In April this year, British DJ Tim Westwood joined a growing list of male celebrities accused of sexual assault when several people accused him of predatory behaviour. Now, four of the women have come forward with their stories, with one woman alleging she was 14 when he abused her.
Newspapers covered the story with headlines that said Westwood had been accused of having "had sex with" a 14-year-old girl when he was in his thirties (he is now 64).
The claims made against Westwood are shocking, and the language that's been used to report on the story is concerning, too. An allegation of sex with a 14-year-old child is an allegation of statutory rape – so why isn't it being reported as such? Westwood has strenuously denied all the allegations and any wrongdoing, saying in 2018 statement: “I can categorically say that I have never had an inappropriate relationship with anyone under the age of 18.”
Twitter users were quick to point out the questionable approach to the coverage. One user tweeted in response to the coverage that, if proved in a criminal court: "Dear BBC, we call this rape.”
Language is important – especially when the disparity between allegations of "sex with" and allegations of "rape" is so vast – and in this case could be misunderstood by readers as a claimed consensual encounter.
Speaking in the BBC documentary, Hip Hop's Open Secret: Tim Westwood, the alleged victim in question said she "never gave consent [to sex], but I never said no either." In England and Wales, consent can only be given by those 16 years of age and above, so this woman is alleging she is the victim of statutory rape, and saying otherwise is letting her down.
The complaint – and the media's reporting of it – has once again highlighted society's backwards approach to discussions of consent, in which misunderstandings of allegations of sexual assault are weaponised against alleged victims leading to dwindling conviction rates.
How can we expect the public to understand consent when respected news outlets are not using the correct language in coverage of allegations like those against Westwood? More importantly, if we don't call a spade a spade, how can we expect potential victims to understand if a crime has been committed against them?
Figures from Rape Crisis show that one in four women in the UK have been sexually assaulted or raped, but in 2021 only one in 100 rapes were reported to the police. On top of that, records published by the government in December 2021 revealed that just 0.6% of adult rape cases resulted in a charge, with 61% of investigations being closed because the victim did not support further police action.
Victims are being failed by the justice system before we even consider barriers such as stereotypes around victim credibility and discriminatory treatment of minority survivors. As the End Violence Against Women campaign puts it: "The system is so broken that it is forcing victims out."
But is it any wonder that alleged victims feel this way when the description of the crimes they are reporting are seemingly downplayed? When an allegation of rape is reduced to "had sex with", what message does this send to others considering coming forward?
The media coverage of Westwood's alleged crimes implies that a 14-year-old could be complicit in a claimed sexual assault – which legally just isn't the case. Those reporting sexual assault deserve better. It’s time the media catches up.
Cosmopolitan UK has reached out to the BBC and representatives for Tim Westwood for comment.
For help with any of the issues discussed in this article, visit: Rape Crisis England & Wales, Rape Crisis Scotland, or Rape Crisis Northern Ireland.
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