Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Does a Rose by Any Other Name Really Smell So Sweet?

By Randy McCall

Pardon me if I pull up my soapbox.

I want to talk about words. Actually, certain specific words and phrases. Words which the political pundits, some people in the media, and those with a personal axe to grind, seem to misuse on a regular basis.

Words have power, as we all know. Words not only carry specific definitions, but often emotional overtones, or subtexts of implied meaning which are generally accepted and implicitly understood by the public.

If I call an average citizen a hero for, say, capturing a criminal, you'll all know exactly what I mean. There's more though... there's a whole range of subtext that comes with the word. What images come to mind when you say the word "hero" to yourself? Brave? Unselfish? Self sacrifice? Rescue? Sounds wonderful, doesn't it?

Yet, given the situation, I could just as easily call the same person a vigilante for their actions... and that word carries with it a whole other host of implied not-so-positive meanings: illegality, violence, revenge.

Yet we're talking about the same person and events.

So words themselves -- and the choice of words -- can have a great power to change how people think about the subject being written about.

What does this have to do with victim rights? As I mentioned earlier, there are a host of words which get misused repeatedly; some apparently on purpose, when someone is trying to cast another person or group in a specific light.

Sometimes other words get misused because the way a word is used is slowly changing (in slang or street language) and the writer doesn't realize how that word will be interpreted by some of their readers.

Finally, there are times the writer is just using a different dictionary than everyone else: for example, the dictionary definition of a word may be completely than, say, the legal definition of the word.

Today I'd like to put the record straight on just a few of these oft misused words and phrases. Which is why I said I'm "pulling up my soapbox" today. From here on, what you'll be reading are my opinions, my observations, and -- well, let's face it -- my pet peeves. You may disagree, and I'd be glad to hear from you in the comments area if you do.

So, let's take a look at these one at a time.

Sexual Assault,
Sexual Abuse and Rape

These three words often get tangled up when used by writers who aren't used to both the common and legal definitions. It doesn't help that dictionaries often give definitions of sexual assault and sexual abuse and rape which are practically identical. Yet, observation shows that each is mostly used to describe only certain specific crimes or types of victims. Rather than specific dictionary definitions, we have to look at how these phrases are generally used and accepted.

The fastest and easiest way of doing is to do a search in Google News for the these phrases. Just click on the following links and see the kind of stories that come up:
In general, you'll notice that the term "sexual assault" is almost entirely used to refer to late-teen and older victims who have suffered a single episode (of indeterminate duration) of unwanted sexual contact, short of actual rape. If there was more than one incident, writers normally talk about "repeated sexual assaults". On the other hand, the term "sexual abuse" is mostly used to refer to (and in most people conjures up images of) pre-teens and adults who have experienced repeated episodes of sexual assault or rape over an extended period of time: months or even years.

When it comes to the word "rape" (sexual assault with penetration), you'd think it would be hard to misuse or misunderstand, wouldn't you? But I've seen numerous instances where the writer uses the phrase "sexual assault" rather than the word rape, mostly -- from my observations -- in a (conscious or unconscious) attempt to soften the emotional burden on the reader.

Why do I have a problem with this? Simply because it minimizes what the victim went through. I have seen cases where a victim of rape finally decides to tell friends what happened to them, only to hear back: "What? You were raped? But I saw in the paper it was only sexual assault...".

So to all writers, let me say: If you're going to write about this subject at all, be honest with yourself, and with your readers. Honor what the victim has gone through. Attempting to minimize the crime also minimizes the victim.


I've found that this word is can be very confusing to those not familiar with the lexicon of the crime victim assistance world.

In recent years, many victims of crime have started to refer to themselves -- and ask that others refer to them -- as survivors, not victims. Why? They feel that by being continually called a victim means they are forever identified as the victim of the perpetrator; that, effectively, they are forever labeled as being defeated, lesser, reduced by what that individual has done to them. They're not, as they'll loudly tell you. The perpetrator did something to them once, but that was in the past. They refuse to be defined by the act committed against them. They go on, they grow, they flourish... they have survived the event.

Of course, this clashes with the common use of "survivor" when referring to the family members of those killed by homicide, or those involved, but not killed, in an accident or disaster. If the language is misused, it can create terrible confusion in your readers.

If a victim of a crime asks to be described as a survivor, listen to them... it will mean much to their self-image and help in their recovery if you do so. Then, for the sake of your general readership, please take the few sentences to explain why you're referring to them as a survivor... it will prevent so much confusion!

Victimhood and Victimology

The misuse of these two words is particularly rampant on Internet blogs.

Victimhood, or the "cult of victimhood", is a term many pundits use to describe when a person or group claims the mantle of being a victim, of: (pick any or all of the following) racial or religious intolerance, bias, or of mistreatment b society in general. These authors imply these people or groups do this in order to avoid effort, to avoid blame, to procure sympathy, or to demand financial or emotional support.

Victimology, on the other hand is:
"...the scientific study of victimization, including the relationships between victims and offenders, the interactions between victims and the criminal justice system — that is, the and courts, and corrections officials — and the connections between victims and other social groups and institutions, such as the media, businesses, and social movements.
In fact, in its most up-to-date incarnation, victimology -- which first started out in the 1950s as a term from the field of criminology that referred to the study of how the actions of victims contributed to their becoming victims of crime -- has developed into an entirely separate profession and field of study, focused on helping victims of crime, tragedy and the abuse of power.

Instead, what we see are many blog writers using the term pejoratively, interchangeably with victimhood, when speaking of groups or individuals who are falsely claiming a form of victimhood for their own benefit. For example: "They're just using that victimology to demand better treatment", or "That group is faking victimology".

These authors are taking the word completely out of context, and assigning their own meaning to it, apparently because it sounds scientific, with an assumption of applied authority. Colloquial dictionaries are even listing how this word is misused in insulting or minimizing contexts. If we similarly twisted the language when using other words, we'd be writing that criminology is the study of how to become a criminal, or that psychology referred to people pretending to be psychos.

Oh, it may well be that the accepted use of the word is changing (as I mentioned can happen), and eventually it might come to mean both the science of aiding victims of crime, as well as slang for the practice of calling oneself a victim for advantage.

I, for one, will fight this till my last breath. But that's just me. Can just I ask, for myself and others in the field of victimology, if the urge comes upon you to misuse the word as I've described, just say NO, ok?

On a final note, I'd like to ask all writers, pundits, politicians and the media... take care how you use (or misuse) your words. Not only will you get your point across in a much clearer fashion, but you'll also come across as well informed and empathic to those who have been victims of crime and the people who work with them.

1 comment:

  1. After many years of feminist activism and a large increase in the numbers of women reporting rape, why are rape myths so tenacious? Liz Kelly reviews current research on rape and sexual assault which shows how men continue to get away with rape.

    Read More click here


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