I Work In Sexual Violence Prevention And Consume True Crime. Here’s What Needs To Change

It’s up to audiences to question the narratives we’re consuming—and to seek out true crime productions that go beyond the tropes to provide deeper context.
By Aubrianna Snow
An illustration of a woman with headphones on, speaking into a podcasting microphone. (Illustration: iStock)

Like many people, I am both fascinated and disgusted by true crime. As someone who volunteers and works in sexual violence prevention, I find it comforting to know that good outcomes are possible for people affected by violence. For survivors, seeing a perpetrator face legal consequences by the end of a story can fill a desire for closure that many never see in their own experiences.

But for every time I find gratification in mysteries solved and justices served, there are other instances when I turn off a television show or podcast in disgust. So little of the true crime content we consume successfully conveys the life-changing gravity of violent crime. Even less of it does anything to support the people at the centre of these stories.

Yes, it can be said that true crime content increases awareness of specific crimes and can develop new leads in cold cases. It can also draw attention to important social issues, like misogyny or racism. From a feminist perspective, though, producing this content is treacherous. It’s far easier to make things worse than to effect positive change.

One doesn’t have to look far to find bad examples of true crime reporting and storytelling. The genre is saturated with gory details and narratives that glorify people who cause harm, often making them out to be geniuses or heartthrobs or both (case in point: Evan Peters as Jeffrey Dahmer, or Zac Efron as Ted Bundy).

“The true crime industry sensationalizes stories of sexual violence, domestic violence, child sexual abuse and human trafficking in a way that is not trauma-informed; but focuses on getting views and clicks, and monetizing those stories at the disregard of the people and communities most impacted by these crimes,” says Farrah Khan, a Toronto-based gender-based violence expert and CEO of Possibility Seeds, a social change consultancy. Trauma-informed reporting accounts for the fact that everyone involved in a crime often has trauma, and seeks to do no harm through the reporting process.


So what does true crime look like from a trauma-informed, feminist perspective? Connie Walker, an investigative journalist, former host of CBC’s Missing and Murdered podcast and current host of Gimlet Media’s Stolen podcast, is one of the few creators putting these principles into practice in the true crime sphere.

“When you can create that space for empathy, you create space for connection,” she says. “Every single [true] story has the ability to be about something bigger, and it’s our choice as storytellers to provide that context.”

Walker makes use of the length and depth that the podcast medium makes possible to get to the roots of the stories she tells—which often start long before the births of the victims or perpetrators. Instead of isolating the act of violence to a specific time frame, she explores the lives of those involved and the complex impacts of the crime on the community over a series of episodes.

When a creator fails to situate a violent crime within a broader culture of harm by explaining the crime’s relationships to systemic violence, it can perpetuate ugly stereotypes—namely that violence only happens to certain people or that members of specific communities are more likely to be violent.


“A lot of times, there’s a shock to it,” says Khan, “like ‘He looks like the neighbour next door, but really has six people trapped in his house.’ The thing that upsets me so much is that we’ve constructed this idea that these folks are monsters—that they can never be someone we know or love. But if 80 percent of people that commit sexual assault [are], then [those] exclude the people that commit these crimes.”

As we collectively learn more about violence, its roots, and its far-reaching effects, this is likely to be reflected in true crime content. In the meantime, it’s up to audiences to question the narratives we’re consuming and hold creators accountable.

“We can demand different,” says Khan, who believes that trauma-informed, feminist true crime is possible. “We need to be vocal about it, and we need to demand better standards for it.” Don’t watch or listen to productions that glorify violence, and talk to your friends about why you’re not consuming them. Also know that there are true crime productions, like Walker’s, that go beyond the tropes to provide deeper context.

Here are three others to consider.


Killer Sally, Netflix: This documentary explores the conviction of bodybuilder and abuse survivor Sally McNeil for the murder of her husband, and highlights the ways her case was mishandled.

Something Was Wrong, Wondery: In this podcast, host Tiffany Reese speaks with guests who have experienced abuse and various forms of crime about their experiences and the stigma victims face.

True Crime Obsessed, Obsessed Network: This podcast, hosted by Patrick Hinds and Gillian Pensavalle, explores true crime cases and the media coverage they receive with witty, feminist commentary.


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