Words Matter: Using Language to Disrupt Rape Culture

Date: November 1st, 2016

Gina Desiderio

Words matter. Language matters. Pictures matter. Imagery matters. These are tools used to create and sustain rape culture, where actions matter, where actions hurt people.

We’re hearing a lot about sexual assault right now, but unfortunately, it seems like we always are. The issue, and our outrage, rises and falls with the news story of the day, but rape culture continues. There is a lot anyone can say about sexual assault, but one aspect that is on my mind is the power of words and language.

If language and imagery didn’t matter, we wouldn’t be able to look to history to see countless examples that when one civilization wants to subdue another, it outlaws, obscures, and/or destroys language, holidays, flags, clothing, etc. Because these are the words and pictures that create culture.

When we dismiss the power of words or pictures, we downplay the importance of our language and imagery in creating culture—any culture. Reducing a woman to a body part, or shaming her for exhibiting strong leadership skills, through words, is part of it. Calling a man derogatory words intended for women because he doesn’t conform to gender stereotypes is part of it. Refusing to allow people to create their own gender identities because they find a binary system of social constructs doesn’t work for their realities is part of it.

Sexual assault both is and isn’t about sex. It’s about power and control. It’s an act of violence and aggression. A violent act exerting power and control over another person. It is about sex, or rather gender, though, in that it is about sexism and misogyny, layered with issues of racism, classism, and heteronormativity. But ultimately it comes down to power and control.

Saying sexual assault is about sex obscures its violence, its trauma. This is how rape culture becomes a pervasive part of our society. This is why rape victims hesitate to come forward. This is why rape victims become vilified and re-victimized. This is how criminal perpetrators are enabled to continue their sexual predatory acts over decades.

Rape culture can feel too big to resist, to beat down. But it is in our every day words and pictures that we can try to take it down, piece by piece. Because language and imagery matter…they do have power. We may not always be perfect, and we may have to keep trying, but we can do little things that can add up to bigger things:

  • When we recognize virginity is a social construct and not a medical condition, we give people control over their bodies and refuse to continue the tradition of treating women like property.
  • When we use sensitive language—or trauma-informed approaches—we recognize that not all young people may have had the opportunity to consent.
  • When an oppressed group of people reclaims a word with a history of derogatory connotations, they reject that history and start to create a new history.
  • When we start using the singular “they” to recognize and validate the broad continuum of genders, we can be a little more inclusive.
  • When we refuse to denigrate youth who are pregnant or parenting, we can support all young people and celebrate young parents.
  • When we use appropriate words for our bodies and refuse to shame children and adolescents for their bodies, we recognize that medically accurate, age-appropriate comprehensive sexuality education helps adolescents develop into healthy, sexual beings, we are sex positive.
  • When we stop using language that assumes straightness or cisgender identities, we reject heteronormativity.
  • When we call sexual assault for what it is and define it as an act of violence.

And so on…in every aspect of our lives, words and pictures matter. These little things, in our words and pictures, add up to bigger things. It isn’t always easy, and it also isn’t always obvious how to move forward. We often have to pause and reflect. Sometimes, we have to use language or imagery that may initially feel less convenient, perhaps because of ingrained habits, but in the end, we may be more inclusive, less oppressive, because we are at least trying to be intentional. Ultimately, this intentionality is one way we can disrupt rape culture, and that disruption is the “bigger thing” our smaller choices can change over time.

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About the Author

Gina Desiderio, Healthy Teen Network Director of Communications, has over 10 years of capacity-building and project management experience, supporting professionals to provide programs and services to empower youth to thrive.

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