victim blaming that they are somehow complicit if they don’t fight back. Laita demonstrates how he is part of that problem by asking her “if you’re 20 years old, how do you let your grandfather get away with it? How does this happen? It seems like you’d be old enough to protect yourself”.

While Laita is a talented photographer, he has no training in how to conduct interviews with survivors. Some commenters say he’s just a man with a camera and shouldn’t be held to a higher standard. But when a project is built on the premise of exposing people’s trauma, it ought to be carried out more delicately. His work may have value, but it also raises a moral dilemma. Sharing stories is important and educational, but it shouldn’t happen at the expense of those who are telling them. Laita seems to think otherwise, and has described some of his subjects as ‘broken people’ who can’t be helped. He pinned the below commend under an interview with Amanda, a young woman he interviewed several times about her experience of abuse, sex work and living on the streets. Her rapid decline in the grip of a drug addiction was documented in gut-wrenching detail, and viewers rejoiced when she was shown in follow-up interviews on the road to recovery. Sadly, she passed away earlier this month after being sober for almost a year. Her death is believed to be caused by a history of traumatic brain injuries resulting from the violent rapes and beatings she had been subjected to throughout her life.

According to The Washington Post, Latia pays his subjects a small fee for their interviews.

“Laita will give between $20 and $40 to people who are willing to tell their stories…Those who are more at risk of being exposed, such as pimps, drug dealers or prostitutes, sometimes want more, costing him up to $100”, it reads. In one video titled ‘Crack Addict Interview – Jamie’, you can see how he picks up some of his subjects. During the first minute, he’s heard talking to Jamie through his car window and asking her “you wanna make a little bit of money?” before inviting her to his studio to ‘take her photograph’. During the interview, she talks about her experience of childhood sexual abuse.

Whether or not Mark Laita is intentionally exploiting his interviewees, it’s clear that his techniques are often irresponsible. Despite this, the public finds his videos fascinating, eye-opening and heartbreaking, and his channel has amassed a huge following of more than 2 million subscribers. His success and interview style is what inspired these Bangkok producers to replicate it with me, and made them feel empowered to be just as callous and irresponsible with my story. That’s part of the legacy of his work.

How to Interview Survivors of Sexual Assault the Right Way

In order to conduct sensitive, ethical interviews with survivors while safeguarding their well-being, the following actions need to be taken:

  • Thank them for agreeing to share their story with you. It’s a privilege to be able to hear it, and should be treated as such.
  • Make sure they’re comfortable before, during and after the interview.
  • Do not use images, footage or other identifying information without getting informed consent in writing. Never use images of child survivors. Informed consent should be obtained before the interview takes place.
  • Inform the survivor of exactly how the information they give will be used and presented, before they agree to the interview.
  • Clearly explain that the survivor has the right to decline the interview or any questions/topics that are raised.
  • Before conducting the interview, talk with the survivor about which topics they are comfortable with sharing, and which, if any, to avoid. Do not push them to talk about anything they’re uncomfortable with.
  • Let them control the narrative. Ask open-ended questions and allow them to define their experience in their own words. Never define it for them.
  • Respect and value the survivor’s time and the work they do with you. Where possible, compensate them for it. This is particularly important if you’re inviting them to speak publicly. If you’re unable to provide compensation, clearly state this and explain why early on in your communications.
  • Provide access to support services before and after the interview. Telling a story of sexual assault can be retraumatizing, and survivors may require counseling. If you’re unable to provide such a service, at least direct them to services and resources available to them elsewhere.

Other useful resources:

UN Women’s Media Coverage of Gender-Based Violence Handbook

Reporting on Violence Against Women and Girls: A Handbook for Journalists by UNESCO

RAINN’s Tips for Interviewing Survivors

Femifesto’s 10 Essential Tips on Interviewing Survivors of Sexual Assault

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