The other week, I was scrolling through my Facebook feed (as you do when you cannot concentrate) and came across a link titled “The Strangest Sex Scandal Ever Is Currently Unfolding…” In case you’ve missed it, Notre Dame University has recently wrapped up an investigation pending a lawsuit from a student athlete. In the lawsuit, the student asserts that his academic coach “coaxed [him] into sexual encounters with her daughter.” You can read far more details over at Maxim, NY Daily or Huffpost; essentially, this coach coerced multiple students–from both the football and basketball teams–into relationships with her daughter, including providing the venues for sex. The lead student in the case eventually got a protection order to keep the daughter away from him, to which she responded by threatening to kill him if he “broke up with her.” Underlying all of this are a ton of racist remarks from the coach to the student about his “black sexual prowess.”
I’m not here to call out the coach (who has been fired) or to point out that when multiple students have come forward, chances are the assaults are not just “alleged.” I’m not even here to point out that sexual assault happens to men too. In fact, I’m not really here for that case at all. I’m here because after reading three articles from three different sources, I noticed that not a single one named what was happening. All three are reporting the entire incident as a “sex scandal” while simultaneously reporting that the coach used coercion.
To clarify: sex under the use of force, threat of force, or coercion is not sex. It’s sexual assault.
In my role as Volunteer Coordinator with The Blue Bench, I train all incoming hotline advocates. We spend a lot of time talking about what sexual assault is — the legal definition and the dynamics of how sexual assaults occur. We talk about how commonly survivors are told they are somehow responsible for their assault or don’t know that what happened falls under the definition of sexual assault at all. We understand the importance of being able to validate a person’s experience by giving a name to what happened; that alone can be part of healing. So many of the answers people give to the question, ‘what is sexual assault?’ are myths based on which stories media is giving attention to and how they talk about the issue. Specifically, public understanding is shaped by what is labeled as sex assault…or what isn’t. Jared Fogle (the Subway icon) perpetrating on teens is referred to in media as a ‘sex scandal’; a Louisiana teacher having ‘sexual relations’ with 15 and 16 year old students is also a ‘sex scandal’.
It’s important that we name accurately when it comes to sexual assault—and that we hold media accountable for that. It is important that we name the actions and violences happening. Sexual assault is spoken around, rather than accurately named, so frequently: taken advantage of, a scandal, getting better acquainted, having sexual relations, non-consensual sex, and even theft of services. The harm caused and hurt intended is completely removed from the language used. It’s worth noting that sometimes the act is named, but lessened by following it with the word scandal, such as this headline: Timeline: Duggar Sex-Abuse Scandal This modifier shift minimizes the assault or abuse and implies that the public upset caused is a far bigger issue (it’s not).
Without naming, we end up with situations like Bill Cosby admitting to giving women Quaaludes with the intent of ‘having sex’ with them afterwards, and that is still not recognized as rape. Or where nearly one-third of college men will admit they would commit a sexual assault if nobody would ever know…if we just don’t call it rape. That number decreased to 13.6% when the behavior was called rape. Language matters.
It is when we call a rape a rape, or a sexual assault a sexual assault, that we can give weight to sexual violence. When we are able to give sexual violence that gravity, perhaps it’ll be taken seriously.