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The “Small Stuff” of Sexual Assault and Language

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Written by Maureen Wishkoski, WCA Court Advocate Manager

Contrary to popular advice, we do need to sweat the small stuff, because when perpetrators rape or sexually assault victims, all the “small stuff” matters a great deal.  There are terrific professionals who work with many “small stuff” details in a sexual assault case:  Medical forensic evidence collection provided by SANE (Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner) nurses; nurses who are trained to work with victims. Physicians providing specialized care.  There are FETIs, or Forensic Experiential Trauma Interviews, now being used by many law enforcement agencies around the country to record details of the assault that a traditional interview doesn’t capture.  And there are many more professionals building up the vital “small stuff” of sexual assault cases, but responding to and ending sexual assault is not just the work of professionals.  There is much of the “small stuff” that we can fix, today.  It is simply what we say.

In 2014, I had the good fortune to attend Claudia Bayliff’s presentation on language and violence against women.  Ms. Bayliff is a Project Attorney with the National Judicial Education Program-Legal Momentum.  In (very, very) short summation of her presentation:  language can either blame the victim or the perpetrator.  And we want to choose language that blames the perpetrator for their actions.  For example, the phrase, “she was raped” does not even mention a rapist. It only focuses on the victim.  It sounds similar to the phrase, “she was intoxicated,” which implies the subject’s responsibility for the intoxication.  However, a victim is not at all, not even a little bit, responsible for being sexually assaulted.  And yet, using language like this is still common practice.  In reading about the recent guilty plea of former NFL player Darren Sharper for drugging and raping women, I found the following sentence in an ABC News article from March 23, 2015:  “He insisted they drink a shot and they blacked out. One woman awoke with Sharper on top of her having sex.” This sentence was particularly surprising to me, because a person cannot “have sex” against their will.  Sex is participatory, rape is not.

The language above is victim blaming.  It is not as overt as commenting on a victim’s attire, but it is victim blaming nonetheless, even as it may be unintentional.  Colleen Jamison is the then-college student who produced the now semi-familiar “Sexual Assault Prevention Tips Guaranteed to Work!,” pointing out the almost existential absurdity of so-called sexual assault prevention myths. Myths that have at their core the idea that the victim can prevent the assault.  Terrifying translation:  Victims are responsible for the assault.

So, at the end, a grammar lesson, as well as language we can all use to support victims.  First, the grammar:  your sentence should have a subject other than the victim.  Someone did the assaulting/raping/abusing.  Let’s name that crime.  And second, language can and does so much good.  “I believe you,” “I am here for you however you need me,”  “It is not your fault.”  These phrases may sound pedestrian, but I assure you, they are just the kind of “small stuff” that makes a whole lot of difference in beginning to heal from a perpetrator’s assault of a victim.


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