Article by Matthew Farrell
WARNING: The following article contains descriptions and references to sexual assault.
Human language is the bridge between minds, resulting in constant growth and reconstruction along with our societies. The terminology of sexual offenses is no exception to the changes of linguistics, demonstrated within America today through the scope of feminism and movements such as #MeToo. These groups provide a microphone to victims of sexual crimes; however, what the voiceless, those whose experiences are being swept under the rug, say and how they say it is an important discussion in a more open environment for conversation about and with survivors of sexual misconduct.
Frustrations about the lack of clarity of terminology are far from satisfied. Constance Grady, a pop culture journalist at Vox, feels this lack of specificity has made it “as difficult as possible to describe this particular kind of violence, that wants it to remain unspeakable, in the shadows, unnamed.” When writing on sexual crimes, she has objected to being trapped between “clinical but vague” and “graphic but specific” language.
With cloudy umbrella definitions, it can be difficult to identify what exactly happened in a sexual assault.
Overlapping terms like these create no clear line between what is what as various aspects of each crime match others. Sexual harassment varies from cat calling to brushing up against someone in a sexual manner whereas sexual assault can be anything from voyeurism (watching someone without their consent) to groping.
Additionally, this vague terminology can also be altered from situation to situation, along with private workplaces providing even more variation for these phrases (as well as terms such as “sexual misconduct”).
Linguistics offers no help either, with the legal definition of assault (“a threat of bodily harm coupled with an apparent, present ability to cause the harm”) failing to fully match the everyday definition (“a sudden, violent attack; onslaught”).
But, why does this matter?
For one, talking about sexual crimes is extremely different from discussion of other illegal acts. Often, plaintiffs of these cases are “accusers” rather than “victims” as in other legal proceedings. Michele Sharpe, a former criminal defense attorney turned author, chalks up this inconsistency to be “[insinuating] that the person who was assaulted is unreliable,” a ghastly observation of the difference of treatment between defendants of cases with varying circumstances. Perhaps this syntactic switch is also representative of crimes often committed privately, with few witnesses or cameras to catch details. Nevertheless, it is a horrific precedent symbolic of the contrast between sexual offenses and other transgressions. Specific language is an incredibly important aspect in dealing with the law, especially in cases with a sexual component that have two sides telling different stories of what happened.
Already at a disadvantage in treatment, victims have the right to tell their stories precisely and accurately in the manner they wish to reveal them. Accounts of sexual crimes are paramount in uncovering the truth, inspiring other victims, and giving reparations in the form of mental well being, legal justice, social truth, financial compensation or a combination of all of the above.
With unspecific language, these people lose the ability to speak about of horrific memories without succumbing to Grady’s description of either vague, clinical terminology or specific, graphic language. Unclear clinical definitions do not reveal what exactly happened, with the alternative being to descriptively speak about the issue. Connotation is incredibly important in storytelling, because without specificity, victims lose the ability to reveal their experience without straying into either one of these language camps.
On the other side, perpetrators of sexual crimes, though malicious and heinous, deserve specificity as well. This right to the truth certainly does not grant forgiveness or pardon the guilty parties, however, there should be a line drawn between catcalling and rape, instead of labeling both as sexual violence. For example, comedians Louis C.K. and Bill Cosby were revealed as abusers of positions of power to commit sexual violence — Louis C.K. having masturbated in front of five women and Cosby having faced a staggering sixty accusations of sexual assault and three charges of aggravated indecent assault. Though somewhat extreme, these situations are different and resulted in different consequences. In no way was either perpetrator not participating in a horrific and disgusting crime. However, the truth about their actions must be spread with specificity.
Heather Hlavka, a sociologist at Marquette University and expert on sexual criminology, brings up an important caveat to furthering understanding of sexual violence asking, “What is the ultimate goal? To better understand? To discredit the experience or mitigate the offense because it fell low on a range of horrors? To discredit the victim by dissecting her actions, her composure, her silence, or her resolve?”
As a society, we must be vigilant to resist putting victims on a spectrum of pain. The survivors of any criminal act, most importantly one with a sexual aspect, experience suffering, grieving, and coping differently. The price of specific language, and thus specific truth, should not become a judgement of how traumatic an experience is. We must agree and teach that no sexual crime is appropriate or tolerable, while still distinguishing between rapists and a coworker who made an improper comment. There is a difference in the crimes, but there is also a difference in the victims, leaving their reactions to be varied and in whatever form seems appropriate to the victim.
Sexual violence should be talked about. It is difficult enough to speak on such a raw subject; without the right words and a thorough vocabulary, it is nearly impossible. An entire group of victims had to grab the microphone and scream together in order to bring the monster of sexual violence into the spotlight.
Let’s make sure we give the right words to the next generation — so they will never have to type out #MeToo.
Feature Image: AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes