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17 May 2022

Playing language games with sex obscures the reality of rape and abuse

A new guide urges journalists to avoid words like “paedo” and “monster”, but we shouldn’t be afraid to be blunt.

By Louise Perry

The police and crime commissioner for Devon and Cornwall, Alison Hernandez, has commissioned a set of guidelines for journalists writing about sexual crime. Titled Altered, Not Defined, the website and booklet focus in particular on vocabulary, offering substitutions for problematic words or phrases. 

I assume that whoever wrote these guidelines isn’t used to working within a tight word count. Good luck trying to persuade tabloid editors to stop using a nice short word like “caged” and swap in a boring and convoluted phrase like “was sentenced to prison”.

I also raised my eyebrows at the suggestion that the words “paedo”, “beast” and “monster” be expunged from reporting on sex offenders for fear of “separating ‘them’ from ‘us’”. I have spent much of my professional life trying to persuade the criminal justice system to take sexual offending more seriously, and my impression is that populist reporting that uses “salacious” vocabulary like this is much more effective at mobilising outrage than an awkward phrase like “perpetrator of child sexual abuse”.

Some of the recommendations in the guide are fair. For instance, journalists are encouraged to use sentences like “a man has raped a woman” rather than sentences like “a woman has been raped”. This latter construction has been described by Deborah Cameron, professor of linguistics at the University of Oxford, as a “passive sentence with agent deletion: the attacker has disappeared, leaving the sentence to focus entirely on the woman and what happened to her”.

Cameron offers many more egregious examples of “agentless passives”, for instance the sentence “there was advantage taken of a situation that presented itself”, uttered by a Canadian judge in relation to a case in which a ten-year-old girl had been sexually assaulted by a stranger in her home. The “situation” was the presence of a child in her own home, and it did not spontaneously “present itself” — rather, it was engineered by the (forgotten) defendant.

I thought of this style guide during the launch event, on 14 May, for a devastating and beautiful new book, Any Girl: A Memoir of Sexual Exploitation and Recovery, by the Irish writer and psychotherapist Mia Döring. The event was hosted by the organisation Space International (Survivors of Prostitution Abuse Calling for Enlightenment) and included speeches from a panel of women who have experienced sexual abuse, including prostitution. 

The theme of language came up several times during the event. Döring writes about it in Any Girl: “The first part of acknowledging a reality is naming it as one. Language can be a balm to the unspeakable truth… The Japanese once referred to Chinese, Korean and Filipino sex slaves as ‘comfort women’ — the reality of male brutality towards women erased for the sake of psychological comfort. Language has the power to change a culture, and those who profit from the exploitation of women want to have the culture on their side.”

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Another member of the panel, Julie Swede, was prostituted as a teenager and regularly arrested for soliciting and loitering, despite the fact that she was being forced to sell sex by a pimp. She is now campaigning to have her criminal record for street prostitution offences cleared and, like Döring, she spoke about the obfuscatory power of language. 

Swede is particularly concerned with the use of the term “sex work” by organisations that provide services for survivors of sexual violence, and described a confrontation with a worker at one of these services who refused to mirror Swede’s language, preferring to refer to her history of “sex work”. “But it wasn’t sex, and it wasn’t work,” Swede replied: it was rape and abuse.

You may have noticed that I haven’t myself used the words “sex work” so far in this column. The New Statesman style guide does not oblige me to but the term is commonly used in much of the media, and some style guides recommend it. Depending on your purposes, the very broad definition of “sex worker” can be useful. It might refer to those who offer what is sometimes called a “full contact service”. It can also refer to dancers, dominatrices, porn models and cam girls (or boys).

It’s also a term that can be used to confuse and conceal. Douglas Fox, the co-owner of an English escorting agency, describes himself as “an independent male sex worker” and, when challenged, deploys more and more corporate language: “Our job is simply to advertise the people we represent and promote them to the best of our ability.”

From the sanitising term “sex work” comes yet more sanitising language, and the jargon of business introduced to the brothel or the alleyway in academic writing. Thus pimps and madams engage in “sex work management”, rape becomes a “contract breach”, and violence, pregnancy and disease become “occupational health risks”. The horror of what is actually happening is obscured.

The Altered, Not Defined guidelines are not entirely wrongheaded. Some of the recommendations are sensible, and the overall principle is correct: the vocabulary that journalists and other writers use is important, since — as Döring writes — “language and words… morph what is going on into something else: reassuring, cushioning, disguising”.

But here’s where the guide goes wrong: when describing something awful, we need to use awful words. “Monster” says it in a way that “perpetrator” doesn’t. “Molested child” tells us what is going on in a way that “juvenile sex worker” never will. The guide uses (of course it does!) the term “sex work”, in keeping with the rest of its sterile terminology. But it’s not sex, and it’s not work, as Swede put it. Sometimes you just need to say it like it is.

[See also: Plymouth shooting anniversary: Britain still lacks a strong approach to extremism]

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