Thoughts on genre, language, grammar, and other
rhetorical and linguistic norms
rhetorical and linguistic norms
Why we can’t tell others what sexual abuse/harassment/assault/rape means
An article circulated on The Conversation (great resource, if you’re not already signed up) that defined the distinctions between sexual abuse, assault, harassment, and rape, and all I could think was nope, that’s not what they mean to me.
The authors are much more expert on the subject of sexual abuse than I am. Sarah L. Cook, Lilia M. Cortina, and Mary P. Koss described themselves, accurately I’m sure, as “three scholars who have specialized in the scientific study of sexual abuse, rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment over several decades.”
Their article helpfully detailed the ways courts, laws, and, I assume, the science they study have defined the different terms, all quite informative. I was glad to know it and to have read it. They explain that, “Many people want to understand these behaviors and work to prevent them. It helps if we are consistent and as precise as possible when we use these terms.” I agree. But then their next paragraph is where I ran into trouble:
“But what does each term mean?”
Ah, meaning. Now that’s not so simple.
There is often a tension between the narrow meaning constrained by legal documents or scholarly fields and the more public, social meaning of what words mean to us. The more specialized meaning may be more scientific, but the more public meaning is more persuasive. It's what people mean.
“Rape and sexual assault have been used interchangeably in coverage of events leading to the #MeToo movement, and this practice, though unintentional, is confusing.”
That is indeed confusing. Unfortunately, outside legal courts, meaning resides not in statutes or regulations or scientific distinctions but in people’s use. A word means what people use it to mean, and that is always going to be confusing.
One example is the meaning of “sexual abuse.” The authors tell us that sexual abuse applies to children, not adults. The victims of Larry Nassar, children, were victims of sexual abuse, which they explain this way:
“Sexual abuse can include many different things, from touching a victim in a sexual manner to forcing a victim to touch the perpetrator in a sexual way to making a victim look at sexual body parts or watch sexual activity.”
Those actions, unfortunately, do not happen against only children. The authors later describe what counts as sexual assault:
“The term sexual assault can describe a range of criminal acts that are sexual in nature, from unwanted touching and kissing, to rubbing, groping or forcing the victim to touch the perpetrator in sexual ways.”
Although the authors say this term is confused with the term rape, I’d find the overlap with sexual abuse at least as confusing.
My point is not to argue against the clear definitions these authors provide. I even agree that it would be helpful if the news media would define and use their terms more carefully, especially if the media used terms consistent with the legal charges likely to be brought against a perpetrator.
But when it comes to what the words mean, it’s the women and men who are using the terms who tell us what it means.
In fact, the next scandal that erupted after this article were the claims made against White House staff secretary Rob Porter. As the media and the ex-wives reported it, Porter “abused” them. The current president might avoid using the word "abuse" in his Twitter protest but the media and, more importantly, the women with black eyes did use the term.
So “abuse” does not apply only to children.
As the authors acknowledge in the end, the experiences of people are real, whatever they are called.
And their experiences are often horrific.
If they consider the behavior against them as sexual violence (what the authors describe as the broadest term), then they experienced it as violence. If they call it abuse, they likely experienced abuse. If they were feeling harassed rather than abused, then that’s what it was, even if the action might have included unwanted touching, which the authors would categorize as assault. Can a woman feel raped even without penetration, which the authors say is a requirement for the term? I’m confident of it.
Meaning lies in our individual experiences and our societal contexts. You and I might both have learned the word “dog,” but your dog might be a Great Dane while mine is a Yorkie. We might both see a person on the street and describe her as “running” or “jogging” or “exercising.” We might both see a man leaning into a woman at the end of the bar, but I might say, “Look at that guy harassing that woman,” while you might say, “Look at that couple flirting.” We may all have learned to talk about sexual harassment and sexual abuse--or more likely NOT to talk about it--but what counts as harassment to you might be abuse to me.
I am not NOT NOT NOT saying that harassment, abuse, or assault is in the eye of the beholder, or that some men who have been charged with assault can duck by asserting that the term means something different to them. The ACTIONS are the same. The social condemnation of those actions is the same. Whatever we label it, the wrongness of the behavior has finally been called out.
By calling it what it is—harassment, abuse, assault, rape, or violence. All terms that mean WRONG
That woman at the end of the bar is the only one who knows whether what’s happening is flirtation or harassment. The man MIGHT also know, but maybe not until the difference has been pointed out to him. If she says “leave me alone,” he’d better know the difference. Time’s up on his claim that he was just flirting when he continues to harass her.
A skunk may say it’s a cat, may even BELIEVE it’s a cat, but it still stinks like a skunk.
But we will not settle the meanings of words through legal definitions or court cases or what we think the terms SHOULD mean.
Words mean what people who use them mean by them.
The authors also acknowledge that the meanings aren't fixed--
“Definitions, criminal and otherwise, change with social standards. This time next year, we may be writing a new column.”
I would revise a bit to say that definitions, criminal or otherwise, change with social use. With our new willingness to say out loud and our new willingness to listen as people proclaim, "He abused me!" "He harassed me!" "He raped me!" "He assaulted me!" will come new uses of these words. With new uses will come new meanings.
As we have with every other word in the language over many centuries of the history of our language, we will work it out. We will communicate.
And others will know what we mean. As long as we keep listening.