Some of you know the statistics about sexual assault in our nation. Based on current estimates, approximately 1 in 5 women in the U.S. have been raped at least once, and many more will be subjected to some form of sexual violence during their lifetime. Over the course of my fellowship at the Policy Center I have become absolutely convinced of the importance of raising our voices against gendered violence in our nation. As we raise our voices, I believe it is imperative that we think critically about the language we use, and that we recognize the assumptions and value judgments embedded in that language. Below are a few of the issues I think we should consider:
1. Use of the word rape. Why do we often use the word rape so lightly? Rape is not a synonym for winning, dominating, successfully completing a task, etc., and I believe that using the word rape in this way is insensitive to survivors and may desensitize individuals to the severity and intensity of the crime it stand for.
“That team raped us” -> “That team defeated us”
2. Euphemistic language. Through my research I have come to believe that it is important to “call it what it is.” This means not using euphemisms to lessen the discomfort of talking about sexual violence. There is a reason that discussing sexual violence is uncomfortable – it is a gross violation of human rights. Let’s not use our language to make it seem more palatable.
“He forced himself on her” -> “He raped her”
3. Consensual language. Unfortunately, the language of consensual sex is sometimes used to describe rape and assault. Let’s use our language to make clear distinctions between sex and rape – the lines between the two are not blurred.
“The adult male had sex with the young girl” -> “The adult male raped the young girl”
4. Grammatical agency. Sometimes when we discuss assault we remove the grammatical agent altogether, which leaves aggressors out of the conversation. I believe we should make sure to include sexual aggressors in our language in the interest of holding men accountable and not letting sexual violence become just a “women’s issue.”
“She was sexually assaulted” -> “He sexually assaulted her”
5. Victim blaming. Recognize that false reporting rates for sexual assault are very similar to false reporting rates for other major crimes. Underreporting rates, however, are much more extreme in cases of sexual violence. When victims/survivors share their experiences, let’s use our language to support them instead of to indicate skepticism, disbelief, blame, or judgment.
“What were you wearing?” -> Just don’t ask! The answer is irrelevant because no article of clothing excuses rape.
What is my call to action? Recognize the power of language. Think critically about the assumptions and judgments embedded in language. Choose your words carefully. Use your language to help create an environment that supports survivors and holds aggressors accountable. Examine the language used by other individuals, organizations, and media outlets. Speak up, write letters, speak out when you see inappropriate language used to discuss sexual assault. To learn more and see my take on the implications for stakeholders at all levels of our community, read my full paper here.