I hate the term sexual assault, but maybe not for the reason you’d think. It is not because the thought of it makes me cringe (though it does) and it is not because I think it is inherently a bad term for some circumstances. I hate the term “sexual assault” because it is an all-encompassing umbrella term.
Now let me say right away that I in complete favour of the criminal code considering all forms of unwanted sexual behaviour as assault. I am in favour of people in general thinking of all forms of unwanted behaviour as assault. I also understand the motivation to create a term that is intended to protect women (or children or people) based on a past of cruel and unjust laws. The trouble is, the intended impact of this all-encompassing term seems to have been lost – particularly in the media.
I recently read a story in the newspaper about a child being “sexually assaulted” in B.C. I immediately felt the knot in my stomach tighten and the strong urge to vomit. After the initial impact I thought I don’t know what that means. I knew the possibilities of what it meant, but I wasn’t sure. I hoped, of course, that it might have meant one of the less horrific possibilities – maybe this child could recover from this trauma with not too much life disturbance if he or she had the right help.
Another recent story reported that a man had “sexually assaulted” a woman on the subway near my house. Anytime something violent happens in my neighbourhood, or anywhere I realistically could have been, I feel nervous. So reading this story invoked some uncomfortable emotions. As I continued to read, I discovered that this event happened at 5:30p.m. Hmm I thought to myself. 5:30? That’s rush hour. I take the train at rush hour and the train is packed full of people. How could someone have been sexually assaulted on a crowded subway train at rush hour? Then I stopped. I realized that my immediate understanding of the term as the worst case scenario was actually not what had occurred in this case. That is not to suggest that whatever happened (and of course I will never know) was not unpleasant, or even traumatic for the woman it happened to. But without meaning to undermine her experiences, whatever happened to her was not of the same calibre as rape and rape couldn’t possibly have been what happened on that train.
The truth is that most of the time I take the ambiguity in the media and hope that it means the lesser evil occurred because it makes me less afraid of the world. I wish terrible things didn’t happen to people and I can’t even begin to imagine how people cope with severe trauma. But while I never want to hear the gory details of the story, the ambiguity can be even more disconcerting because it allows for panic. Also, if other people think like I do (and I assume at least a few of them must), then they begin to think that either the world is horribly dangerous, or the media is creating a panic by basically misrepresenting facts through ambiguity.
If the point of reporting these events in the first place is to keep the public informed (and possibly safer because they have the knowledge) then using an umbrella term doesn’t accomplish the goal. Without the facts, I can’t actually make any sort of informed assessment of my, or others’, safety in the world.
And just to lighten the tension a little: