With a tide of revelations revealing how just widespread sexual harassment, abuse and rape is within society and how often it has been ignored and covered up, comes a use of language that reflects just how far we have to come in taking these crimes seriously. The language we use to talk about it reflects our attitudes towards the crimes and perpetrators.
There is a tendency in the reporting of sexual abuse, rape, harassment and assault to use minimising language; a reluctance to call these crimes what they are and preference for euphemistic terms such as 'inappropriate behavior' , 'sexual misconduct' 'unwanted sexual attention', rapists are described as 'having sex' with their victims are rife.
Allegations of sexual harassment against Lord Rennard have been variously described as 'behaving improperly', 'sexual impropriety' or 'sex allegations'; none of those phrases accurately reflect the fact he has been accused of sexual harassment, a form of violence against women, a deliberate act of predatory dominance. This all has the effect of portraying these incidents as far less serious than they are, the use of euphemisms to undermine the serious nature of allegations seeks to paint them as slightly embarrassing social faux pas; akin to using the wrong fork at a posh dinner party or being a bit too drunk and embarrassing yourself dancing on a table and not as sex crimes.
By attempting to reduce the seriousness of such crimes either by stating 'it was only touching a woman's knee' or 'It wasn't rape it was bad sexual etiquette'. By refusing to name them for what they are; rape, sexual assault, sexual harassment, we excuse, we assert these crimes are not serious, we attempt to justify them by asserting it was 'miscommunication' , 'regretful sex' or 'unwanted attention'.
We focus instead on terms like 'sex scandal' or 'sexual impropriety' which do not reflect the serious and non consensual nature of these crimes. Whole articles are be written about sexual harassment that barely mention the phrase 'sexual harassment' .
This is all part of what feminists term 'rape culture' . A culture where rape jokes are a regular occurrence, where victims are held responsible for their attacks, where we are told it 'wasn't really rape rape', when rape scenes in cinema are used as fodder for a 'comedy' song about seeing the breasts of actors, when 'rapeable' is a compliment, when Facebook refuses to censor violent images inciting rape and sexual harassment yet feels free to ban users for posting pictures of breastfeeding.
This is all part of the same continuum, the use of such euphemistic language reflects the problems we have as a society with taking both violence against women and the victims of sexual violence and harassment seriously. We do not minimise the reporting of other crimes the way we do sexual violence, we do not describe an argument that ends in violence as 'inappropriate debating techniques' nor do we describe theft as 'inappropriate acquisition of objects' to do so sounds silly and out of step with what is being described, so why why should it be okay to describe sexual assaults and harassment of women this way? By refusing to name rape as rape and sexual harassment as sexual harassment we reduce the visibility of such crimes.
We reduce their impact, we reduce their validity, we seek to airbrush our their existence, making it all too easy to claim women are 'making a fuss over nothing' and 'exaggerating'. We end up in a society where the popular myths around large numbers of false rape allegations prosper whilst women are told to drop rape charges by the police, where one in five women are sexually assaulted in their lifetimes. In such a society it is disgusting that the reporting of sexual harassment, assault and rape seeks to minimise them in such a way.