True crime podcasts prompting women to speak out about sexual violence

Women take part in a demonstration during a global protest against gender violence, in La Paz, Bolivia. The Motive podcast is the latest in an increasing number of true crime programmes about rape and sexual assault and the impact on womens' lives. — Reuters

BARCELONA: When Gabrielle Vega woke in a hotel room in Morocco and realised she had been drugged and raped she set out to take legal action but ended up on a different path – on a true crime podcast.

She was one of 26 women interviewed for an eight-part programme, the second series of Motive made by WBEZ Chicago, the city's National Public Radio station, that has struck a chord with other victims of sexual assault.

All eight episodes focus on a group of US women who said they were sexually assaulted by a Spanish tour guide who took them on tours in Spain, Morocco or Portugal. A criminal investigation is ongoing.

The podcast, that started airing last month, is the latest in an increasing number of true crime programmes about rape and sexual assault and the impact on womens' lives.

Vega, 25, a graphic designer from Florida who now lives in New York, said the podcast featuring the women telling their own stories was helping to shatter taboos about sexual violence and give other victims the strength to speak up.

"It's just the violence, it's completely incomprehensible – it just paralyses and isolates you from the rest of the world," Vega told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a phone interview.

"If you have something horrible happen to you and no one else knows about it you have this little voice in your head which is like 'okay maybe if I pretend this didn't happen or 'if I don't talk about it, it'll go away'."

Vega said she had suffered post-traumatic stress and suicidal episodes since the assault nearly a decade ago and was stunned to find she was not the only victim with a number of US women also on study trips to Europe coming forward.

Podcasts giving women a voice

The US Embassy in Madrid issued a security alert last September saying it was monitoring a public criminal investigation into Spanish tour operator, Manuel Blanco Vela, that began by Spain's High Court in May 2018.

The High Court could not be reached for comment and Spanish police declined to comment. Vela could not be reached but was quoted previously as saying the allegations were "totally false and inconsistent".

Candace Mittel Kahn, a podcast producer for WBEZ, said many sexual violence victims have contacted the radio station to say the women's stories hit a chord, with people in touch from everywhere as the podcast can be downloaded globally.

They said this was the first time they had heard a really "raw and unfiltered account of what happens" in sexual violence cases, she said by phone from Chicago.

Khan said the simplicity of the podcast format was useful in getting some of the victims to open up and tell their story.

"They can say what they want, have their emotions heard, it can be in their words and they're not worried about the way it's going to be crafted," she said.

Motive is the latest in a string of true crime podcasts that are putting victims' stories centre-stage, beginning with Serial in 2014.

This told the unsolved case of Adnan Syed, imprisoned for a crime he claims he didn't commit, and which has been downloaded more than 500 million times, according to the producers.

That series, which popularised the genre, has been followed by hundreds of other true crime podcasts.

These include Tell It: The Murder Of Joy Morgan about a London student midwife murdered by a member of her church, and Up And Vanished which explores the unsolved disappearance of US beauty queen and high school teacher Tara Grinstead.

Research shows younger people are the biggest consumers of podcasts, with more than half of under 35s in the United States having listened to a monthly podcast.

As well as the United States, South Korea, Ireland, Spain and Sweden are the countries with the most podcast listeners, and the majority of people listen via their smartphone.

Studies have found that young people mostly listen to podcasts that both entertain and inform, which is why the true crime format is particularly popular.

Vega, who appeared on US national television in 2018 to raise awareness and encourage other sexual assault victims to break their silence, said she chose to participate in the podcast to encourage other women to open up.

She said she had received hundreds of emails from victims who have stayed silent since they were attacked.

"Women contact me, freak out, tell me their whole story, then tell their parents", she said. "I think they had been trying to bury it."

Alexandra Salomon, an editor at WBEZ, said there was still a strong sense of stigma around sexual violence, which prevented some of those in the podcast from confiding in their families.

They still felt a "sense of shame and fear and self doubt, and that stigma that has been around for so long, is still so pervasive", Salomon said.

"Just as a man doesn't want to say he's a rapist, a woman doesn't want to say she's been raped." – Thomson Reuters Foundation

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