[Content note: sexual assault, statutory rape]
People, as it turns out, really love to categorize sexual assault.
They like to speculate about which ones are worse or more traumatic. They like to refer to certain sexual assaults with sanitized language that either glamorizes or minimizes what happened. If at all possible, they like to leave words like “rape” and “assault” out of it.
Here are two recent examples of these tendencies.
1. Richard Dawkins has previously claimed that sexual abuse of children by priests does less “lasting damage” than “the mental abuse of bringing them up Catholic in the first place.” Recently, he ignited controversy again by stating that he cannot condemn sexual abuse of children by teachers–which he himself went through–because standards were different back then and he doubts that “he did any of us any lasting damage.” Dawkins also made this type of move during the Elevatorgate incident, in which he mocked Rebecca Watson’s discomfort with being propositioned in an elevator in the middle of the night because Women In The Middle East Have It Worse™.
2. Last week, a video posted on Instagram showed a frosh week event at Saint Mary’s University in which students chanted, “Y is for your sister [...] U is for underage, N is for no consent [...] Saint Mary’s boys we like them young.” So, they were chanting about rape. However, many news articles covering the story only referred to the chant as promoting “nonconsensual sex” or “underage sex” rather than statutory rape or sexual assault.
Nonconsensual sex. Underage sex*. That old standby, sex scandal. The lengths to which writers and editors will go to avoid using the words “rape” or “assault” are impressive. It’s interesting because usually journalists make an effort to choose language that grabs as much attention as possible (at least, that’s what was impressed upon me repeatedly during my year in journalism school).
“Sex scandal” sounds like something you’d find in a tabloid and forget by tomorrow, when yesterday’s papers are today’s subway litter. “Underage sex” sounds like “underage drinking.” “Nonconsensual sex” sounds like a bad idea fueled by apathy or impatience, like having sex without a condom. It makes it sound like consent is just an added bonus, in case you really want to cover all your bases.
All of these common journalistic tropes insist on using the word “sex,” but all sex without consent is by definition assault or rape.
This doesn’t mean that all sexual assaults are identical. They can be perpetrated by strangers or friends or acquaintances or partners or family members or authority figures. They can involve physical force, or they can not. They might leave the person in need of medical attention, or they may not. They may be nonconsensual because the survivor is a minor or because they were intoxicated or because they simply didn’t give consent. They may be motivated by a desire to punish or to “turn” a queer person straight or to take what one feels owed or to alleviate boredom. They may or may not lead to pregnancy or STI transmission. They may be perpetrated by someone of any gender upon someone of any gender. They might take place in the survivor’s home or in the assaulter’s home or in someone else’s home or at a bar or club or outside or in a school or in a medical facility or at a prison. The survivor may not have consented to any sexual activity with the person who assaulted them, or they may have consented to some of it. They may have had consensual sexual encounters with that person in the past, or they may not have.
These distinctions are relevant in some contexts. They are relevant for researchers studying the causes and effects of sexual assault, and for those who want some descriptive statistics. They are relevant for activists and educators who may want to target particular situations in their prevention work. They are relevant for survivors who might want to get support from others with similar experiences.
They are not relevant in deciding whose sexual assault was “worse,” because the same event could affect different people differently. They are not relevant in determining which sexual assaults are “legitimate” and which are not.
They are not relevant in determining which sexual assaults are “really” sexual assaults, which ones we’re going to refer to as “assault” and which ones we’ll just call some form of “sex.”
Sexual assault is the only crime to which the reaction is frequently some version of “Well, maybe it’s not that bad.” “Maybe she was mature for her age.” “Maybe he deserves it; he’s in prison after all.” “Maybe they actually wanted it.” “Maybe it wasn’t even that traumatizing.”
Or maybe we keep trying to minimize sexual assault, both with our words and with our actions, because treating it with the gravity it deserves is harder–harder emotionally, harder strategically. It requires eradicating the disdain with which many people view assault victims.
A good place to start is resisting this dilution and weakening of our language. Call sexual assault what it is, every time. Poynter has some great guidelines:
Describe charges of sex without consent as rape, not anything less….[S]ometimes writers minimize the trauma of rape by describing it as sex or intercourse if the rape doesn’t involve the kind of physical violence that requires medical attention.
And stop it with the masturbatory thought exercises about which assaults are “worse” than others.
*Originally, when I posted it on Twitter, this headline at least included the word “non-consensual.” Then it inexplicably disappeared.