Content warning: This post includes, as you may imagine from the title, discussions of rape and sexual assault, and parts of it are graphic.
One of the many obstacles faced in combating rape and sexual assault is that people are often reluctant to name these acts. While this may seem like a primarily academic concern, it is in fact a very serious problem. If someone cannot identify an act as rape or sexual assault, it means that this person isn’t inclined to report a crime, because in this person’s belief, no crime occurred. This means that the perpetrator goes unpunished and in all likelihood is going to be doing it again at some point in the future.
This is not the fault of the victim/survivor. At all. It is the fault of society. Because we live in a society in which people are strongly discouraged from referring to these things by their proper names. Euphemisms abound for rape and sexual assault to avoid actually having to say these words. It goes beyond mere reluctance and squeamishness; we are actively told not to name the things that happen to us. And because we are not allowed to name them, it is as though they never happened.
Not just in the eyes of the law, but in our own minds. If we can’t say ‘I was sexually assaulted,’ that must means that the sexual assault didn’t happen. Being unable to acknowledge and examine these events can result in profound psychological distress for victims/survivors. Suppressing these memories to avoid the potential of having to name the unnameable can be, quite frankly, dangerously unhealthy. Because eventually these things will surface and they may do so in a highly explosive way.
Unwanted sexual contact is sexual assault. It is not flirting. It is not ‘hitting on’ people. It is not ‘joking around.’ It is sexual assault. When someone is groped on a crowded subway train, touched in a way which is unwanted and feels uncomfortable by a relative, when someone is forced to perform oral sex on a partner, this is sexual assault. Notice some things that these events have in common: They all involve unwanted sexual contact.
It doesn’t matter who the perpetrator or instigator is. It can be a stranger, a relative, a ‘friend,’ a romantic partner. What matters is not the relationship between assailant and subject, but the nature of the contact. If someone is making you do something you do not want to do or someone is doing something to you which you do not want, and that something is sexual, you are experiencing sexual assault. And when it is over, you have been sexually assaulted.
You have not been flirted with or hit on or teased or joked around with.
Yet, I see countless examples in the media, in advice columns, even in conversations with people, in which acts of sexual assault are not named and not identified as such. Sometimes it’s an attempt to dismiss a claim of sexual assault or to trivialise something that happened to someone. Sometimes it’s genuine ignorance of the fact that unwanted sexual contact is sexual assault.
And it’s all a reinforcement of rape culture. Rape culture tells us, for example, that people in romantic relationships are always available for sexual activity with their partners. This means that romantic partners and spouses cannot commit sexual assault and rape, because consent is assumed. Every time someone repeats this idea, it is reinforced. Every time someone says that a partner did something which was unwanted and someone responds ‘oh well, I’m sure it was just playing around,’ it is a reminder that our society does not recognize sexual assault which happens within the context of romantic relationships.
It’s important to call things by their proper names, to tell it like it is, to name things. Not least because this is the only way to deconstruct harmful social attitudes and norms; people must know that society defines unwanted sexual contact as sexual assault so that people who commit sexual assault are aware that they will be called to account for it. So that law enforcement know to take sexual assault seriously. So that lawyers and judges and doctors and all of the people involved in the system which is supposed to identify sex crimes and prosecute them are aware that society wants sex crimes addressed.
Individuals must be able to name their experiences and to have their experiences validated. Yes, it’s great when a crisis counselor or friend or family member names what happened and provides support. This is critically important. But when the victim/survivor enters the outside world and is continually reminded that the rest of society doesn’t believe that what happened is sexual assault, it is, to say the least, disheartening. And it can mean that someone who wants to report something decides not to. That someone who wants to warn someone about a sexual predator says nothing. That someone who wants to speak out about sexual assault is afraid to do so because the consequences of doing so inevitably start with being informed that something ‘wasn’t really’ sexual assault.
How many times do you have to read media articles saying ‘had sex with,’ instead of ‘raped’ before you start believing that? How many times do you have to see perpetrators placed in a passive position with the framing of an article to start absorbing the sinister implications that go along with that?
Naming things can be frightening. Identifying things can be intimidating. But it is the first step in addressing rape and sexual assault, in combating rape culture. Until we can all get on the same page about what sexual assault is, until we can get the media to start reporting things with more appropriate language, until we can provide people with the tools they need to describe what happened to them, we cannot hope to put a nail in rape culture’s coffin.