Numerous high-profile cases of sexual violence and abuse 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 pat harmless fun?”
By not pointing out how unacceptable this culture is, we become complicit in the message that victims are already receiving loud and clear: this isn’t really a big deal, you won’t be taken seriously, it’s not worth going to the police. According to the Crime Survey for England and Wales, one of the most frequently cited reasons for not reporting sexual offences is that they seemed “too trivial” to report.
It is a message so entrenched in society that the vast majority of women and girls are completely unaware that being touched on the breasts, grabbed between the legs or squeezed on the bottom, among other common experiences, could constitute sexual assault. Many girls come to see this behaviour as normal – expected even – and simply the price you pay for being a woman. This means not only that victims are much less likely to report what has happened (or feel able to complain in a workplace, nightclub or school setting), but also that perpetrators are unaware of the severity of committing such offences.
Unfortunately, the term sexual assault has become so little understood that it is sometimes necessary to talk about “touching” or “grabbing” in order to elicit accurate responses. Far fewer people might report “sexual assault” in a survey, for example, than would describe having been touched without their consent.
Words such as “groping” and “fondling” are incapable of carrying the weight of the experiences they are stretched to encompass: an 11-year old girl too afraid to report the male classmate stroking the inside of her thigh under the desk during a geography lesson; a university student out running when a passer-by grabbed her suddenly and firmly by the breasts; a video store cashier whose boss would smack her bottom each time she went up the ladder to the storeroom. A litany of sexual assaults, reduced to something flimsy and dismissible. Moments that profoundly affect women’s lives, diminished and whitewashed.
Language has such power. When we deny victims the words to describe and define their own experiences we actively disempower them and distance them from justice. We owe it to all survivors to start describing “groping” and “fondling” by their real name: sexual assault.