On Saturday, the New York Times ran an op-ed called “Confusing Sex and Rape,” which breaks down the inaccuracy of media reports about rape, specifically citing examples and reactions from the Penn State case. Arthur Brisbane, the Times Public Editor writes,
It is common for newspapers to use terms like “sexual assault” and “sexual abuse” and “have sex” when reporting on sex crimes. Perhaps, though, it’s time that The Times and other news organizations take another look at the language they use. Victims’ advocates echo what the readers told me in their e-mails: language in news media reports — and, for that matter, in the court system itself — consistently underplays the brutality of sex crimes and misapplies terms that imply consent.
At the beginning of this year, CALCASA’s Livia Rojas wrote a blog post about the importance of how we use language, especially when referring to issues related to sexual violence. She wrote that language is a shared understanding of relating to one another.
Being mindful of the language that we avoid as well as the language we use at meetings, in press releases, websites, and our daily face to face interactions, ultimately reflect our points of privilege and oppression. Systems of oppression are interconnected…
The definitions for the terms rape, sexual abuse and sexual assault are varied — depending on where you are and who you ask. However, there is a reason the word rape isn’t feel-good: because it’s a horrifying crime. No matter the legal definition, people connote rape with something nasty and terrible. Still, it’s use in media is not consistent, perhaps partially due to the confusion and lack of clarity around the word.
This brings us back to the discussion of how to create lanuage and definitions for rape that are nationally — even universally — recognized and understood. Recently, an F.B.I. subcommittee made recommendations to create a new federal definition of rape, moving the agency a step closer to updating the way it counts sex crimes for the first time since 1927. Currently, the F.B.I. considers rape to be “the carnal knowledge of a female, forcibly and against her will,” which excludes anal and oral rape, male rape and rape committed without physical force but also without consent.” Changes to the definition have been approved by a subcommittee of law enforcement officials and will next go to an advisory panel. If signed off, the definition will be sent to F.B.I. Director Robert Mueller for approval.
Still, even with a new F.B.I. definition, work must occur at the state-level, within local communities and among journalists to call rape rape. By calling rape something other than what it is, it sends a message to victims that if you don’t fit that very narrow definition — by your state, federal guidelines or your community — you weren’t a victim.