The Language of Violence
***Trigger Warning*** - This post discusses sexual assault and rape.
I find myself consulting the dictionary more often as I get older because the importance of language looms larger in my consciousness. So often now words are conflated that have no business being used as synonyms. The conflation often acts to lessen the sting or harshness of a word or an action associated with it. It can also act to enforce and uphold cultural power structures. One such instance is the use of the term sexual assault versus rape. It seems to me that use of the term rape has become less common in our cultural vocabulary, not because these crimes are becoming less frequent, but because we tend to lump all sexual violations into the more digestable and comfortable term sexual assault.
I recently read Chanel Miller’s compelling memoir, “Know My Name.” (A book that should be read by every adult in this country as an indoctrination into the affects of sexual trauma on women.) In publishing her memoir, Chanel revealed that she is the woman behind the moniker ‘Emily Doe,’ which was the name given to the sexual assault victim of Stanford student Brock Turner. Miller poignantly describes her assault in startling detail. I won’t recount her experience here, but I do want to focus on the language we use to describe such violence against women. We often use sexual assault as a catch all for any nonconsensual sexual act perpetrated against a person. This can mean anything from a slap on the butt to forcible rape get called the same thing, sexual assault, especially in the media.
It’s as though we want to coddle the assailants so as not to offend them. According to the Justice Department, rape is defined as penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus, by any body part or object, without the consent of the victim. Media outlets repeatedly call Miller’s experience sexual assault, as she does herself, yet what she describes in her book clearly meets the Justice Department’s definition of rape. So why do we use the blanket term of sexual assault? I think when we use the softer, less violent term sexual assault, to blunt the impact and trauma we may feel at seeing and hearing the word rape. Rape is a sharp, violent word, much like the act itself. It forces us to picture the victim in distress, broken down and fighting for their life. Sexual assault allows us to think of something more benign, perhaps the grazing of a breast or an unwanted kiss. It allows us to think of the victim as feeling violated in a split second, a small moment in time, not living with the trauma of the act as we often picture for rape victims.
According to the FBI, rape is on the rise in America over the past five years, yet use of the term sexual assault still prevails in the media coverage of rape in our country. Rape is a global epidemic and talking about it as we do other forms of assault is not helping to stem the violence. I’d like to see the term rape used in situations that warrant it, especially by the media. I believe it is up to the survivor to use the term of his/her/their choice to describe their own experience, but I hope more of us will use the term rape when it’s warranted. Let’s stop ignoring the brutality of this act of extreme violence and use the language we have to call attention to the trauma it leaves in its wake.