Language. It is how we communicate, teach and relate. The particular words we use can impart specific meaning, minimize or inflate importance, increase understanding or create confusion.
The issue of sexual assault is particularly challenging. There are many terms used to describe sexual assault, and each comes with its own set of meanings, understanding and implications. More importantly, the terms used might cause people who have been sexually assaulted to see themselves as included or excluded, understood or dismissed.
At Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Services, we use the term “sexual assault” to describe any kind of sexual act committed against another person without that person’s consent. It is not a perfect term. The word “assault” may imply to some a level of physical violence that was not part of the act committed against them. And the term “sexual violence” has even more implications as “violence” (which might imply physical beating, choking, guns or knives ) may bear more weight than “assault.”
The term “rape” has been used for centuries, but is limited in its meaning. Legally, in Maine, rape referred to vaginal penetration. But people who have been raped may be female or male, and horrifyingly understand that penetration happens in many ways. And that is also rape. The crime of “rape” no longer exists in Maine statutes and has been replaced with “Gross sexual assault.” In this context “gross” implies magnitude, but it does make one wonder if there could be non-gross sexual assault?
Marital rape. Date rape. Acquaintance rape. These terms somehow undermine the seriousness of the crime. They are meant to describe a rape perpetrated against a spouse, a date, or by someone known to the victim. But the crime is the same and not “less” because the assailant is known. Rape is rape, so why add a modifier that somehow creates a distinction? The impact of rape has been described by some as a murder of the soul. Yet we do not describe murder as “marital murder,” “date murder” or “acquaintance murder.” Murder is murder. Rape is rape.
“Non-consensual sex” is meant to describe sex that wasn’t agreed to by one party, but again undermines the nature of the crime. We argue that there is no such thing as “non-consensual sex” because any sexual act committed without consent is an assault, not sex. It is important to draw the distinction.
“Forced to have sex” again puts the emphasis on sex, and sexual assault is not sex. Sexual assault is sexualized aggression — it is an assault perpetrated by use of sexual acts or involving the sexual parts of one’s body. Sexual assault survivors may use the term “forced to have sex” when describing the crime because they know people will “get it” without them having to share details of what occurred. But when others use that term, it undermines the reality of the assault.
Childhood sexual abuse is an interesting, and in my opinion, misleading term. It is used to communicate that children are being abused in a sexual way, but undermines the nature of the crime. “Childhood sexual abuse” really describes repeated and ongoing sexual assaults of a child. I think somehow we find the term “sexual abuse” less horrifying that “sexual assault,” but can you really imagine anything more horrifying than the repeated, ongoing sexual assault of a child?
It is also important to understand the realities behind a term. “Child pornography” is a term used to describe pictures of children in sexual positions or “engaging in sexually explicit conduct.” But child pornography actually, graphically, visually depicts the sexual assault or assaults of a child. The victims are not “engaging” in sexually explicit conduct … they are being assaulted. And in today’s internet world, those depictions of the sexual assault of a child can be widely distributed and can live on forever.
It is important for us to use terms that accurately describe the horror, the importance, the reality of the crime of sexual assault if we are ever to understand its implications for survivors and their loved ones. It should not be called an “experience,” “event,” or “incident.” It is a sexual assault. It is a crime.
Marty McIntyre is the executive director of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Services.