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How Terminology Impacts the Emotions Surrounding Sexual Abuse

The terms surrounding sexual assault are hazy. With more people publicly sharing their stories of sexual assault, the details and technicalities have snagged. Everyone knows sexual abuse is horrific, but the vagueness of intention meeting action can create doubt. The description of assault is difficult enough to understand, but what about the other terminology?

Since the #MeToo movement, disclosure of sexual abuse has become far more common in the media. As a society, we have recognized the abuse of celebrities and politicians. Our responses have varied, not just because of the status of those accused/accusers, but because the issue is rampant. Some choose to ignore, others choose to protest.

No matter the level of abuse, words like ‘victim’ or ‘perpetrator’ can shape the way we feel toward the event, the one who caused the sexual assault, and the assaulted. Since language is a powerful tool in shaping mental health and awareness, each definition needs to be articulated clearly. 

Sexual harassment and sexual assault are both used to understand various meanings of unwanted sexual attention. Is the emotional response different if a woman says she was assaulted vs. harassed? If she’s ‘underage’ or 18, does that warrant more or less comforting? Should the stress and magnitude of the abuse match the stress and magnitude of someone who displays concern from an equally murky word in a similar category? Since sexual abuse is very rarely portrayed as the complicated (knowing the abuser) and questioning (was the abused dancing suggestively?) type of trauma that it is, ‘assault’, ‘rape’, and ‘harassment’, might not accurately represent the way someone is expected to feel.

Comfort and sympathy for those who endured sexually abusive behavior is still a sticky subject. How abusive does the perpetrator have to be to warrant a discussion or extra attention? The word ‘attention’ in and of itself is tricky. While it’s common knowledge that paying attention to the trauma, instead of covering it up or ignoring it, is better at combating depression, PTSD, or anxiety, nobody wants to be known as an ‘attention-seeker’. The phrase itself can prevent people from finding help.

The words ‘victim’ and ‘survivor’ are particularly controversial. ‘Survivor’, a word that became popular in feminist circles in the 1980s, intends to have an empowering effect. The idea was to allow those who have suffered from an assault, to reclaim their life narrative from powerlessness to bravery. By placing the emphasis on strength, another sense of power is born.

The word ‘victim’ is more difficult. The National Crime Victim Law Institute, defines ‘victim’ as a person(s) harmed by any misdemeanor or felony. There are no moral or judgmental undertones about the person who was assaulted or treated wrongfully.

Although the legal definition of ‘victim’ makes sense from a purely non-judgemental mindset, the word has expanded with emotional baggage. The phrase ‘playing the victim’ insinuates that there is something to be gained by being victimized. Often times the phrase suggests laziness or the inability to move on after what may be considered an appropriate length of time.

Whether the terms ‘victim’ or ‘survivor’ are of primary focus, these definitions are a distraction from the real issue. The perpetrator.

‘Rapist’ has its own set of definitions. Although each state defines rape differently, the common definition states it is an offense where sexual relations are forced upon a person.  

According to this definition, a rapist could be someone who forcibly penetrated someone against their will or it could mean penetration may not have happened.  The definition ‘sexual relations’ is even more gray.

If a man in his early twenties had sexual relations with an incoherent, drunk, college girl, the term ‘rapist’ takes a different form for those raised with the image of strangers with guns that prey on women at night. Perpetrator, creep, or derelict are often the more popular words to describe the assaulter in this situation.

The images that words carry when used in a sexual assault case, shape the way we feel. They form our sympathies, our understanding of values, and our esteem. They also shape the way society responds.

How Terminology Impacts the Emotions Surrounding Sexual Abuse

Rebecca Lee

Rebecca Lee lives in Charlottesville, Virginia. She has published with: Harvard, Adbusters, The Virginian Pilot etc. Her book, Object Relations, is due for publication in July.

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APA Reference
Lee, R. (2018). How Terminology Impacts the Emotions Surrounding Sexual Abuse. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 30, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 27 Dec 2017)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.