Sexual Assault Terminology can be a bit confusing. Perhaps this is even more amplified when it comes to conversations surrounding difficult topics, such as sexual violence. Talking about sexual violence can and often is hard because of how increasingly personal and emotionally charged these conversations can be.
Complicating matters further, are the nuances in distinctions and classifications across organizations. However, one truth remains certain, language matters. In 2001, researchers Bavelas and Coates conducted a study examining the language utilized in 75 different sexual offense cases in British Columbia. Researchers were interested in comparing the ways in which judgments described charges brought against the defendants.
Results indicated that “sexual language,” words and phrases that suggested eroticism, mutual consent, and affection, were the most frequently used descriptors. These findings are important to consider because using sexual language to describe assault diminishes the survivors’ experiences and feelings, and also fails to acknowledge the violence of the assault.
Sexual violence is a serious issue and the language we use to discuss this topic should reflect that. The language we use to describe events, experiences, feelings, and beliefs- all that impacts our perceptions and the way we perceive and interact with the world around us. Language is power. There is significant, undeniable power in language as well as in our ability to remain informed on topics, developments, and issues taking place within our world.
Adding to the significance of language and how it is used, the credibility of shared information must also be considered. In this age of technology, we are able to connect with each other like never before, reaching more people than perhaps was ever thought possible. We can exchange ideas at lightning-speed rates. Amidst all these seemingly positive advancements, it may seem surprising at first, to acknowledge the potential negative side of extensive connectivity.
It is coming to our attention more and more now, just how important it is that we verify the information we receive. That we question the veracity of the messages we hear every day. And strive towards deeper understanding. Our knowledge affects our ability to make decisions as well as the kind of decisions we then make. And these decisions can have very real implications. Knowledge and language act together, coloring our world. Which means we should all pause and ask ourselves, what kind of language is being used in the messages I hear, and what motivations are behind these choices?
Role language plays
Because of how important a role language plays when it comes to sexual violence prevention, a significant portion of this article is dedicated to sharing official definitions, such as those provided by RAINN and the Unified Crime Report (UCR), concerning rape, sexual assault, sexual harassment and other related terms. What is sexual assault? And what does it specifically refer to? This is an incredibly crucial question in need of answering. We need to know what sexual assault is in order to aid in assault prevention and assist in its intervention. The more aware we are of sexual violence and various aspects of the issue, the better able we are at keeping our communities safe.
Perhaps the best way to begin a comprehensive discussion surrounding sexual violence as framed and influenced by language would be first, an introduction to consent. Fundamentally speaking, consent means that all individuals have actively communicated with one another and have agreed to engage in sexual activity (Sexual Consent, 2022).
This decision must be achieved without the use of threats, coercion, manipulation, and violence. FRIES is a simple, straightforward, and helpful acronym that can best describe various aspects of consent communication that are often overlooked.
F, stands for “freely given”, meaning that the consent to engage in sex cannot be attributed to the use of manipulation, coercion, violence, or the presence of drugs.
R, means that consent is “reversible”. Everyone has a right to change their minds at any point and for any reason. Consenting to a sexual activity one time does not suggest consent in the future. If for any reason you initially consented to have sex, but feel differently later, you have the right to communicate this with your partner(s), and they must respect your decision.
I, signifies that consent is informed, meaning when you make a decision to consent to an activity, all parties are completely aware of any boundaries that are in place and to what they have consented. Consent is not informed if, for example, a partner failed to ask if you would be comfortable having unprotected sex, but then proceeded to secretly remove any protective barriers (i.e. male condom).
This is called, stealthing. Additionally, consenting to oral sex with someone does not imply you have consented to anything besides oral sex, for example. If a partner assumed you would consent to a different, undiscussed activity, and proceeded to engage in that behavior, this event would classify as sexual assault. Next up in the FRIES acronym is the letter, E.
E which stands for the word “enthusiastic.” Enthusiastic consent basically means that you only consent to sexual activity that you are willing to engage in or want to do and that you are not consenting because you feel expected to.
