The Euphemisms that Diminish Sexual Assault

Silence, Odilon Redon, euphemism, sexual harassment

Silence by Odilon Redon

When it comes to sexual harassment and assault, the news media seem to have trouble finding words strong enough to describe what’s actually going on. We’ve all read and heard the three weak, limp-wristed words they use to describe sexual indignities imposed on a woman: inappropriate, unwanted, and offensive.

Those words may seem accurate but they usually serve as euphemisms for what is really a crime or crimes.

Descriptions or Euphemisms?

I would replace these euphemisms with stronger, more descriptive terms: assault, rape, accomplice before/after a crime, and—my favorite—extortion.

The Legal Dictionary defines assault as follows:

“At Common Law, an intentional act by one person that creates an apprehension in another of an imminent harmful or offensive contact.

An assault is carried out by a threat of bodily harm coupled with an apparent, present ability to cause the harm. It is both a crime and a tort and, therefore, may result in either criminal or civil liability. Generally, the common law definition is the same in criminal and Tort Law. There is, however, an additional Criminal Law category of assault consisting of an attempted but unsuccessful Battery.”

Will Bodily Harm Follow?

If someone grabs a woman’s arm, breast, butt, or worse—to use President Trump’s crass term—it constitutes an “offensive contact.” That’s assault, baby. What’s more, A woman cannot tell if or when bodily harm might follow.

Giambologna, Abduction of a Sabine Woman, sculpture, rape

Abduction of a Sabine Woman by Giambologna

A man might say, “I never intended to hurt her. It was a compliment.” But a woman doesn’t know what a man intends when he makes free with her body. Men are bigger and stronger. As a gender, they have a long history of assaulting, battering, and raping women. They therefore have, “an apparent, present ability to cause the harm.”

“Inappropriate contact,” by comparison, can mean almost anything. It could mean bumping into someone in a crowd or tripping and grabbing a stranger’s arm to keep from falling. I might define it as when my husband wants to give me a hug just as I reach the critical point in a complex recipe. You see?

It doesn’t come close to describing what too many women experienced at two of the Ford Motors plants in Chicago. As Susan Chira and Catrin Einhorn describe in their New York Times article, “How Difficult Is It to Change a Culture of Harassment? Ask Women at Ford,” “Inappropriate” is not in the same ballpark, it’s not even in the same state as a factory that blasts way past the term, “hostile workplace.”

Extortion on the Job

That’s why my favorite word is “extortion.” Legally, of course, it does not apply. Here’s the legal definition:

“Most states define extortion as the gaining of property or money by almost any kind of force, or threat of 1) violence, 2) property damage, 3) harm to reputation, or 4) unfavorable government action. While usually viewed as a form of theft/larceny, extortion differs from robbery in that the threat in question does not pose an imminent physical danger to the victim.”

You see that extortion doesn’t include “gaining sexual favors” with threats like:

  • “You won’t get a promotion or a raise unless you sleep with me.”
  • “I’ll assign you to a harder, more dangerous job unless you give me a blow job.”
  • “I’ll put you on a shift that will make it impossible for you to take care of your children unless you watch me masturbate.”
  • “You’ll lose your job, although you need it to support your family. You have to have sex with me to keep it.”
Behond The Scream, Edvard Munch

Beyond The Scream by Edvard Munch

Perhaps if the news media began using extortion to describe what goes on in places like Ford’s Chicago Assembly Plant, The Weinstein Company, Fox News, or the United States Congress we could succeed in changing the law to cover threats like these.

Then a man who crosses the line will face real legal consequences, not just temporary embarrassment or even loss of job and reputation. Ask former New York Representative Anthony Weiner, who is currently serving time in prison for trafficking obscene material to a minor.

Words Have Impact

The words we use have impact. When we describe a horrific act in mild language, we make it less shocking and thus easier to accept. Using euphemisms to gloss over outrageous behavior does no one any favors.

Susanna and the Elders by Artemesia Gentileschi

Susanna and the Elders by Artemisia Gentileschi

We need the news media to step it up: drop the euphemisms and use strong language to describe a despicable act. They seem to have abandoned even the word “accused” in their rush to play fair and avoid a law suit. Say what it is, without weasel words. The media can cover their legal butts with “alleged” and “allegations.”

Once we have extortion ironed out, we can fix another euphemism: verbal harassment. This term doesn’t come close to describing how women feel when we are cat-called on the street, get hit with a crude and insulting term, or called whores for ignoring male aggression. We may have to invent whole new words for that one.

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About Aline Kaplan

Aline Kaplan is a published author, a blogger, and a tour guide in Boston. She formerly had a career as a high-tech marketing and communications director. Aline writes and edits The Next Phase Blog, a social commentary blog that appears multiple times a week at aknextphase.com. She has published over 1,000 posts on a variety of subjects, from Boston history to science fiction movies, astronomical events to art museums. Under the name Aline Boucher Kaplan, she has had two science fiction novels (Khyren and World Spirits) published by Baen Books. Her short stories have appeared in anthologies published in the United States, Ireland, and Australia. Aline’s articles have also appeared on the Atlas Obscura website. She has been an active member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America since 1988 and is a long-term member of the Spacecrafts science/fantasy writers’ group. As a tour guide, Aline leads architectural and historical walking tours of the city for Boston By Foot, ghost tours for Haunted Boston and historical bus tours of the city. She lectures on Boston history and has appeared in the Boston Globe, as well as on TV for Chronicle, an award-winning television program that broadcasts stories of New England. As a lecturer, Aline has spoken at Brandeis and Tufts universities for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. She has also addressed as service organizations and local meetings. She is a graduate of Northeastern University in Boston and lives in Hudson, MA.

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