Stoking Fire: How News Outlets, Prosecutors Minimize Sexual Violence With Language

When journalists report that a man was arrested and charged with domestic violence, it sounds far less menacing than reporting that he was arrested for beating his partner bloody or punching her until she lost consciousness.

When journalists report that a man was arrested and charged with domestic violence, it sounds far less menacing than reporting that he was arrested for beating his partner bloody or punching her until she lost consciousness. Newspaper image via Shutterstock

Toward the end of the recently released film Nebraska, one of the family matriarchs explains that her son is not at home because he is picking garbage from the side of a highway as punishment for committing an act of sexual assault. While most of the visiting family members nod sympathetically, one of the elders is clearly horrified that one of their own could do something so ghastly. But the matriarch is adamant: It was sexual assault and not rape, a distinction that allows her to protect and defend her wayward child.

Words, and the way we use them to describe rape, sexual assault, domestic violence, and sexual slavery, can evoke sympathy or revulsion toward the perpetrator of a crime or the person who was victimized. Furthermore, both the media and the legal system have tremendous power in eliciting emotions and stirring the pot of public sentiment.

Take the mid-November arrest of George Zimmerman—yes, the same George Zimmerman who was acquitted in the murder of Trayvon Martin this summer—on charges of felony aggravated assault. NBC News reported that 30-year-old Zimmerman had been “arrested and charged with threatening his girlfriend with a gun.” The Los Angeles Times noted that he spent the night post-arrest in a 64-square-foot cell. They also reported that he’d had several ”scrapes with the law” during the previous six month. These included major and minor offenses: three traffic stops for speeding and having overly dark-tinted car windows, and one domestic abuse complaint. In the latter “scrape,” police questioned Zimmerman after his ex-wife, Shellie Zimmerman, told law enforcement that he had threatened her and her father with a gun while they were moving her possessions out of the home that she and George had once shared.

But back to the November arrest. According to USA Today, 27-year-old Samantha Scheibe, Zimmerman’s most recent flame, called 9-1-1 after Zimmerman “smashed a glass-top coffee table with the gun butt and ordered Scheibe out. He pushed her out and locked the door” of their Apopka, Florida, residence. The story then concludes that “Scheibe was not injured.”

Kim Gandy, president and CEO of the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV), told Rewire that “it is outrageous for the media to report that a woman who has been terrified and thrown out into the street is unharmed. Clearly, she has been harmed. There is no such thing as a victim of domestic violence who is unharmed.”

Gandy also charged that mainstream media all too often uses “sanitized language in a misguided effort to be balanced, as if balance is required when there has been an intimate relationship.” She quickly rattled off examples, stating that when journalists report that a man was arrested and charged with domestic violence, it sounds far less menacing than reporting that he was arrested for beating her bloody or punching her until she lost consciousness. Similarly, Gandy continues, the trend to call the woman “the accuser” rather than “the victim” makes her seem less worthy of support and consolation.

And the use of the term “victim”? “When I talk to women who have been abused, they always refer to themselves as victims,” Gandy says. “This doesn’t take away from the fact that they’re also survivors. We believe that attention should be on what was done—someone was victimized.”

The NNEDV has many other gripes about word choices, including the tendency to report that a woman was beaten, rather than that a particular person beat her. According to Gandy, “It’s a small thing but ‘she was beaten’ makes it sound as if the beating descended from the ether rather than coming from Joe Smith, an actual person.” The NNEDV also rejects the pervasive storyline in which incredulous neighbors are questioned after someone commits an act of heinous brutality. The ubiquitous, “he always seemed like a nice, quiet guy,” says Gandy, undermines the veracity of the victim and makes her sound less credible. “Worse,” she concludes, “reporters almost never ask the neighbors about the victim. She’s probably nice, too, and she most certainly did not deserve to be brutalized.”

Gandy and NNEDV’s arguments were recently underscored by a report released in September by Legal Momentum, a New York City-based feminist advocacy law group. Called Raped or “Seduced”? How Language Helps Shape Our Response to Sexual Violence, the study addresses what it calls “linguistic avoidance.” For example, when the media uses the language of consensual sex—terms like recruited rather than kidnapped or took by force, and phrases like performed oral sex or engaged in sexual activity instead of writing that he forcefully penetrated her vagina with his penis—they do more than use euphemisms to blur reality; they actually mislead, misdirect, and minimize the violation. What’s more, they imply that both parties were willing players. Raped or “Seduced”? urges people who engage with and write about sexual assault victims to be direct and clear when calling out reprehensible behavior and suggests that they use words like dragged, grabbed, pushed, shoved, strangled, and threw to craft an accurate picture of what transpired.

Raped or “Seduced”? further critiques the tendency to describe what a rape victim was wearing or how she was behaving, as if she is equally culpable for the attack against her. For example, stating that a young woman was dressed provocatively, wore makeup, or had a history of hanging out with older men pathologizes her rather than the rapist who preyed on her.

They’re important distinctions. As the Chicago Task Force on Violence Against Girls and Young Women reminds us, “rape/sexual assault is not sex. A pattern of abuse is not an affair. Rape or sexual assault is in no way associated with normal sexual activity; trafficking in women is not to be confused with prostitution.”

And as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website makes clear, sexual assault is an epidemic. In the United States alone, 24 people per minute are victims of rape, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner. Over the course of a year, this amounts to more than 12 million people, most of them female. Isn’t it time to confront the issue with words that boldly capture the reality of sexual brutality and violent domestic abuse?