Words matter.

CW: Sexual Assault, Rape

In the March 31, 2021 New York Times, Marta Blue had a moving article about the unwanted touch that women are subject to through their lives. She wrote an interesting piece discussing the boundaries of consent and the ways in which those boundaries get elided by experience of the world’s – i.e., men’s – expectations.

Much of what she wrote about stroke a chord. Like her, I have experienced non-sexual situations where consent to touch is explicitly required, but where my refusal of that consent met with passive-aggressive disapproval. I have found myself subject to unwanted hugs from male acquaintances – without making my displeasure known. (Those hugs ran from perfunctory to creepy, such as the male “friend” who used to massage my back when he “hugged” me, to my silence.) The only case that comes to mind when I pushed back forcefully was when a man I had met only a few hours before tried to “comfort” me after my car had been broken into. He was offended when I snarled “leave me alone,” replying “I’m just trying to offer support.” I have sometimes asked not to be hugged, and had those requests ignored. It was only after I developed fibromyalgia, where hugs can be not only unwanted but physically painful, have I been able to rebuff hugs not only feeling comfortable doing so but fairly sure that my refusal of consent would not be taken badly.

One part of her piece, though, bothered me even more than the rest. She described how, as a girl, she had ended up in a bathroom with a group of boys, including one who slid his finger inside her and coerced her into giving him a hand job. A pretty horrible experience for a young teen. But later, when discussing the issue of consent and her stint as a sex worker, she stated “Likewise, I’ve never been sexually assaulted.”

I said out loud when I read that, “Oh, honey, you sure have.” How else would you describe her unwanted sexual experience as a girl? Although, in context, she may have meant that she had never been sexually assaulted during her time doing sex work, the sentence was ambiguous.

I have railed at people over the term “sexual assault.” All too often, it has been used simply as a euphemism for rape. That does a disservice to victims of both. It softens “rape” into something that sounds less violent, less destructive. On the other hand, if “sexual assault” equals “rape,” victims of sexual assault that do not fall into the category of rape may view their experience as being less important than it is.

Call rape “rape.” Call sexual violence that cannot be characterized as rape, “sexual assault.” Don’t use those words to minimize the experience of both rape victims and those whose experience is something other, but not automatically less.

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