S, stands for “specific.” This goes back to the idea that consent for one activity does not imply consent for something else in addition.
Consent: “An Internal State of Willingness, an Act of Explicitly Agreeing to Something, and Behavior That Someone Else Interprets as Willingness” (Muehlenhard et al., 2016).
Stealthing: When an individual covertly removes a condom during sexual activity without the consent of their partner (What is Stealthing? n.d.).
Sexual Assault Terminology on Campuses
As the issue of on-campus sexual assault has continued to spark international discussion as well as concern, American universities began to enact “affirmative consent” policies. According to this idea, consent must be “affirmative, conscious, and voluntary”, that lack of resistance is not indicative of affirmative consent, and that consent may be revoked (As cited in Muehlenhard et al., 2016 ).
While affirmative consent seems to function at first glance, the policy has received its share of criticism. In light of this, researchers sought to better understand what college students thought about sexual consent communication. Their work showcased the impact gender roles have when it comes to sexual communication in college students, by highlighting the rather pervasive double standards young men and women expressed in the study (Muehlenhard et al., 2016 ).
It was generally endorsed that men were allowed and encouraged to show an interest in and initiate sex, while women were expected to display low interest and wait for men to initiate. Based on these findings, researchers questioned whether or not affirmative consent could function efficiently, given the fact that double standards directly affect sexual communication among men and women, where men are expected to be the only initiators, inadvertently creating an environment where consent communication is only happening in the context of male over female pleasure.
Affirmative Consent: “the unambiguous and voluntary agreement to engage in a specific sexual activity. Consent is clear, knowing, and voluntary words or actions that create mutually understandable clear permission of willingness to engage in, and the conditions of, sexual activity. Consent must be active; silence by itself cannot be interpreted as consent.” (Affirmative Consent, 2022).
This piece would not be a comprehensive take on the relationship between assault and language without discussing rape culture.
Rape culture: (n) A term used to describe a culture where sexual violence is seen as tolerable, normative, excusable, and unproblematic; a culture where victims are viewed as having directly encouraged or precipitated their assault, thus placing the burden of responsibility solely on the victim, and not the perpetrator (Taub, 2019).
This very narrow, punitive, and harsh perspective encourages survivors of sexual assault to potentially forfeit opportunities for advancement at work, school, and in their social lives, in favor of protection from violence, which only helps to perpetuate the cycle, preventing advancements for all of society.
Understanding the effects of Victim Blaming
By blaming victims, the attention shifts from the violence of the criminal act, to the credibility and character of the victim., as well as anything the victim did or did not do, that supposedly led to the crime. A popular example of victim-blaming communicates to young college students that in order to avoid sexual violence, they must refrain from drinking and attending fraternity-based events (Taub, 2014).
These messages indicate that it is up to victims and those who are at risk of victimization, to change their behavior, which quite inadvertently can also send the message that violence is expected and not taken as seriously as it should be. Another classic victim-blaming example is the age-old idea that in order to prevent victimization, individuals must dress in a particular way that will not encourage perpetrators to attack them.
Victim blaming: “Victim blaming refers to a practice of questioning what a victim could have done differently in order to prevent a crime from happening, thus implying the fault of the crime lies with the victim rather than the perpetrator.” (Victim Blaming, 2022).
Tolerance of sexual harassment behaviors is also a form of rape culture because it is an attitude of deliberate permissiveness that directly endangers individuals and simultaneously allows harassment and violence to flourish unchecked (Rape Culture, 2022). The United States military has long been under scrutiny for having a workplace culture that tolerates sexual harassment.
Recently, in response to the renewed controversy surrounding military leadership’s response to sexual violence, following the murder of Army servicewoman, Vanessa Guillen, the Biden administration implemented the National Defense Authorization Act, which stipulates that prosecution decisions for military sexual harassment decisions will now be determined by an outside party, and not within the organization itself (Seif, 2022).
