Why Words Matter

The New York Times’ coverage of Penn State Assistant Coach Jerry Sandusky’s sex crimes sparked an uproar from its readers.  Highlights of the public outcry focused on the newspaper’s use of language to depict the perpetrated crimes.  Chief among their complaints was the lack of the word “rape.” Readers complained, “Why is this [crime] described as ‘sexual assault’ and not as  ‘rape’ “?  For many readers, the term ‘sexual assault’ was deemed too broad, not an accurate portrayal of the violence that occurred.

The takeaway from reader uproar is that words matter.  The words we use to describe a crime transmit meanings about the act of violence and using terms like ‘anal sex’, ‘anal intercourse’, or ‘sex with a minor’ carry an implication of consent that clearly wasn’t present in the Sandusky incident.

For some, the obvious solution is to use legal terms.  But classifying an incident according to local laws has consequences.  Legal terminology restricts comparisons across state or country borders where laws differ significantly.  The Times article pointed out just this problem.  A survey of all 50 states was conducted, and across those states it was revealed that there were about “40 different terms to describe the act of rape of a child.”  Yet, more significantly, local laws may be too restrictive or not in the favor of survivors.  For example, in New York state until 1984, spouses were exempted from prosecution for rape because marital rape was not criminalized under sexual assault laws.

So what’s the solution? Well, the Times article concluded by recognizing that this lack of clarity has not gone unnoticed.  The F.B.I is considering redefining the term for rape, and thereby their process for rape statistics, to include a more exhaustive definition.

The uproar heard from Times readers about the use of language is just one high-profile example of the need for a system of gender-based violence classification – a need not only for uniform terminology but also for a consistent system to determine the appropriate classification.  And this exists not only in the US but also on a global scale. In humanitarian settings in particular, there is a lack of uniform terminology about gender-based violence.  In settings such as this, quality data about GBV is crucial.  It helps inform service providing organizations and coordinating agencies about the scope of the problem of gender-based violence.

This was one of the impetuses behind the creation of the Gender-Based Violence Information Management System (GBVIMS) and particularly its tool for GBV classification.  Now at work in 14 countries, the GBVIMS is making GBV data collection and sharing safer and more ethical but also making the language we use more uniform and consistent.  For more information about the GBV Classification Tool, click here.

(This blog is in response to the New York Times article “Confusing Sex and Rape”, November 17, 2011)

by Kristy Crabtree