Language and Sexual Violence

Language and Sexual Violence

“She was just walking home.”

As a younger woman, I traveled abroad alone. I often walked during the day and in the evening by myself. Each evening, I would decide the next day’s itinerary and study the route for the following day, aiming to always look confident. I believed my preparations and instincts would keep me safe. With minor exceptions, my solo travel was delightful. More than 20 years later, I am re-thinking my assumptions. 

On March 3, 2021, a London police officer kidnapped and murdered Sarah Everard. She was last seen alive at 9:30 pm walking home on a well-lit, busy street. Like the hundreds of women who broke Covid curfew to mourn and express outrage, I knew that could have been me. Just like me, Sarah thought she was doing everything right to stay safe.


The Power of Images

Women modify or self-edit their behavior out of fear. The roots of this common habit can be found in visual and print media. Advertising is only the most obvious way that one’s behavior is influenced by what is seen, heard, and read. 

In 2011 in “The Careless Language of Sexual Violence,” Roxane Gay pointed out the prevalence of rape stories in popular TV and movie scripts, even those geared to teenage viewers. She noted the number of story lines devoted to sexual assault and rape scenes and the “strangely antiseptic” way they were presented. Scenes generally implied rather than showed the brutality of the crime and may even have been “titillating.” Ms Gay argued that this commonly repeated visual language normalized rape and sexual violence, contributing to accepting rape as a natural and inevitable occurrence. Feminist scholars argued that a sense of the brutality of rape needed to be restored. 

The #MeToo movement seems to have had some noticeable effect on the way rape stories are presented. T.V. dramas like “Unbelievable,” “Outlander,” and “Sex Education” tackle the harsh realities of the crime. They reveal that victims are not believed, that men can also be victims of rape, and that the trauma of a rape is long lasting.

However, realistic or more sensitive treatments are still not the norm. “Game of Thrones,” an extremely popular series aimed at adults but also seen by many younger viewers, included numerous brutal rape scenes. Some were not in the books on which the series was based. Even shows geared to women (“Sex in the City”), that embrace political themes (“Treme”), or that are lauded as groundbreaking (“The Sopranos”) included rape scenes and promoted false ideas about rape. In “The Sopranos,” a stranger rapes Dr. Jennifer Melfi. According to Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network, 80% of victims know their attacker.


You Can’t Un-see That!

Disturbing scenes have both an immediate and long-term affect, especially on young viewers. In one study college age students reported that they continued to be disturbed by a distressing scene they viewed at 14. Karyn Riddle, professor of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin Madison, warns, “Watching sexual violence could be traumatizing and that fear could stay with you for many years.” 

Viewing even one such scene may shape how viewers think about actual sexual violence. In this case, young men, not women, became “… more at ease with violence against women.” Sadly, stories that portray rape as the traumatizing and brutal crime that it is “… do not necessarily result in people seeing the horror of it.” The study revealed that such scenes aroused a small but important percentage of male viewers, perhaps leading to actual violence.

Scenes romanticizing smoking are no longer permitted on T.V., but rape scenes are. These create lasting fear particularly in women. At the same time such scenes not only desensitize, but also titillate male viewers. Rape scenes influence how people think and how they act. It is not too much of a leap to say that women modify or self-edit their behavior out of fear created by viewing such scenes.


Compounding influences

The saying “you can’t un-see that” rightly identifies the power of an image. However, print media is not innocent of contributing to the fear of sexual assault or rape that women carry with them.

By shaping content for print and virtual news sources, journalists provide more than facts. Their reports create the readers’ sense of a crime and those involved. 

The structure of sentences subtly influences the impression readers have about a crime, victim, and perpetrator. The difference is between writing, “A female student was raped” and “A male student raped a female classmate.” The first example implies that the perpetrator is unknown or there is an ongoing investigation. In that case, passive voice is grammatically acceptable. If the perpetrator is known, passive voice is inappropriate. The first example also implies some action on the part of the “female student.” Journalists will defend their choice of passive voice (the first example) by citing “innocent until proven guilty.” The second example demonstrates phrasing that both shields the identity of victim and perpetrator, yet puts the emphasis and blame where it belongs on the criminal.


Victim Blaming

Passive voice is only one way that the victim is blamed for a rape and attention is shifted from the perpetrator/s. Had the victim consumed alcohol? Was she “flirtatious”? Look older? Dress “provocatively”? Did the victim decline treatment? Not immediately report the crime? Walk alone? When descriptors like these are attached to the victim or implied by questioning her behavior, guilt shifts to the victim and away from the perpetrator. 

In a discussion of the New York Times report of the rape that prompted Roxane Gay to write “The Careless Language of Sexual Violence,” Gabriel Mac of Mother Jones presents a powerful example. The Times reporter summarized the town’s response to the crime in this way, “(H)ow could their young men have been drawn into such an act?” The phrase “been drawn into” implies that the perpetrators “were coerced into (the rape) by some unnamed influence or entity.” With one sentence sympathy shifted to the rapists! So who was responsible for this coercion? Could it have been the 11 year old girl who was gang raped by that group of men? The treatment of victims in print media only compounds women’s fear and their conscious or unconscious self-editing behavior.


But, what good does that do? 

Sarah Everard did everything right. She took the precautions that one would expect of a young woman familiar with “healthy” fear. It seems she even trusted the police. Yet, she was kidnapped and murdered. Perhaps the burden of self-editing behavior must finally be put on men.



Bodenheimer, Rebecca. San Francisco Chronicle. August 23, 2020.

Bohmert, Miriam Northcutt, Kayla Allison & Caitlin Ducate (2019) “A rape was reported”: construction of crime in a university newspaper, Feminist Media Studies, 19:6, 873-889, DOI: 10.1080/14680777.2018.1509104 

Damour, Lisa. “We Know It Harms Kids to See Smoking on T.V. What About Rape?” The New York Times. Sept. 12, 2019.

Femifesto & Collaborators. Use the Right Words: Media Reporting on Sexual Violence in Canada. Pamphlet. 2015.

Gay, Roxane. “The Careless Language of Sexual Violence.” March 10, 2011.

Lothian-McLean, Moya. “She Was Just Walking Home.” The New York Times. March 17, 2021.

Mac, Gabriel. “The New York Times’ Rape-Friendly Reporting.” Mother Jones. March 9, 2011.

Salam, Yasmine. “Police officer charged in kidnapping, murder of Sarah Everard…” NBC News. March 13, 2021.


Gerrie Richards is the president of NC NOW in Chapel Hill and is a former high school English teacher in central New York State. She volunteers with the NAACP and is a painting student, focused on watercolor and mixed media.

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