1in6 Thursdays: Little Words Can Have Big Meaning

Joyful Heart Foundation

It’s been gratifying to see the Justice Department’s recent revisions to the definition used to compile statistics about rape. Language is an important part of any discussion about sexual abuse—for men, filtered through the lens of cultural expectations of males. Words shape, define and categorize experiences. And the shift may have some deeper implications than are immediately apparent.

On the surface, the change means that the national data on rape will now include males’ unwanted experiences of sexual penetration—not just females’—and removes “forcible assault” as a criterion for inclusion. This will bring the statistics closer in line with the reality many boys and men face daily and with existing laws and prosecutions in many states. Also, the old definition likely contributed to perpetuating the damaging myth, still believed by many, that men can’t be raped. The change is 80 years overdue.

But then I think about individuals and families I’ve worked with over the years, as a child protection social worker, an advocate for adults who experienced sexual abuse and with men who have physically, emotionally or sexually abused their intimate partners. I realize that many people, including many professionals, will still have a lot of misunderstanding about the meaning of “rape” especially when it is applied to boys and men. Conventional wisdom often conflates rape with other forms of sexual abuse and violations of sexual boundaries, assuming the words mean the same thing. This can create great confusion when media reports use widely varying statistics, alternately citing data either on sexual abuse or on rape of boys (and sometimes both) without highlighting the differences in definition or explaining why one figure might appear higher or lower than another.

Note: This is an Abuse Tracker excerpt. Click the title to view the full text of the original article. If the original article is no longer available, see our News Archive.