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The complicated, inadequate language of sexual violence

Women speaking while groping hands emerge from the speech bubbles Javier Zarracina / Vox
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

My job is to write about popular culture. Fairly regularly, and especially for the past two months or so, as accusations of sexual assault and harassment have ricocheted across Hollywood, that has meant that my job is to write about sexual violence.

Writing incessantly about sexual violence is wearying on multiple levels. Psychologically, it is exhausting to spend day after day filling my head with details about another rape, another man cornering an employee to masturbate aggressively in her general direction, another beloved Hollywood icon issuing a half-hearted apology about how he didn’t know it was inappropriate to shower in front of one’s employees/squeeze a co-worker’s boobs on national television/grope 14-year-olds, etc. After a certain point, you expect that kind of exhaustion; you start to budget time for it.

But what I did not expect was to find that my tools for writing about these stories would be so limited. As I spend more and more time writing about the sexual violence that undergirds American culture, our vocabulary for this kind of violence has begun to seem profoundly impoverished. I’ve started to feel that I am using a language that wants to make it as difficult as possible to describe this particular kind of violence, that wants it to remain unspeakable, in the shadows, unnamed.

It’s not that we don’t have a vocabulary for talking about sexual violence, because we do. But that vocabulary is inadequate. It is confusing and flattening in ways that make it hard to talk about sexual violence without either trivializing it, obfuscating the systems that enable it, or getting so specific as to become salacious or triggering. So whenever I talk about sexual violence, I feel like I’m translating: taking the acts that actually happened and trying to cram them into the language that I have available to describe them.

That inadequacy is not a harmless coincidence. Language reflects culture, and our language reflects a culture that does not want to make it easy to talk about sexual violence — that wants to make it difficult, uncomfortable, and confusing.

The vocabulary we have for sexual assault tends to be either clinical but vague or graphic but specific

If you want to write with any kind of accuracy about sexual violence, you have two choices: You can make your language clinical but vague, or you can make it graphic but specific. The New York Times’s first exposé on Harvey Weinstein, by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, belongs to the first camp; the New Yorker’s first exposé on Harvey Weinstein, by Ronan Farrow, belongs to the second.

Both are brilliant pieces of journalism, and both describe the same pattern of behavior from the same man. But they also make deliberate choices about how they describe that behavior.

In the New York Times, Weinstein “badgered [a victim] into giving him a massage while he was naked, leaving her ‘crying and very distraught.’”

In the New Yorker, actress Asia Argento described how Weinstein exited the room. “When he returned, he was wearing a bathrobe and holding a bottle of lotion. ‘He asks me to give a massage. I was, like, “Look, man, I am no fucking fool” … But, looking back, I am a fucking fool. And I am still trying to come to grips with what happened.’”

In the New York Times, Ambra Battilana tells the police that “Mr. Weinstein had grabbed her breasts after asking if they were real and put his hands up her skirt.”

In the New Yorker, “she sat with Weinstein on a couch to review the portfolio, and he began staring at her breasts, asking if they were real. Gutierrez later told officers of the New York Police Department’s Special Victims Division that Weinstein then lunged at her, groping her breasts and attempting to put a hand up her skirt while she protested.”

In the New York Times, Weinstein does things that are clearly unacceptable but a little fuzzy around the edges. In the New Yorker, Weinstein performs monstrous acts that the reader can imagine all too clearly.

In my own writing, I tend toward the second camp. I think that it’s important, when writing about sexual violence, to make it clear that these acts are violent. That’s why I’m using the term sexual violence throughout this essay to describe not just physical violence, like sexual assault, but also acts of sexual intimidation that don’t involve physical contact, like Louis C.K. masturbating in front of unwilling women over whom he has power. Sexual misconduct, the other blanket term for these acts, suggests mild bad behavior, and I want to make it clear that this behavior is not only unethical but is a violent abuse of power.

And I have found that the less specific my language is, the more invisible the violence becomes. But I also worry that the more specific I get, the more sensationalized my language feels.

For instance: Many of the cases that I’ve been writing about include instances of forced oral sex. How do I write about that in an honest way?

I can write, “He forced oral sex on her,” but that formulation troubles me: Oral sex is a consensual sex act, which creates an ambiguity that forced does not quite resolve. “How can you force oral sex?” people demand.

