As you probably have heard, Joe Biden, on the verge of running for president, has been accused of sexual misconduct by Lucy Flores, a former Nevada state assemblywoman. The “big, slow kiss” that he planted on the back of her head has people divided. Some see it simply as affectionate; others see it as an abuse of power. Yet, there is a larger issue at play here. While the #MeToo movement progresses rapidly, the language needed to adequately explain these issues has yet to catch up.
The language for sexual violence often falls into two camps: the first being sterile, scientific, and vague, and the second being graphic, sensationalized, and triggering. As most instances of sexual violence fall into a gray area, this dichotomy creates an obstacle of inadequate terminology as survivors attempt to describe their experiences.
What is the reason behind this? In a society where women were refused the right to define their own identities and boundaries as sexual beings, the language never developed, simply because no one wanted to talk about it. There was never an “appropriate” time to explain the uneasy sensation of a coworker hitting on you, so the language to describe it failed to come into existence. It was not meant to be discussed; therefore, it couldn’t be.
Only after 2012 was rape defined in a manner that included men and women and could be applied to same-sex violence. Before this, only “carnal knowledge of a female” was considered valid in a court of law. While this progress is good, it shows just how archaic and lagging the language behind this form of violence truly is.
Much of the vocabulary we currently have for sex is inherently violent. “Pounding,” “hitting that,” “banging” all imply a certain level of erotic violence. Violent and sexual language are often interchangeable, which then blurs the lines within which one describes sexual violence, as it can come off as “sexy.” Yet sexual violence isn’t even about sex, it’s about power, and our dialogue has yet to encapsulate that sort of nuance.
Sure, you can get graphic and describe step-by-step what happened, but this often leads to a triggering discussion for both the victim and the listener. Or, you can use clinical and vague terms to describe what took place, but then the violence of the act is erased. Many victims shy away from describing an instance as sexual violence, assault, or misconduct because it can be “too extreme” or it “wasn’t that bad.” What’s the word for when something happens and you don’t think twice about it, yet there’s a nagging sensation in the pit of your stomach telling you something went wrong?
With no language for the gray area, the conversation becomes strictly black and white. But what in this world is truly black and white? Without a name to describe something, the human brain is unable to process it as real. While the movement progresses, the understanding of it does not. Without these specifics, it becomes a “witch-hunt” and is ultimately depoliticized. The term “sexual harassment” sounds sufficient on paper, but in a world where trigger warnings are joked about, it gets stretched and abused and ultimately loses its impact.
Language was not created to be neutral. It was designed over generations by those in power to keep their power. If society does not want something to be discussed, then it simply does not create the words for it. In a legal context, this makes it incredibly difficult to prosecute offenders, as it’s basically attempting to translate experience into something that neatly fits into the cookie-cutter labels we currently have.
So, what is to be done? While it does take time for new concepts to be incorporated into the daily vernacular, approaching these situations with the understanding of the nuances implied not only helps the victim, but society as a whole. Without this understanding, it can’t be fought. And if it can’t be fought, nothing will change.