The Power of Words in the Fight to Combat Sexual Assault

Words are powerful. They are my bread and butter, the reason I get up in the morning, and why I am here in this very moment. I’ve always found beauty in stringing them together and strength in using them to share some of the world’s most pressing issues.

It is my love for words that made a study I found this week about sexual assault speak to me so powerfully. Published by the journal of Violence and Gender, the study explored how men admit to certain behaviors based on whether it is described or labeled. With a focus on sexual assault, participants in the study were asked whether they endorsed “forced sex” versus “rape.” The distinction here is important as the following two questions had staggeringly different results:

  • “Have you ever coerced somebody to intercourse by holding them down?”
  • “Have you ever raped somebody?”

In the first case, when describing rape through its definition of “coercing a woman” or “forcing her to have sexual intercourse,” approximately 32 percent of participants admitted to this behavior. However, when the word “rape” was introduced into questioning under the same circumstances, only 13.6 percent admitted to the same behavior.

The difference in words here is at the very core of whether men will admit to the same type of behavior. Whereas some participants admitted to having used force to obtain sexual intercourse in the past, they denied having ever raped a woman despite the fact that both behaviors are one in the same. Having the label “rape” assigned to the behavior thus makes it much harder for men to identify what they’ve done.

In addition to the difference in behaviors based on description versus labeling, an area where the authors of the study admit little research has been done, they also examined men’s levels of hostility and sexual callousness toward women. In men who admitted intentions to rape when it was clearly labeled, they found higher levels of hostility towards women and beliefs that they were manipulative or deceitful. Given their hostility toward women, these men were able to identify their behavior of using force to have sexual intercourse as rape and a means to punish women.

In men who admitted intentions to rape only when it was described as the “intention to use force,” they found more callous sexual attitudes where men believed objectifying women and exhibiting sexual dominance was part of demonstrating hypermasculinity. In this line of thinking, men who endorsed the use of force to have sexual intercourse saw it not as an act of rape, but rather as an appropriate and accepted expression of their masculinity.

These findings are not only interesting in their dissection of words and the power they have, but also in helping to find more effective types of rape prevention methods for combating sexual assault. Of the study, psychologist David Lisak, a forensic consultant and law enforcement trainer renowned for his research on sexual violence, says:

When you assess male college students, you will find some very, very troubling attitudes and beliefs. Regardless of whether or not these contribute directly to sexual coercion…challenging them and addressing them and educating students about them is absolutely critical.

The authors of the study agree and note that while there is no “one-size fits-all” approach to sexual assault prevention, identifying the different motivations men have can help personalize programs and make them more successful. A similar study using both the label of rape and a more descriptive approach would also be interesting to see in regards to victims and their motivation to report. Does labeling what happened as rape make it harder for women to come forward versus describing what happened as sexual assault or using force?

Are there other words we can explore in a similar way? After reading this study the first word that popped into my head with similar challenges was the word “feminist.” While many people won’t describe themselves as feminists, they do say they believe in gender equality, which is one in the same. Perhaps a study using the label “feminist” versus describing gender equality would help take away from the stigma of the word and help naysayers embrace the term.

Are there any other words in the fight for social justice that could benefit from such research? Perhaps abortion versus terminating a pregnancy? What do you think? We’d love to hear from you in the comments.

Related from Care2:  

Rape Prevention Programs Need to Tackle Victim Blaming for Real Change to Begin

There’s No Such Thing As A Classic Rapist

These Anti-Rape Devices Miss the Mark When it Comes to Rape Prevention

Photo Credit: Richard Potts


Jerome S
Jerome S2 years ago


Jim Ven
Jim Ven2 years ago

thanks for sharing.

.3 years ago

Your way to enlighten everything on this blog is actually pleasant, everyone manage to efficiently be familiar with it, Thanks a great to get rid of varicose veins

Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus4 years ago

Thank you for sharing!

Karen H.
Karen H4 years ago

Here's an interesting twist. A TV show in Peru gave moms a makeover and sent them out to where their sons were verbally harassing women. We should do that in America. It would make a great new reality show. :)
Watch the video here:

Marianne C.
Marianne C4 years ago

@ Karen H:

That's some pretty sick stuff. "Being a football star made me rape her" isn't a defense I'd accept, though. There IS no defense for drugging a girl, then carrying her unconscious body into a dorm room so you and your friends can gang rape her.

This stuff about how the rapists are somehow victims, too, really revolts me. If we live in a society that no longer sees a clear difference between a victim and a perpetrator, it;s no wonder there's so little justice in rape cases.

Karen H.
Karen H4 years ago

Interesting read:
Highlights (or lowlights) include, "Defense attorneys ... for the former players whose own cellphones show they participated in a dorm-room sex assault have placed blame on the elite Southern university, saying their clients' judgment was warped by a campus culture where drunken sex was common." So the school forced them to rape?
One defense attorney said his client (who admitted to having 14-22 drinks that night) "had been a promising young player before he 'walked into a culture that changed the rest of his life.'" Didn't his mama ever ask him, "If all your friends jumped off a bridge, would you?" He didn't have to participate.
"by not calling for help when the woman was seen lying unconscious and naked in a hallway afterward, the other athletes made such behavior seem normal."
"At least five students ... became aware of the unconscious woman in obvious distress, but did nothing to report it. Rumors quickly spread around campus, and still no one apparently reported it."
"All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing."

Nena C.
Nena C4 years ago

Totally psycho, these type folks are just plain sicko!

Melissa Flaherty
Melissa Flaherty4 years ago

spam flagged

Melissa Flaherty
Melissa Flaherty4 years ago

It seems like an injustice in itself to replace words that have become poisoned by haters. It is letting haters get away with a lot. People are entitled to their words, when the words accurately apply to what they are describing.