I can be specific about the physical act that’s taking place, writing, “He licked her genitalia.” There’s a sense of repulsion and coercion in that language, and it doesn’t assume consent — but on the other hand, it’s extremely graphic. A survivor reading that image could easily be triggered; even if you’re not a survivor, reading multiple graphic images like that all in a row can be emotionally trying or even numbing. Such descriptions can also swing the other way, and become luridly fascinating in a way that feels exploitative, as if I am writing pornography rather than reporting on a sexual assault case.

I can leave out the details all together and just say, “He sexually assaulted her.” That’s clinical enough that it doesn’t feel either triggering or pornographic, and it doesn’t imply consensual activity — but it’s also so vague as to feel bowdlerizing. The violence of the act disappears.

This dilemma is baked into our vocabulary for sexual violence. Throughout the 20th century, feminist activists struggled to create words for acts of sexual violence that our culture has kept nameless and hence unspeakable — only to find that once the words were created, they were rapidly stripped of their power.

Until feminist activists named certain kinds of sexual violence, there was no way to legislate against them

Historically, the language of sexual violence has been an ideological battleground: If there is no word for an act, you cannot name it, which means that you cannot report it or legislate against it. And our terminology and definitions for sexual violence tend to start small and narrow, and only expand under pressure from feminist activists.

“It’s really important that certain kind of phenomena get named in the first place,” York University linguist Susan Ehrlich told me. “For years those kinds of phenomena weren’t named, and in not being named, it’s harder to understand them as something real.”

Until 2012, the FBI defined rape as “the carnal knowledge of a female, forcibly and against her will.” In legal statutes, carnal knowledge usually means heterosexual penetrative intercourse, so under this definition, rape only included the penetration of a vagina by a penis: Men could not be raped, and the penetration of a vagina by any foreign object besides a penis was not rape. If the victim did not physically resist to the utmost of her ability — if, for instance, she were so afraid that she went into shock and instinctively froze, or if she thought that her rapist might kill her if she fought back — then she was not raped. The definition only changed after years of protest from feminist groups like the Women’s Law Project and the Feminist Majority Foundation.

For decades, the “carnal knowledge” definition of rape fostered the assumption that rape was necessarily stranger rape, committed by scary masked men who drag innocent young girls into dark alleys. In order to fight back against that assumption, and to say that yes, when you’re on a date with a boy and you say no but he keeps going anyway, that’s still rape, we needed new language: hence the advent of the term date rape (a coining usually attributed to Susan Brownmiller’s Against Our Will in 1975).

To talk about sexual misconduct that did not involve rape, we needed yet more new language. Until Lin Farley coined the term sexual harassment in 1975, women did not have the language to discuss the ways in which they were routinely exploited at work. “It is an issue that has been shrouded in silence,” said Karen DeCrow, president of the National Organization for Women at the time, “because its occurrence is seen as both humiliating and trivial.”

“Working women immediately took up the phrase, which finally captured the sexual coercion they were experiencing daily,” Farley recalled in a New York Times op-ed in October. “No longer did they have to explain to their friends and family that ‘he hit on me and wouldn’t take no for an answer, so I had to quit.’ What he did had a name.”

Naming an act is only half the battle. Once the vocabulary is in place, our culture works to strip it of its meaning.

Yet even as activists create new vocabulary to help give voice to acts of sexual violence, the rest of the culture contributes to the devaluation and neutralization of that new vocabulary.

“The term [sexual harassment], which once held so much promise,” said Farley in her op-ed, “has been co-opted, sanitized, stripped of its power to shock, disturb and galvanize.” The words sexual harassment, she argued, should be associated with predators and with acts of violence; one should not be able to, for instance, muse over how much one enjoys being sexually harassed by one’s boss in breezy commercial novels, as Bridget Jones does in Bridget Jones’s Diary.

That kind of sanitizing and stripping of power is not an uncommon practice when it comes to the vocabulary we use for sexual violence, argue linguists Susan Ehrlich and Ruth King in their 1994 paper “Feminist Meanings and the (De)Politicization of the Lexicon.” They write: “Simply introducing nonsexist terms or terms with feminist-influenced meanings into a language will not necessarily result in nonsexist or feminist usage of such terms.”

