The power of language or: Why I’m never angry.
By Wendy, who supports survivors
I never get angry. True story. I am frequently cross or irritated (occasionally even annoyed) but never angry. The reason for this is that I don’t feel comfortable with the way the word angry sounds, feels or makes me look- so I substitute it with something softer.
This is the power of language and sometimes it can be fun. (I’m almost never drunk either by the way, but have frequently been known to be merry). Language is powerful; if it weren’t advertising executives wouldn’t be driving around in flash cars.
The problem, though, is when the power of language is used to belittle something or diminish an act of importance. It is essential that we get it right when we talk about survivors of rape and sexual assault and their experiences.
In the past few weeks we have seen news coverage of the trial of a man who “groped” Taylor Swift. She was not groped, she was sexually assaulted. Time and again we read in news and magazine articles that a man has “had sex” with an unconscious woman. This is not sex it is rape. The use of a softer word allows the perpetrator a measure of permissiveness.
Words such as “fondle” and even “caress” have been used to describe sexual assaults and this muddies the waters. These are words more associated with acts of love or tenderness- the antithesis of sexual assault.
Using words that are “nicer” versions of the true word diminishes the experience of the survivor and the severity of the crime. The pervasive use of the incorrect and offensive term “child pornography” is a case in point. Pornography has connotations with legality, consent and adulthood. What is referred to as child pornography is actually images of child sexual abuse or exposure.
Words used around the abuse of children are often wilfully softer, almost playful or childlike in themselves. Consider the term (and I apologise in advance) “kiddie fiddling”. Child abuse is a brutal term and the urge not to use it is understandable. But child abuse is brutal and nothing is gained from pretending otherwise.
Who is anyone to fear the words when survivors have lived the experience?
Using language to water down sexual violence makes it appear that the survivor is “making a mountain out of a molehill”; exaggerating or whingeing. It moves the focus away from the act and onto other matters. It helps to sweep the action under the carpet.
This is especially true when the substituted word has another meaning; to fumble is to stagger around in the dark trying not to fall over. It is not to assault someone.
Sadly, survivors are used to having their experiences questioned and belittled. Using inaccurate language is a primary way of doing this. To insist that words are used correctly is not pedantry. To use words correctly is giving the survivor the power and the perpetrator the responsibility.
To be honest, not doing so makes me really…angry.