Numerous high-profile cases of sexual violence and abuse have have been exposed in recent years, with the same words cropping up again and again: “groping”, “fondling”, “inappropriate touching”. What each of these terms usually means is sexual assault. But both in casual conversation and in the press, we will go to almost any lengths to avoid saying it.
According to the Sexual Offences Act 2003, the elements of the offence of sexual assault are:
• A person (A) intentionally touches another person (B)
• the touching is sexual
• (B) does not consent to the touching, and (A) does not reasonably believe that (B) consents.
The Crown Prosecution Service guidelines further clarify that “touching is widely defined and includes with any part of the body, or with anything else, and can be through clothing”. The definition is clear.
Sometimes, the reason behind a reluctance to use accurate language is more compassionate than malicious – an attempt to avoid the reality of what happens to girls and women on a regular basis. It is easier to rely on euphemistic language, such as “groping” or “fondling”, than to talk about sexual assault. But that doesn’t help, because we inadvertently end up downgrading the severity of the offence, which, in turn, helps normalise it.
Undermining sexual violence through diminishing language is prevalent but not new. Consider, for example, the popular online meme that states: “It’s not rape, it’s a struggle snuggle.”
It’s a trivialisation that leads to a culture where victims are doubted and/or blamed. Was it really sexual assault, or just a quick caress? Are you honestly going to make a fuss about a pat on the bottom? Sure, he’s the president-elect, but lighten up, he was just joking about grabbing women by the pussy! It’s the sort of language that allows a mainstream television programme to “debate” the acceptability of sexual assault using a question such as: “Is a bum pinch harmless fun?”
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