It’s only words…

‘For last year’s words belong to last year’s language
And next year’s words await another voice.’
T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets

[Content warning: this is a post about the language used to describe sexual violence among other topics so please take care of yourself and skip it if these words could be triggering for you.]

‘As survivor of sexual assault…’

What do these words mean to you? Are they powerful? Empowering? Do you sympathise with them? Do you get a sense of what they have been through?

How about these ones:

‘As a rape victim…’

Do these elicit a different response? Are they still empowering? Do you feel more or less sympathetic? Are they more or less familiar? Do they suggest a different emotion? Are they stronger? Are they associated with shame or power? Is this describing a more violent incident? Do you feel differently about the person being described?

Words are fascinating. Oh my gosh, I love them! We literally use them every day but the breadth of their power is just extraordinary and can take my breath away; from functional language that can communicate incredibly complex technical ideas to eloquent musings that have the ability to transport the reader out of their daily existence and into another world entirely. Word choice can also mould our responses, creating bias or empathy dependent on the emphasis. A quick overview of tabloid headlines can attest to that. Is it FAKE NEWS or unbiased fact? And as another example, think just how easily word choice in erotica can change something from being seriously hot to seriously cheesy. Words are just unbelievably powerful.

The importance of words was emphasised when I was writing my post earlier this month on the Scarlet Ladies’ new #ITalkSex campaign and I was reminded again of it at their recent launch party. When I sent them my post to factcheck before publishing, their only request was to change one sentence. Sarah didn’t want to be described as a ‘survivor of sexual assault.’ She wanted it to be clear that she was a ‘rape victim.’ It seemed like such a simple change but as she explained her reasoning, it quickly became obvious both why this adjustment was so important and why Sarah feels so strongly about challenging word choice in these circumstances.

Whatever words are chosen, we are describing something horrific. Something criminal. Something that should make us uncomfortable to hear. But, importantly, it is something that is done to another person by a perpetrator. It is rape. It is not an accident. Don’t @ me with loopholes or extenuating circumstances because it will just show that you fundamentally misunderstand. Rape is a violent and violating act, and one that no one likes talking about.

But it is something we need to talk about. If we are going to challenge the rape culture and change the way sexual assault is viewed, we have to talk about the full violence and horror, and not skirt around the edges where it’s more palatable. Without releasing that hidden poison, it’s impossible to comprehend the extent of the problem. And it should be difficult to hear.

‘I think we find different words to describe horrible things so other people won’t be uncomfortable and we need to start calling it what it is. It was rape…I have recently noticed that I used language that was less descriptive because the word rape makes people uncomfortable and I am now making a conscious effort to not do that any more. It is something that I hear from a lot of women. We don’t want to make others feel bad. But at the same time, we did not choose to have this done to us. So I am making an effort to say it as it is.’

Sarah acknowledges that this may not be a universal view and that many survivors of sexual assault gain great strength from identifying as a survivor. But as well as defiantly wearing her status as a rape victim, Sarah also had very interesting thoughts on the use of the word ‘survivor’ in the context of rape:

‘I feel strongly about the use of the word survivor – we survive illnesses, accidents etc. But we are victims of crimes. Being raped is not something that happens accidentally. There is a perpetrator that decides to do that to us. By calling us survivors we are taking the perpetrator out of the picture. And we have been fooled to believe it was a better description, because we believe there is power in surviving and it is shameful to be a victim. It’s a trick…’

I was absolutely fascinated by this discussion, both because of my geeky love of words but because it really emphasises the importance of context. I had chosen to describe Sarah as a survivor because, from my privileged position of never having to make that choice between these two concepts, it seemed like the more powerful choice. Sarah clearly has survived and is definitely powerful, and it had simply not occurred to me that emphasising these strengths in her could change the way the experience was presented in a wider context and could sanitise the presentation of this horrific act.

I should really have known better because I am aware of the nuance associated with individual words in the context of health and illness. When I believe a patient is dying or suffering from a very severe disease, there is no room for ambiguity. Whereas I may have subconsciously avoided using the word ‘rape,’ I don’t use euphemisms to soften the blow in my work – I have to say ‘dying’ or ‘has died’ or actually say the word ‘cancer.’ I need to ensure that my patient and their families understand the severity of their illness and my concerns about their prognosis. Thanks to ER and other medical dramas, I know that if I describe my patient as being in a ‘critical condition,’ no one will misunderstand me. They will understand that their recovery is not certain. Doctors don’t use that word amongst themselves; in my experience, we just describe those patients as ‘sick.’

I also struggle with the use of words associated with conflict when describing illness. Just as Sarah feels that being a survivor removes the perpetrator from the image of rape, I fear that it similarly removes the disease from descriptions of recovery. Although this recovery always requires significant personal strength and engagement, I do worry that some of the language used doesn’t account for the fact that some diseases are fucking awful and no amount of willpower can change that. If cancer is a ‘battle,’ for example, does dying mean that you didn’t fight hard enough? If we are supposed to ‘fight’ disease, is deciding to stop treatment giving up and a cowardly decision?

