As a young woman in the entertainment industry, Kel Butler was no stranger to unwanted advances by her coworkers and superiors during the first 10 years of her career. Things came to a head one night when a flirtatious conversation at a bar with a boss – someone who could make or break her career – turned into an overly friendly cab ride home, and resulted in Kel feeling confused and ashamed. She did not – could not – tell anyone because she knew what she would hear in response.
How much did you have to drink?
Are you sure you didn’t lead him on?
You should know better.
Did you say no?
“I was certain that if people knew that I was caught in this situation that I would simply be labelled a slut trying to get ahead and nothing I did from that moment on would be taken seriously,” said Butler.
Like Kel, many victims are afraid to come forward because they know what they are likely to be told, and forced to prove that they were actually victimized. Unlike other crimes, when it comes to cases of sexual assault and harassment, nothing is assumed or undeniably evident.
As a researcher specializing in rape culture and myths, Professor Lynn Phillips, senior lecturer at the University of Massachusetts, has spent countless hours studying and educating both survivors and perpetrators of sexual violence. In her experience, the language used when discussing such offenses is often manipulated in favor of the perpetrator to shed a negative light onto the survivor. Phillips recalled one therapeutic session with one prisoner who repeatedly referred to his victim as “the woman who put me in here”:
“By turning the sentence around, he made himself the victim because she filed charges and he was found guilty. I was not going to allow that sentence structure to abet this notion that he was somehow wronged and that she put him in jail.”
And it is not just the spoken language that is a concern, but also the written word. As a phrase used by journalists when a conviction has not yet happened, “alleged victim” unintentionally casts doubt onto the complainant, perpetuating a mentality of blaming the victim rather than the perpetrator. In the case of sexual assault or violence, it means that the complainant must be able to provide proof that he or she was assaulted, which can be a very emotional and onerous process.
Erica Scharrer, a communications professor at UMass, expresses concerns surrounding the publication of articles using the phrase “alleged” in regards to the victim. She worries that this allows readers to accept the notion of rape myths.
“I understand the impetus behind using the word alleged but I do worry about the consequences of that word in the case of sexual violence,” she said.
“In all other contexts you do want people to suspend judgment about whether someone is guilty until the process plays out. But in this unique case, given all these erroneous beliefs and really hurtful and false notions about sexual violence, I think it can really have an unintended but very negative consequence.”
So what are the alternatives? If the phrase “alleged victim” implies the survivor having to prove she or he was violated, do we instead write the accuser?
That word becomes just as problematic. It shifts the focus from the survivor being the object of the perpetrator’s actions, to the perpetrator being the object of her accusation. Like in Phillips’ experience, the perpetrator is able to victimize him or herself and paint the survivor in a negative light. The Brock Turner case is a prime example of this, with articles and the trial itself focusing on his status as the “Stanford swimmer” and including his swim achievements – essentially humanizing Turner, whilst undermining the survivor’s character.
And this is not an uncommon occurrence. In response to the recent sexual assault allegations against Kevin Spacey, the actor issued a public apology to Anthony Rapp in which he came out as gay. This revelation seemed to diminish the seriousness of the accusation and portray Spacey in a positive light. The articles that followed this “apology” were quick to pick up on the controversy of the statement, but also highlighted Spacey’s achievements as an actor, with outlets such as The New York Times pointing out his status as “a two-time Oscar winner”. Again, this essentially overshadowed the assault with irrelevant information, humanizing Spacey and disregarding the victim.
Becky Lockwood, the Co-founder of the Center for Women and Community, regularly works with survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence. She suggests that the focus and responsibility needs to be totally shifted onto the perpetrator so that any blame, responsibility and liability lies with them and not the survivor.
“I think we should look at the language that gets used very carefully,” said Lockwood.
“If we always identify someone as an alleged victim, do we also use the word alleged rapist or do we use the word defendant? If we are going to use alleged then I think we should identify the rapist or the abuser.”
Perhaps the problem is more deeply rooted in societal thought and attitudes towards sexual violence and assault. There needs to be a rethinking of how we as a society approach issues of rape. Instead of humanizing the perpetrator, the focus should be on the survivor and his or her point of view. Language is just the beginning of it.