Raped or “Seduced”? How Language Helps Shape Our Response to Sexual Violence

Raped or “Seduced”? How Language Helps Shape Our Response to Sexual Violence

Please enjoy this AMAZING article by Claudia Bayliff from SAFVIC:

Raped or “Seduced”? How Language Helps Shape Our Response to Sexual Violence

By Claudia J. Bayliff

From The Sexual Assault Family Violence Investigator Course

The language we use to describe sexual violence helps shape our response to this terrible crime. Law enforcement officers play a crucial role in the criminal justice system’s response to sexual violence. They are often the gatekeepers—the first person victims inter-act with after they have been raped. How law enforcement officers talk about sexual violence has a profound impact on how victims, other criminal justice system professionals, media and society at large think about and respond to the crime. This is not about being “politically correct”; it is about writing reports and discussing cases in a way that makes law enforce-ment more effective and successful.
There are three main problems with the way we all talk about sexual violence:

  • We use the language of consensual sex to describe assaultive acts;
  • We describe victims in terms that objectify them or blame them for the violence;
  • and We talk about sexual violence in ways that create an “invisible perpetrator.”

Unfortunately, when we use this type of language, we help to reinforce the stereotypes and myths about sexual violence. We also create an image of this crime that focuses solely on its victims—what they did or did not do to “cause” their victimization–and allows perpetrators to remain invisible and unaccountable. Obviously, there are lots of factors at work that make it harder for us to hold rapists accountable, but the language we use is one key element.

Using the Language of Consensual Sex to De-scribe Assaultive Acts:

When we describe sexual assaults in terms usually used for pleasurable and affectionate acts, we minimize and hide the violence in-volved and we make it harder to visualize the acts as unwanted violations.1 We also help create an image of an intimate and non-threatening scene. For example, think about the different image that is created when we say, “He had sex with her” versus “He forcefully penetrated her vagina with his penis.” Other examples include: “He fondled her breasts,” “He kissed, hugged, caressed or had sex with her.” These phrases also create an image of a mutual act, rather than a physical assault forced on one person by another. Consider how often we talk about child victims “performing oral sex” on their adult perpetrators, rather than describing how adults forcibly penetrate a child. All of us need to be very careful not to use the language of consensual sex when we are describing a sexual assault.

Victim-Blaming Language:

Another trap we often fall into is to talk about sexual violence in ways that blame or objectify victims. This quote from a New York Times article is a great example: “Residents of the neighborhood…said she dressed older than her age, wearing makeup and fashions more appropriate to a woman in her 20s. She would hang out with teenage boys at the playground, some said.”2 The person de-scribed by this author is an 11-year-old child who, according to police, was gang-raped by 18 men and teenaged boys on multiple occasions. The neighbors quoted in the article went on to describe how “these boys will have to live with this the rest of their lives,” never stopping to consider the impact on the 11-year-old child.
The term “the accuser” has been nearly universally adopted to describe victims of sexual violence, even when referring to young children. Yet when we use this term, rather than victim or alleged victim, we shift the blame and responsibility from the perpetrator to the victim. Jackson Katz, the author and filmmaker, has the best explanation on why we should not use the term “accuser” to describe sexual assault victims. He explains how the term shifts the victim/perpetrator dynamics of a sexual assault: “She is now the perpetrator of an accusation against him. At the same time, he is transformed from the alleged perpetrator of sexual assault to the actual victim of her accusation. The public is thus positioned to identify sympathetically with him—to feel sorry for him—as the true victim.”3 We need to think carefully how we talk about sexual assault victims and make sure that we are not blaming them or holding them responsible for their own victimization.
The “Invisible Perpetrator”: Consider the difference between these two sentences: “Jessica was raped” versus “Matthew raped Jessica.” In the first sentence, the perpetrator is completely invisible. The second sentence uses accountable language that focus-es our attention on the person committing the crime: Matthew. We often talk about how rapes “occur” as though they were random acts that just happened, as opposed to deliberate, intentional, criminal assaults committed by one person against another. In addition, we describe victims as objects of acts that have no specified agents, describing them as “abused women” or “battered women.” We talk about “violent relationships” when it is the batterer, not the relationship, who is violent.

How Law Enforcement Officers Can Help:

It will take a concerted effort by all of us who work within the criminal justice system, the media, and society as a whole, to change how we talk about and respond to sexual violence. Law enforcement officers can play an important role here. Here are some recommendations for how you can help:

  • Avoid using the language of consensual sex to describe assaultive acts. Instead, use language that describes body parts and what the victim was forced to do. Obviously, if you are quoting witnesses’ statements or the language of the statute, you need to use their exact language.
  • Use language that reflects the unilateral nature of the sexual violence; avoid language that suggests the acts were mutual.
  • Use accountable language that places responsibility on the person committing the criminal acts; avoid the “invisible perpetrator.”
  • Help educate others about the importance of using accountable, accurate language when talking about sexual violence.

1Janet Bavelas & Linda Coates, Is it Sex or Assault? Erotic Versus Violent Language in Sexual Assault Trial Judgments, 10 J. Soc. Distress & Homeless 29 (2001).
2James C. McKinley, Vicious Assault Shakes Texas Town, N.Y. Times, Mar. 8, 2011, at A13.
3Jackson Katz, DSK’s Alleged Victim Should Not Be Called His “Accuser,” Huffington Post (Aug. 20, 2011), http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jackson-katz/dsks-alleged-victim-shoul_b_930996.html.