Conversely, and a further example of how brilliant but contextual words can be, there are different occasions when it may be appropriate for doctors to say that someone has ‘fought enough.’ The 90 year old who has bounced in and out of hospital with repeated infections and become weaker with each illness may literally not have the strength or reserve to fight another. They have fought for a long time, but they can’t fight forever. Here doctors may also use a different, emotionally loaded word – frailty. Frailty is increasingly recognised as a medical syndrome, a constellation of different aspects of someone’s life such as mobility, body weight, care needs and medical issues that affect how they will cope with disease, but it is also a very descriptive term that does highlight vulnerability outside of the purely medical definition. Many contexts, but this time no ambiguity.

I think this is why I prefer writing about difficult and complex subjects rather than talking about them. I may be linking this to the Scarlet Ladies #ITalkSex campaign, but I am much more comfortable writing about sex than talking about it. I have more time to choose my words carefully and avoid saying something unintentionally heartless or confusing, and this is why I’m also always interested to hear when I have got it wrong.

Because word choice can so easily create unnecessary and often unintended hurt, and this is often associated with privilege. I needed Sarah to tell me how she wanted to be described because it is her experience I was discussing, not mine. As another example, I saw a Twitter thread in early August that strongly criticised the ableist language used to describe disability, taking particular offence at the use of the term ‘coping’ as it invokes images of being a burden or a hindrance. It was ranting about a series of articles that had intended to promote disability rights but just hadn’t appreciated the nuance of their word choice.

What do you think? Am I over-complicating a simple issue and falling for the ‘political correctness gone mad’ sensitivity that the worst of the baby boomers blame on millennials? I don’t think I am; I think these nuances are important and should always be considered, as we should always consider our own biases and privileges when commenting on anything, and as such I am always happy to be corrected if I get it wrong again!


Why do you talk about sex? What stories do you have to tell?

The #ITalkSex Campaign brings together women from every walk of life. We are united by our belief that by talking openly about what we need, how we feel or what we’ve gone through, we are helping women everywhere to find the confidence and empowerment to accept and love themselves for who they really are.

If you want to help Scarlet Ladies to change perceptions as I am, head on over to their #ITalkSex campaign website to learn more about how we can all get involved and be part of this movement.

Follow @scarletladies to stay up to date with events and publications.
Check out the hashtag #ITalkSex to follow the conversation.

And get writing and talking about sex! We all have so much to say and there are so many people who want to listen.

5 thoughts on “It’s only words…

  1. This is such a good post, Livvy. There are many factors that impact the choice of words and how they empower or disempower people. After reading and talking with lots of people, the fundamental thing is that people get to choose which words they want to describe themselves. I’ve learnt this through discussion of disabilities – especially autism and whether people decide to be called autistic or a person with autism.
    I’ve also learnt it through my own experience. I am, at different times, a sexual abuse victim, a sexual abuse survivor, or, ‘I was abused’. I can swap the sexual abuse for rape etc without a huge difference, but changing the victim/survivor/verb has a huge impact. It impacts me, and it also changes the way my words are understood by the other person. My label fluctuates according to circumstance. It was fixed in the past, and I think that for me, the flexibility is good.

  2. Excellent, intelligent, well-written and compassionate piece, as ever, Ma’am. I don’t have the expertise or personal insight to really comment on the etymology here, but the idea of giving the victim of the crime the final say makes absolute sense.

  3. You’re definitely not over-complicating a simple issue; words matter. They impact the way we view the world and our places in it. I’ve spent the past seven years teaching EFL, and I can say from a LOT of experience that nuance in word choice can completely change meaning and understanding! Our continued conversations around the meanings of words are important because they give us a chance to reflect and connect with each other, and that builds empathy – something we desperately need. This is a brilliant post – thank you for writing it! x

  4. This is excellent. I know I tend to say sexual assault and not rape in my case because I hate how uncomfortable it makes others feel. But I was raped. I do sometimes talk about the “bad thing that happened to me”. Because it happened *to* me. It was ultimately about power and making me feel powerless. It set up a long struggle for me.

    Relatedly I have started using accurate clinical words to describe my mental illness to colleagues. I say “I have a mental illness. I see my psychiatrist every three months. He is always late. Sometimes we discuss the book I am reading. I’ve not had many instances lately but I’ll probably notice it before you do if I get ill. That is what the treatment is helping me do” and by being matter of fact about it they are too. It doesn’t convey the sheer terror I get when in the grip of a delusion, but it does convey how it seems most days when I am ‘normal’. Same with the rape. Weirdly. Most days it is a horrible thing that happened and that has shaped me in some good ways and some terrible ways. As has not being able to talk about it. But for me survivor doesn’t work for a different reason. I have (to date) survived mental illness and when I was younger an eating disorder. I have ‘survived’ a suicide attempt. But I don’t dwell on the obstacles I have overcome. And making it about what I have survived takes away from who I am now. I am someone who gets excited about new political podcasts and watches University Challenge. I am someone who falls over a lot and bakes delicious cakes. I accidentally make innuendo laden puns. I love books possibly too much. Learning stuff gets me excited. I have a thing for competence and a nicely defined collar bone. These have nothing to do with that thing. Calling me a survivor reduces me to an experience I never wished to have. Call me a mess and I’ll find it more empowering (I’ll tell you I am a mess, but a really hot mess).

    Sorry. I think language fascinates me too. Particularly when it comes to identity. But maybe I should write my own post and stop rambling in your comments. Thanks for provoking the thoughts! X

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.