But words will never hurt me?
By Lucy Wormald (she/her)
| Illustration by Yi Jong
Lifestyle and Culture Editor
CW: Sexual Assault
Language is brimming with floating cultural meanings. When you select a word and speak it you are not only activating all of its accrued meaning but perpetuating the cultural ideas that are sediment within it. Language reflects culture. It is a barometer of our perceptions and the shadow cast by our social constructs.
I flinch when I hear the word rape. And so I should. It is a repellent word. It is brusque and sharp and cuts through a space with violence. When I hear the word rape I know precisely what it means and what the act entails. It is language done correctly. But I also flinch because hearing sexual assault talked about in such clarity is foreign to me. I am not used to hearing it talked about with words that accurately reflect its reality. This is because our vocabulary for speaking about sexual assault is incapacitated and bound by a linguistic framework of consensual sex.
By this I mean the words we choose when talking about sexual assault are sugar-coated, clinical, whittled down and re-ordered until they describe assault in trivial, vague, erotic and confusing ways. This vocabulary belongs to the world of consensual sex and works to erase the violence of, and responsibility for, the assault. Our language minimises the harm suffered by survivors by turning the perpetrator into a passive actor and blurring consent. This language makes it as difficult as possible to talk about sexual assault. And this is not a coincidence or an oversight – it is intentional. Our language reflects a culture that refuses a truthful conversation.
The language we currently use to describe sexual assault is mutualising. When we employ the language of consensual sex to describe sexual assault we imbue the assault with the eroticism, affection, and a reciprocity we associate with consensual sex. Consider the phrase: he forced oral sex. Whilst we understand force entails a lack of consent, oral sex is a consensual act and used here misrepresents a violent act as requiring the participation of two people. When we use phrases such as these, we frame the assault a mutual act contributed to by both parties who both hold a level of responsibility. Oral sex is a mutual term. Forced oral penetration is not. It is unilateral and makes clear the violent action was undertaken by one person against the will of the other. Sex with a minor is a mutual term. Child rape is unilateral. Kissing is a mutual term. Forced his mouth on theirs is unilateral. The difference is clear. Using the language of consensual sex minimises and shrouds the violence and force of a sexual assault. It makes it harder to perceive the acts as unwanted violations and allows our culture to both justify and excuse sexual assault, and re-blur boundaries of consent. The less specific our language, the more invisible the violence becomes.
Linguistically, responsibility is assigned by the subject of a verb, by naming the agents of actions. Our sexual assault vocabulary adopts a passive voice which allows perpetrators of sexual violence to remain invisible and unaccountable and often places blame upon victims. In our cultural discourse, sexual assault is presented as an act without an agent, harm without a harmer. It thus places agency upon the survivor and erases the perpetrator.
When we employ the language of consensual sex to describe sexual assault we imbue the assault with the eroticism, affection, and a reciprocity we associate with consensual sex.
An example of this is the phrase ‘David was raped’. This sentence does not even mention a rapist. This linguistic avoidance obscures any responsibility for the assault and places the agency of the rape upon David. Instead, we must place responsibility with the assaulter: ‘Donald raped David’. Consider the difference of responsibility in the phrase: ‘The assault occurred in Sylvia’s kitchen’ with ‘the assault was perpetrated in Sylvia’s kitchen by a man’.
The terms sexual misconduct and non-consensual sex are similar passive terms. Any term with mis- or non- in front of it when talking about sexual assault is passive and evasive and only works to dissipate agency and conceal the perpetrator. ‘Misconduct’ implies a misstep, an innocent mistake, a mis-managed situation. Sexual harassment and assault are none of these things. Passive language is the language of the accused, used to hijack the conversation and sugar-coat a violent abuse of power.
Our language is not inherently neutral. We create it for our own purposes. Throughout the history of the English language, we can see that those purposes have been to reinstate the power dynamics of the hegemony. In this way, language is insidious and makes this power invisible, and seem innate and essential. Language has the ability to misconstrue, obscure and normalise sexual assault. Equally, it can illuminate responsibilities and resistance. So what can we do?
Avoid victim blaming language. Your sentence should have a subject other than the victim. Someone did the assaulting/raping/abusing. Let’s name that person and place responsibility for the crime with them.
Choose your language carefully. Use phrases that reflects the unilateral nature of sexual assault. Avoid using the language of consensual sex when describing assaultive acts. Instead, use language that describes body parts and what the victim was forced to do.
With conscious language we can create supporting cultural narratives that allow us to open up avenues of communication for survivors and talk about sexual assault truthfully