Redefining how we speak about sexual assault | Reporter’s notebook

Redefining how we speak about sexual assault | Reporter’s notebook

Words are powerful. While that may sound trite, it’s good to remember that, historically, nations have fallen, kingdoms have been undone, ideas dashed and people murdered over them.

Words carry weight. Their use has the ability to create suspicion, arousal, misconceptions and imagery, even if no truth exists behind the words. In a 2018 TED Talk, Lera Boroditsky, one of the country’s leading authorities on the influence language has on thought, invited her audience to “imagine a jellyfish waltzing in a library thinking about quantum mechanics.”

Like Boroditsky’s audience, it’s likely you never had that thought before either. And now you do, because of words.

It is precisely because words have such influence that it’s time to change the language of rape. We need to remove the word sexual and replace it for what rape is really about: power. Keeping the word sexual attached to the criminal act continues the misconception that rape is a crime about sex. It is not. It has always been about power and one of the reasons why warring armies include it in their arsenal of weapons.

Yes, it is true that rape overwhelmingly involves that most intimate part of ourselves. Yet to focus on where the act occurs is less informative than the long-term effects of the act: a violation of intimacy and a contamination of trust.

In the 1970s, I co-founded a rape crisis center in Michigan, one of the first states in the country to revamp its rape laws. Among the changes was the elimination of the requirement that a victim had to show she resisted to prove a crime occurred. It was not unusual in those days to hear a police officer say that the “most believable victim was a dead victim.”

The revisions also stated a victim’s sexual history was not admissible, nor could the law infer the victim invited the attack because of what she was wearing at the time.

As director of the crisis center, I spent hours speaking with professionals, updating them on the changes to the law, and often found resistance to the idea that the victim did not shared the blame. In one memorable exchange, a prominent member of the community could not get past the idea that if a “woman leads a man on, the man was not responsible for what happened” as though he had no control over his actions, a suggestion that inferred one’s genitals had more control over one’s behavior than one’s brain.

By continuing to use the word sexual assault, we make it too easy to confuse the violation with a sexual act. By maintaining that association, it is too easy for society and the courts to claim the victim provoked, encouraged, enticed or seduced the hapless perpetrator into committing an act he most likely would not have committed.

We need new words. Words that address the long-term effects of the destruction of trust and, in cases of incest, the contamination of intimacy. We need new words that provide no leeway for a judge to claim a 5-year-old child seduced a middle-aged man, or excuse the brutal rape of a prostitute because she asked for it and, after all, what did she expect?

This request comes against the backdrop of a society that increasingly sexualizes the most innocent, and the least powerful. News accounts are regularly filled with reports of schools sending home young girls for “suggestive clothing” like sleeveless dresses or halter tops. Within the last few weeks, the idea that female students at one of the country’s most prestigious universities should not be allowed to wear leggings because it disrupted male students’ ability to stay focused on their studies was, thankfully, met with raucous reproach. Still, what does it say about our culture and how does it influence a deeper understanding of the real reasons for violations of a most intimate nature?

Sexual Assault Awareness Month reminds us how important it is to stay safe by staying aware and to seek help if we, or someone we know, are a victim. However, until we work to better understand that crimes of this nature are rooted in power and not sex, then nothing, I fear, will change.

If the cognitive scientist Boroditsky is correct and how we think can be determined by the words we use, than it’s time we started using words that accurately describe the violation of our most sacred and intimate selves.