Violations and Vocabulary: How Policing Language Silences Victims

**TRIGGER WARNING: The following article may contain graphic depictions of sexual abuse**

By Kimberly Congdon, PhD

At this point, you’ve probably already heard of Larry Nassar. If not, see HERE. And HERE. And HERE.  There is no question that what this man did was wrong. There is no question it was criminal. There is no question it was sexual abuse, and that he deserves to be punished for unbelievably heinous crimes against children and young women. We can recognize the incredible wrongness of his actions even without delving into the fact that his position as a doctor added another element of psychological trauma for his victims. Larry Nassar is done – quite literally. His victims have proven themselves to be remarkable, brave women who will foster a new generation of remarkable, brave women. The judge who oversaw his case has become a figurehead for women’s rights. His trial was a watershed moment for feminism and equality. The questions still loom. How was something like this able to happen? How could something so obviously wrong persist for so long? How do we stop it from happening again?

There are a lot of factors that specifically enabled Nassar to abuse women for decades. Those specific issues must be addressed, and specific individuals must face consequences. But ultimately, Nassar is a symptom of a larger problem. First, we have to acknowledge that Nassar is not nearly as rare as we would wish him to be. An investigation by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution found more than 2,400 cases of doctors sexually abusing patients since 1999, occurring across all 50 states. At least half of those physicians still had their medical licenses as of 2016. And these numbers are guaranteed to be low, as sex abuse in all forms is chronically underreported. So Nassar is a monster, but he has a lot of company. What’s going on here?

Unpacking the issues that allow abuse of women to persist would take a lifetime.  There is, however, one thing that underlies it all, and it may not be what you think. It’s language. The words we use matter, the words we emphasize and teach matter. This is the principle of linguistic relativity. It tells us that the structure of a language affects the worldview of the people who speak it. The classic example is Benjamin Whorf’s claim that “Eskimos” have 50 words for snow. His point was that snow is very important to Inuit language groups, and that importance is reflected by the fact that they have a lot of words for it. It’s a rather basic, intuitive idea. Your culture will have many ways to discuss what’s important, few ways to discuss what is unimportant, and no words to discuss what it has no conception of at all. So what happens to a culture when we restrict the words that can be used to describe reproductive anatomy? Misogyny has stolen from women the very words they need to comprehend and assert their own bodily autonomy. And when you don’t have the words to describe your experience, when the words you do have teach you shame, when they don’t empower you and reaffirm your own bodily autonomy, how can you ever find your own voice to speak out against these atrocities?

We have allowed the words that describe reproductive anatomy to become stigmatized, under the guise of “polite” behavior. Parents teach their children euphemisms for their own body parts, students are punished for using words like “penis” and “vagina” in school (and sometimes even sex-ed teachers), and often it’s because they use them as expletives, having been taught they are inherently “naughty”. All this works together to teach kids that certain parts of their body can’t be discussed, which serves to build a barrier between our own anatomy and the ownership of it. According to the Guttmacher Institute, only 24 states and D.C. mandate sex education in schools. Only thirteen of those states mandate that the instruction be medically accurate, twenty-six states require that “the information be appropriate for the students’ age”, and ONLY TWO prohibit the program from promoting religion. This combination of factors is a recipe for disaster when it comes to language. If a program is not required to be medically accurate, students are not going to learn technical terms about their own anatomy. When we accept the fallacy that sex education has an “age appropriate” element, we allow for the introduction of shame associated with female bodies. What are we telling young girls who HAVE vaginas that they are too young for the WORD vagina? If we teach girls that they have to mature into the ownership of their own body parts, is it so surprising that men with power so easily assert their own rights to those parts over their actual owners? And if we CORRECT children who use the proper terms, if we insist on euphemisms, is it such a surprise that they’re reluctant to speak out when needed?

Larry Nassar’s victims ranged from girls as young as six to young women in their teens and early 20s. He told them that inserting his fingers into their vaginas and leaning towards them to whisper “How does that feel”, often with an erection, was medical treatment. In their victim statements, many discussed how he abused their trust, how he made them ashamed to discuss what he did, some of them still referenced shame in speaking out, in a courtroom where he had pled guilty – an open admission that what he had done was wrong – and they had no reason to be ashamed. They speak of being touched in private places, the loss of innocence, but above all – confusion. Confusion over whether what he did was wrong, confusion over who to tell. They speak of knowledge that internal pelvic floor therapies exist, and are legitimate – leading to a difficulty to distinguish legitimate treatment from sexual violation. One victim STILL questions her own interpretation of the experience, she is still unable to tell if she was being molested or treated. That kind of confusion can happen when we don’t give girls the tools to tell medicine from abuse, when we don’t teach them about their anatomy, and don’t give them the words to understand what is happening to them. Rachael Denhollander, the first accuser to file a police report and start the ball rolling against Nassar, says one of her earlier complaints was dismissed because “a 15-year-old girl thinks everything between her legs is a vagina”. The assumption that girls don’t know their own bodies was used to dismiss an accusation of forced penetration – and it worked, because so many young girls DON’T know their own bodies. The girls that did come forward in the late 90s were repeatedly told they were confused about what had happened – an easy thing to push when you’ve already robbed people of the language they need to conceptualize the event in the first place.

For years, child psychologists have been emphasizing both the importance and appropriateness of teaching children proper terms for their anatomy from Day One. It will empower them to speak out against inappropriate touching, teach body positivity, and perhaps even protect them from predators who will recognize that a child who knows the words vulva and vagina likely has parents that will discuss these subjects with them, and listen if they report abuse. Body-related shame is a real and persistent problem. We all know adults who won’t use the word penis or vagina or insist on whispering them if they must be said. People who aren’t comfortable discussing their body will struggle to tell health care providers about medical problems. They will struggle to tell sexual partners if something causes them pain or discomfort. They will be more susceptible to those who would manipulate them via that shame. And if we start by teaching kids shame about body parts, we’ll continue with shame about all language that
discusses sex. This will disproportionately hurt girls, who are made to believe that they should not want or enjoy sex, that they should not express sexual desire for fear of being labeled a slut, and that if sexual contact is forced upon them, it was somehow their own fault. In short, sex euphemisms are a tool of female oppression. We de-emphasize the importance of that anatomy and suggest there is inherent shame in those body parts since we won’t use the actual words to discuss them. This is a problem that can be overcome at home, but politicians at the local and state level who advocate for comprehensive sex education also need our support. Too much of what we learn about language happens in school for this to go unaddressed.

People who criticize women inspired to speak out during the resurgence of #metoo discuss female agency, female responsibility – they ask why women don’t say no, don’t speak out against behavior that bothers them. How can we demand women speak out when we deprive them of the language to describe what happened to them and teach them that putting it into words is shameful? We have to reclaim our vulvas and vaginas, our penises and testicles. Before we can assert autonomy over our anatomy, we have to know what to call our anatomical parts and deny that discussing our bodies is shameful or wrong.