Words matter in how we think and talk about sexual assault

A recent article posted on our newsfeed caused me to question the way the media portrays the crime of sexual assault. The article was titled “Teacher aide intended to commit sex crime with student, FBI says.” It states that he was arrested for “allegedly contacting a student with the intention of committing a sexual offense,” characterizing such assaults as “bad choices” and “sex crimes.”

Each of these terms brings into the reader’s mind a different level of victimization. The range from “bad choices” to sex crimes” is huge. In this case, the perpetrator used the internet and in-person contact in the commission of his crimes. What exactly did he do? We do not know.

In some cases, it appears that the press demeans or lessens the importance of the crime, for example referring to a sex crime as a “bad choice.” In today’s rampant discussions of obesity, “bad choices” is a frequent term. Even in other crimes, such as Lindsey Lohan’s violations related to drug use, the term “bad choices” has been used.

To me, raping someone is certainly a “bad choice,” but goes far beyond that. Why can’t the press agree on how to refer to a crime of rape, exposure, attempted rape, sodomy, etc? Even some terms seem so “light” for crimes that leave lasting emotional scars, such as, for example, “touching” and “fondling.” Fondling even sounds kind of nice, except when use in legal terms.

As a society, we do not handle information about sexual assault very well.  Have you noticed that during the Kobe Bryant trial, the term “victim” and “alleged victim” turned into “accuser,” and that term has stuck, to refer to sex crime victims?  What a clever yet devious way to persuade readers that most likely the perpetrator is innocent, and indeed the victim of a mean “accuser.” Now the perpetrator is called “the accused.” That is so much nicer than “suspect.”

The language we use when referring to the crime itself as well as the victim and the suspect, must be re-examined. We must identify and use terms that do not influence the reader one way or the other, but rather plainly state the facts as they are known. I would love to change the terms used in the teacher’s aide article to, “sex crime,” “sexual assault,” “victim” and “suspect.”

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