Words We Use Help Promote a Culture of Sexual Assault


“There are 1,000 different ways to be a man. Don't let treating women like shit be one of them.”  This conclusion in Toby Morris' recent “No 'I' in Sex” online graphic seems particularly appropriate as we enter Sexual Assault Awareness month in April.  

The statistics about sexual assault are staggering; for instance, according to RAINN, every 98 seconds a U.S. citizen is sexually assaulted.  As a professor and father, I have been thinking about the ways language and vocabulary help promote acceptance of sexual assault.

Returning to Morris's graphic, he notes “sex is not something you do to someone, but rather something you do with someone,” yet our language about sex suggests that a sex partner is oftentimes considered a rival (“score” is a sports term), or prey (“on the prowl” is a hunting term), or an enemy (“wingman” is a military term).  

All of these suggest domination and submission, winners and losers, victors and vanquished, conquerors and conquered; these are all non-consensual relationships and are definitely not mutually beneficial to all parties involved.  When a partner is viewed as someone (or some thing) that must be conquered, is it surprising that sexual assault is often the result?

Studies support the notion that oftentimes a sex partner is viewed as someone to conquer.  For example, in a recent study of 1,200 college students by Confi, a digital health startup launched out of the Harvard Innovation Lab, 24% of men agree that “Women usually have to be convinced to have sex,” and 31% of women had unwanted sex because the other person “persistently tried to make moves even after you said no.”  

So about one fourth of college men enter an encounter with someone assuming the other person does not really want to have sex, but needs to be convinced (i.e., conquered), sometimes even after the other person says “no.”  This cultural mindset definitely encourages and promotes sexual assault.

Even our casual language includes terms and phrases that implicitly and subconsciously reference a culture of sexual assault and violence.  Consider, for example, phrases like “that sucks,” something I admittedly say quite often.  Vulgar phrases like these (and the related “that blows”) reference power differential regarding non-consensual oral sex acts and do not suggest a mutually-beneficial relationship between the suckee and the sucker; rather, this phrase suggests that the suckee is in a position of power and domination, while the sucker is in the forced and coerced (and unfortunate) position of submission and vulnerability.  No one ever wants to be a sucker.  

And of course there is the f-word, which by social definition changes an act of intimacy into one of aggression, violence, and non-consent.  In its usual usage, the f-word is an extreme insult, associates sex with violence, and blurs the distinction between sex and rape; when rape is indistinguishable from sex, rape becomes normalized into our culture.

April is Sexual Assault Awareness month, and there are things each of us can do to help address the problem of sexual assault and violence.  We can research language and vocabulary that supports and encourages a culture of sexual assault and then change our language accordingly; we can recognize sexual assault and call it what it is (e.g., “rape”) instead of what it is not (e.g., “a good time”); we can learn how to more effectively support survivors of sexual assault; we can learn to recognize the various flavors of consent (e.g., reluctant consent, non-consent, positive consent, enthusiastic consent, etc.), and more importantly, practice voluntary, revocable and enthusiastic consent; we can learn about and practice bystander intervention (e.g., Green Dot training); we can help educate our friends about sexual assault prevention; the list goes on and on.  And we can take advantage of events that Code TEAL is planning during the week of April 10th.

Everyone, especially men, has the responsibility to not only stop sexual assault, but also to actively support survivors of sexual assault, and work to change the culture so that sexual assault, in all of its forms, is not acceptable. And language might not seem like a big deal, but every enthusiastic “Yes!” during a sexual encounter gets us one step closer to a campus without sexual assault.