One of the most brazen, public, misguided, and outrageous examples of victim-blaming and rape culture took place in Peru after a judge came to the conclusion that the victim’s red-colored underwear was a clear and unequivocal indication of her willingness and desire to have sex (Mithcell, 2020). Using this logic, the judge dropped the charges against the defendant. Naturally, this ludicrous conclusion outraged several Peruvian citizens, as well as individuals the world over, igniting global discourse on rape culture.
Peruvian activists demonstrated their disapproval of the court’s ruling and the solidarity they felt for the victim with public protests, equipped with red underwear, a symbol of personal choice, autonomy, and the right all individuals have to feel safe, regardless of what assumptions strangers might make about their attire.
Myths and misconceptions continue with sexual assault
Unsurprisingly, sexual violence is high in societies where rape culture not only endures but goes unchallenged (Rape culture, 2022). Contributors to rape culture include misogynistic language, the objectification of women, and the romanticization of sexual violence. All these elements combined create a dangerous environment for women; an environment where women’s wishes are dismissed and ignored and where women’s agency is supremely opposed and/or actively thwarted.
Although the language used to discuss sexual violence is often very binary, it is crucial to understand that sexual violence can happen to anyone, regardless of race, class, ethnicity, and gender, and that perpetrators are not always men (Sexual Violence Myths and Misconceptions, 2022). However, it is true that there are groups who are disproportionately at risk for sexual assault including indigenous communities, women, women of color, members of the LGBTQ+ community, and individuals with developmental disabilities (Sexual Consent, 2022).
In recent years, Alaskan Native activists have banded together to protest the rampant rape culture present in Alaska, as well as the state’s failure to protect and support Alaskan Native sexual assault survivors (AJ+, 2018).
Transitioning away from rape culture, to sexual assault itself, it seems that even with increased push to end sexual violence and educate community members, sexual assault can still be a confusing term for some. Sexual assault, as defined by RAINN, refers to any “sexual contact or behavior that occurs without explicit consent of the victim” (Sexual Assault, 2022).
Sexual assault can pertain to attempted or completed rape (penetration of the victim’s body), unwanted fondling, forcing a victim to perform sexual behaviors, such as forcing a victim to perform oral sex, or forcing a victim to penetrate the perpetrator.
Frotteurism is another form of sexual assault where a person nonconsensually rubs parts of their body onto another. This usually occurs in a crowded area, such as on a subway. It is imperative that other people within the community are aware of just how extensive of a definition sexual assault really is because this knowledge can empower individuals with the language they need to articulate and express their experiences and perhaps seek help (Staff, 2018).
Perhaps the simplest way to view the term sexual assault is to imagine it as an umbrella term used to refer to any action or behavior that was done without explicit consent. As a wide umbrella term, sexual assault may or may not refer to rape, because nonconsensual behaviors like fondling or forcing a victim to perform sexual acts are also included in the definition. However, it is equally important to recognize that all rapes are identified as sexual assault.
Understanding what Rape is and isn’t
The FBI collects crime data from all over the country through annual surveys. These surveys seek to determine the prevalence rates of all crimes, including sexual assault and rape. This data is referred to as the Uniform Crime Rates, or UCR (Uniform Crime Reporting Program, n.d.).
Within the UCR, rape is defined as “penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.” This definition is significant because of how encompassing and expansive of a definition it is.
Rape can occur through penile-vaginal penetration, but also through digital penetration, anal or oral penetration, and penetration using an object. A limited definition would only serve to hurt victims and their families by excluding their experiences and downplaying the severity of the crime, impeding justice, and decreasing access to much-needed resources, including medical attention, forensic examinations, emergency contraception, STI testing, and counseling services.
The way sexual assault and rape are characterized by law enforcement, workplace organizations, and the public, have the ability to really affect outcomes, including legal decisions. Dangerously limiting definitions can potentially inhibit punitive outcomes.
Sexual assault definitions often include reference to the use of force by the perpetrator against the victim. But what is force? Within the collective imagination, it is a widely endorsed belief that force can only refer to the act of using physical violence against another person in order to obtain something; however, this idea is very limited in scope compared to what the word force actually means. Manipulation, threats of bodily harm, and coercion are all examples of force that a perpetrator may utilize to commit sexual violence (Sexual Assault, 2022).
