Module 11
How Accurate Language About Sexual Assault Supports Victims in the Criminal Justice System

Avoid Using the Language of Consensual Sex to Describe Assaultive Acts

Describing assaultive acts in terms usually used for pleasurable and affectionate acts has several consequences:

  • It minimizes and hides the intrinsic violence of an assault. 
  • It makes it harder for the reader or listener to visualize the acts as unwanted violations.
  • It allows society to rationalize, justify and excuse sexual aggression.

Consider these two sentences.

“He had sex with a 13- year- old girl.”

“He drugged a child, then raped her orally, vaginally, and anally.”

The first sentence is how the press repeatedly describes the case of Roman Polanski, a world-famous movie director who fled the U.S. in 1978 after pleading guilty to unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor, and who has been trying to have his case reconsidered ever since.

The second sentence is what Polanski actually did.

The first sentence uses the language of consensual sex — “He had sex with…” — to describe a sexual assault. The sentence conveys no sense of menace, power or violence. The Polanski victim’s grand jury testimony makes her fear very plain. The phrase “had sex with” should never be used to describe sexual violence. 

Misuse of the language of consensual sex to describe sexual violence can even be found in state statutes. For example, Washington State rape law provides:

Adults: “A person is guilty of rape in the first degree when such person engages in sexual intercourse with another person by forcible compulsion…”1

Children: “A person is guilty of rape of a child in the first degree when the person has sexual intercourse with another who is less than twelve years old…”2

Compare this with the Alaskan Criminal Code which defines sexual assault in the first and second degree as “when the offender engages in sexual penetration with another person without consent of that person.”3

Like “had sex with,” “sexual intercourse” is a term that should be reserved for descriptions of consensual sex.  

Don't say: He had sexual intercourse with her. 

Do say: He forced his penis into her vagina. 

Use language that names the body parts involved to paint an accurate word picture of the assault.

Disclaimers and Footnotes

1. RCW 9A.44.040.

2. RCW 9A.44.073.

3. AS 11.41.410.

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