For instance: In 1991 the University of Toronto revised its sexual harassment policy to include “creating an intimidating, hostile, or defensive environment.” Outraged faculty members ridiculed the new policy: Did this mean that they could not teach Norman Mailer or discuss Freud? Ehrlich and King argue that the kind of absurdist “stretching” you can see in this critique — in which opponents of an idea “expand its definition beyond the scope of reason,” and then “impute this expanded (unreasonable) definition to feminists” — is a means of “ridiculing and trivializing.” The “innovative meaning” intended by Farley when she coined the phrase sexual harassment, they write, “gets ‘cannibalized’ by the dominant structure it is attempting to subvert.”

So although sexual harassment was a term created by feminist activists so that women could describe an act of violence routinely enacted against them, that doesn’t mean the patriarchy can’t use the term for its own purposes, too.

“When these terms are actually used, they’re depoliticized,” Ehrlich told Vox. “They lose their force.”

And because the vocabulary that we have in place exists in a sexist culture, that makes it more difficult for victims — the people that vocabulary was ostensibly created to serve — to use it.

“I find that youth have a visceral understanding of their experience, but a very particular heteronormative and stigmatizing language of sexual violence,” says Heather Hlavka, a sociologist at Marquette University who studies sexual violence. “Girls do not name their experiences as rape or sexual assault, despite very clearly fitting within established legal categories. Boys, too, struggle to understand, define, and identify as a victim of sexual violence but for different reasons.”

“I would argue that we do not lack a language of sexual violence and harassment,” Hlavka adds. “It’s there — it’s a feminist language of power and control and abuse and consent — we just aren’t integrating it in truly meaningful ways, and thus our experiences will not neatly map onto law.”

Vocabulary that cannot be neutralized becomes pornographic

Where our vocabulary for sexual violence is not impoverished, it tends to be sensationalized. As I write about stories of sexual violence, I constantly struggle over whether a word choice is usefully specific or lurid and pornographic.

“Are we, as a culture, so titillated by the extremities of violence — the types, the details, the comportments — that we would like to ingest each sensationalized bit of people’s experiences?” asks Hlavka. “What is the ultimate goal? To better understand? To discredit the experience or mitigate the offense because it fell low on a range of horrors? To discredit the victim by dissecting her actions, her composure, her silence, or her resolve?”

When I use language that is specific and detailed to describe sexual violence, am I actually making the violence of the act clear to my readers, so that they can truly understand the shock and horror of what happened? Or am I inviting them to luxuriate in the images of sex and violence, our culture’s two favorite forms of pornography, and inviting them to take a titillated pleasure in the story of the worst moment of another human being’s life?

We are already primed to read violence as erotic, because our erotic vocabulary is a violent one. Our words for sex are violent — pound, hit, bang — and our expressions for violent anger are sexual: fuck off, go fuck yourself, suck my dick. Our language treats violence and sex as near equivalents, so there is constant slippage around our vocabulary for violence that occurs in the arena of sex: It is far, far too easy to make it sound sexy.

But, of course, sexual violence is not sexy. It is not even about sex. It is about power, about one human being making another feel small and insignificant and humiliated and less-than, and using the tools that we associate with intimacy to do it. And our language is not set up to handle that kind of ambiguity.

Our language does not want us to be able to talk about sexual violence. That matters.

We live in a culture that on the one hand has a limited vocabulary for talking about sexual violence, and works to neutralize new terms almost as soon as they are created, and on the other takes an insidious pleasure in eroticizing the existing vocabulary. And that makes sexual violence exceptionally hard to write about in a way that is responsible, honest, and accurate.

Our language is not inherently neutral: We create it for our own purposes. And for most of the history of the English language, those purposes have been to reify the power of those with a monopoly on institutional strength, and to make that power seem natural, essential, and invisible.

So our language considers only certain kinds of sexual violence to be “legitimate,” and will not label other kinds with specific, descriptive terminology. When the disenfranchised manage to amass enough power to demand terms for those unlabeled acts, our culture works to neutralize the new vocabulary, rendering it either colorlessly bland or amorphous or pornographic, but always removing the sense of violence from the words.

When we talk about sexual violence, we do it using a language that does not want us to be able to name the thing about which we are talking. We are constantly in a state of translation, trying to find the right names for acts that our language does not want to name.

Because if we can’t name it, we can’t fight against it. And if we can’t fight it, business can continue as usual.