Just as much of society supports the belief that sexual assault must be physically violent to count as an act of sexual violence, is the idea that individuals must have visible injuries in order to have been victimized (Sexual violence myths and misconceptions, 2022). This is far from the truth. The absence of physical injury does not indicate that sexual violence did not occur.
In a similar vein, for a long time, society dismissed marital rape accounts because it was believed that rape could not happen within a married relationship. Unfortunately, there are times when victims are questioned about incidents of assault that are not deemed to be as physical or egregious as many expect sexual violence to be. Understanding that the nature of a sexual assault incident can look very different than is often depicted in the cinema or other types of media, may make efforts to support victims of sexual violence easier, improved, and more compassionate.
Marital rape: When an individual who is in a couple, committed relationship, or marriage, forces sexual activity onto their partner without their consent (What is Marital Rape, 2022).
In conclusion, our ability to speak about crucial issues, like sexual assault, can and does have a visible impact on our perceptions. It is truly very crucial for people to be able to have these hard discussions and find accurate, up-to-date information, as sexual violence is a wide and substantial subject.
It can be hard to navigate terminology or to understand historical and sociocultural factors that affect how we as a society view and respond to sexual violence, but opening up the discussion, staying informed, exchanging ideas, and learning from each other can help keep our communities safe.
In this way, each generation can be better equipped than the last at preventing sexual violence from happening in the first place. With concerted efforts, we can provide access to resources that are emotionally validating, efficient, comprehensive, and compassionate.
Affirmative Action. (2022). University of Colorado Denver. https://www.ucdenver.edu/offices/equity/university-policies-procedures/sexual-misconduct-intimate-partner-violence-stalking/affirmative-consent
AJ+. (2018, November 4). How Alaskan natives are fighting rape culture. [Video]. Youtube.
Bavelas, J. & Coates L. (2001). Is it sex or assault? Erotic versus violent language in sexual assault trial judgments. Journal of Distress and the Homeless. 10(1). https://doi.org/10.1023/a:1009477518196
Mitchell, C. (2020). Judges throw out rape cases in Peru because the alleged victim’s red underwear ‘suggested the woman was prepared she was willing to have sex’, sparking a national outcry. Daily Mail.com. https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-8914001/Peru-judges-rule-rape-case-womans-red-underwear-signalled-willing-sex.html
Muehlenhard et al. (2016). The complexities of sexual consent among college students: A conceptual and empirical review. The Journal of Sex Research. 53(4-5) 457-487. https://doi.org/10.1080/00224499.2016.1146651
Rape Culture. (2022). Marshall University.
Seif, D. (2022). We can breathe a sigh of relief… Finally…Reform to military sexual harassment response and prevention. Kiss and Tell. https://www.kissandtellmagazine.com/her-she-they-us/military-sexual-harass/
Sexual Assault. (2022). RAINN. https://www.rainn.org/articles/sexual-assault
Sexual Consent and FRIES: Freely given, Reversible, Informed, Enthusiastic, and Specific. (2022). Planned Parenthood. https://www.plannedparenthood.org/learn/relationships/sexual-consent
Sexual Violence Myths and Misconceptions. (2022). Arizona Coalition to End Sexual and Domestic Violence. https://www.acesdv.org/about-sexual-domestic-violence/sexual-violence-myths-misconceptions/
Staff, T. (2018). Overcoming frotteurism: definitions, symptoms, and sex therapy treatment.
Taub, A. (2014). Rape culture isn’t a myth. It’s real and it’s dangerous. Vox. https://www.vox.com/2014/12/15/7371737/rape-culture-definition
Uniform Crime Reporting. (n.d.) FBI. https://www.fbi.gov/services/cjis/ucr
Victim blaming. (2022). Good Therapy. https://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/psychpedia/victim-blaming
What is marital rape? (2022). Psych Central. https://psychcentral.com/lib/marital-rape#it-is-rape
What is stealthing? (n.d). love is respect. https://www.loveisrespect.org/resources/what-is-stealthing/