Academic journal article Women and Language

Talking about Sexual Violence

Academic journal article Women and Language

Talking about Sexual Violence

Article excerpt

Abstract: Researchers, counselors, and the media tend to use different terms to describe sexual violence committed against women. For example, the rape crisis center that was the focus of this study had an unquestioning acceptance of some words (i.e., sexual assault and survivor) in lieu of others (i.e., rape and victim), which implies that there are "right" and "wrong" ways to talk about sexual violence. Do these preferences resonate with women who actually have encountered problematic sexual episodes? The purpose of this study was to investigate how women who have experienced sexual violence label themselves and their experiences. In-depth ethnographic interviews provided the data for this investigation. While some of the women had strong preferences for certain words over others, most participants avoided static labels altogether. We argue that the recovery process may be impeded by restricting language choices or by forcing labels on individuals that they are unwilling or unprepared to embrace.

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Talking about Sexual Violence

Within the context of sexual violence, the naming of events and giving meaning to words can help individuals grapple with the injustices committed against them (Carosella, 1995). Yet, labeling oneself is complicated by the variety of terms and descriptors people can use to refer to their lived experiences. Women who have encountered sexual violence are bombarded with "politically correct" labels that may or may not resonate with their own circumstances or their own understanding of sexual violence. In an effort to demonstrate that a crime has been committed, some well-intentioned policymakers contend that women who have been sexually violated are victims; whereas, many feminists argue that the word survivor is more appropriate, because it is empowering (McCarthy & McCarthy, 1989). In addition, certain crisis centers emphasize words such as survivor over victim and sexual assault over rape, thereby implying that there are "right" words and "wrong" words when discussing sexual violence.

Talking about and grappling with sexual violence is an emotionally-laden experience (Slaton & Lyddon, 2000). According to Averill's (1980) social constructivist theory of emotion, how people talk about their emotions significantly influences their emotional experiences. In order for an individual to understand how to interpret and respond to an event, they must first appraise the experience (i.e., determine what is desirable and what is not). People often base these appraisals on the social norms of the dominant society. Because "naming an object brings satisfaction, a sense of power and control" (Averill & Nunley, 1992, p. 165), finding out how to label an experience is an important step in coping with emotions. The culture people live in not only sets boundaries for the word choices available, it may delineate appropriate terminology for people to use to describe their emotional experiences. Thus, the words that are used to talk about emotion reflect the meanings of the emotions recognized by society (Harre, 1994; Ochs & Schieffelin, 1989).

As Heelas (1986) contended, "emotion talk does not exist in isolation from other domains of knowledge" (p. 236). Indeed, symbolic interaction theory (Mead, 1934) purports that: (a) individuals construct meaning through the communication process, (b) this communication shapes people's self-concepts, and (c) social and cultural processes influence the meaning-making process. Just as how people talk about their emotions impacts their everyday lived experiences, the way people discuss their sexually violent experiences shapes how they make sense of what happened to them. Doherty and Anderson (1998) argued that scholars should examine the dynamics of people's discourse surrounding sexual violence. Since talk is both fluid and flexible, it can illustrate the complex ways in which people make sense of the violations they have encountered. …

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