The language in media reporting on the Penn State scandal has been almost universally inappropriate, both in print and television coverage. The media are pervasively using inappropriate language to describe the harm done to Jerry Sandusky’s victims. As a former child abuse and sex crimes prosecutor, I’ve spent more than 20 years teaching, advocating and writing about sexual violence, victims’ rights and the criminal justice system.
Along with my students, I run a program I developed ten years ago at New England Law/Boston entitled The Judicial Language Project. We use sociolinguistic research to critique the language used in law and society to describe violence against women and children. In connection with this project, I have trained judges and advocates around the country and have worked with the Poynter Institute to teach journalists about appropriate reporting styles when writing about sexual violence.
Erotic and vague terms, as well as phraseology that portrays the victim in a blameworthy role, inhibit our understanding of the crime as a unilateral act of violence committed by the perpetrator against a blameless victim.
By identifying problematic language and offering appropriate alternatives, the Judicial Language Project strives to improve the public’s perception of sexual violence as a devastating harm that the U.S. Supreme Court has called the most severe injury to the self “short of homicide.”
A simple Google search makes the point about the problems with the Penn State coverage. The phrase “Sandusky victim anal sex” produced 172,000 hits while “Sandusky victim anal rape” produced a mere 38,000 hits.
While the word “rape” rarely appears, nearly every news source describes the crimes at issue using the following terms and phrases: “engaging in sexual activity”; “fondling”; “the boy performing oral sex”; “anal sex/intercourse” and “sexual assault”. These terms distort the truth about what allegedly happened to the children, and they interfere with our understanding of the victims’ suffering.
A closer look at each word/phrase will better articulate the problem:
The word “engage” is defined as “to bring together” or “to induce to participate.” The implication in such language is that the victim was an active participant who was causally involved in making the crime happen, rather than a recipient of the unilaterally harmful conduct of another. Words that imply any active responsibility on the part of a child obscure the offender’s exclusive moral and legal culpability.
“Sexual activity”, “sexual assault” and “molest” are vague terms that tell us nothing about the actual crime, making it impossible for the public to understand what happened, or to know how to feel about the harm done and whether the reactions of responsible adults, law enforcement officials, etc., have been appropriate.
“Fondle”, as a verb, is defined as “to handle, stroke or caress lovingly.” As a noun, the word refers to “affectionate play (or foreplay without contact with the genital organs).” The term conveys the idea that child sexual abuse is pleasant and gentle, which undermines our ability to see the behavior as harmful criminal activity.
THE CHILD PERFORMED ORAL SEX
Saying “the child performed oral sex” portrays the victim as the aggressor and paints a scene where the offending adult is barely present, and only a passive recipient of the child’s affirmative actions. The child as primary actor thus absorbs moral and legal responsibility for the actions of a violent adult. Alone, the word “perform” offers a near circus-like description of the child’s role in causing rather than receiving harm.
Clearly, a child enduring the violence of another does not “perform” a sex crime on himself. Indeed, he cannot even lawfully consent as a passive participant and the law is clear in every jurisdiction that the adult bears 100 percent of the blame. Words that shift responsibility away from the offender mitigate the offender’s exclusive responsibility for his actions.
ORAL SEX, ANAL SEX, ANAL INTERCOURSE
The phrases “oral sex”, “anal sex” and “anal intercourse” are similarly problematic in that they literally define actions that involve mutual pleasure and enjoyable stimulation of sex organs. These erotic terms bring criminal behavior discursively into the range of everyday, often pleasurable, human activity.
This necessarily prevents the public from appreciating the fact the victim experienced fear, disgust, objectification and blurs an important line between sexual pleasure and criminal violence.
Words both reflect and generate cultural ideas about sexual violence. Consumers of words passively take in and unconsciously attribute language to their understanding of human behavior. This becomes an internal narrative that creates social norms and expectations.
When language used to tell stories about sexual violence is vague, needlessly erotic and/or implies that the victim bears some of the blame, the constructed story creates harmful ideas about offender responsibility and the reality of victims’ suffering.
In criminal cases involving children in particular, it is critically important to use factually correct terminology that assigns complete responsibility to the offender because children lack legal capacity to consent.
Thus, for example, rather than “anal sex”, a reporter could say, “the offender penetrated the child’s anus with his penis”. Instead of “the child performed oral sex,” a reporter could say, “the offender pushed his penis into the child’s mouth.”
This accurate, if blunt, use of language makes it clear that the victim suffered harm and bears no responsibility for the criminal acts of the offender.
Wendy J. Murphy is an adjunct professor at New England Law/Boston and a former prosecutor in Middlesex County, Massachusetts. She welcomes comments from readers.