Predators Gonna Prey: The Impact of Language Around Assault

By Amanda A Andrews

Author’s Note: Trigger warning this article will discuss sexual assault, and the language surrounding the subject is explicit. If this is something that may upset you please we warned and do what is best for you to take care of yourself.

U.S Courts have tried and imprisoned the first high-profile man accused of rape since victims began speaking out with the support of the #MeToo movement.

This moment marks an important step in addressing sexual assault. It brought hope to victims seeking justice in other cases, took a predator off the streets, and brought justice to those affected by his abusive action. So why does the headline read, “Bill Cosby: From ‘America’s Dad’ to disgraced comic”?

Now. There are many different words, definitions, and identities that are important to the larger conversation around sexual violence, but this article will not cover: defining consent or what constitutes rape, using the term victim versus survivor, or the race dynamics at play with Bill Cosby being Black.

The language we use to discuss assault cases, especially those involving men in power, always centers the abuser as the victim of some grand scheme aimed at discrediting all they have accomplished.

Victims of sex crimes who come forward, even years after an assault has taken place, are all subjected to severe scrutiny. 

During the trial a role reversal takes place, so victims look like aggressors and men are viewed as helpless prey to some career-destroying mastermind.

Media now regard men as a “casualty of the #MeToo movement”, and others have even gone so far as to compare the movement to a witch hunt. These excuses pile up as the public rushes to humanize attackers by looking at how bright his future was and how he was too nice to be a rapist.

Writers behind countless think pieces dedicated to humanizing men guilty of assault leave victims of these heinous crimes diminished at best and discredited at worst.

Let’s go back to that headline at the beginning, shall we? 

Cosby, a convicted rapist and registered violent predator, is still being referred to as “America’s Dad”, a former actor, and famous comedian. In a story about the court case following one woman’s very traumatic experience of being drugged and molested by Cosby, where does his career become relevant?

The BBC, regularly lauded for their neutral coverage of world events, could not manage to escape the siren call of rape culture. Their headline calls Cosby a disgraced comedian, without once mentioning how his own actions led him to be disgraced or that his trial has nothing to do with comedy.

Too often the supposedly neutral coverage of a rape trial will not hold men accountable for their actions in the same way victims are forced to account for the damage to his reputation. Even the “Devil’s Advocate” conversations that argue “well what if he really is innocent” and “what if he was tricked into assaulting someone by their clothing or mannerisms” place blame firmly on the victim and perpetuate rape myths and culture.

False narratives about the number of fake accusations taken to court, the role of women’s clothing in rape, about miscommunication about consent all perpetuate a myth that powerful men, wealthy men, or other public figures don’t know when they have assaulted somebody.

Unity among survivors of sexual assault has created an important shift in the culture ensuring many powerful men – from Hollywood to Capitol Hill – are being held accountable for their actions. Their stories collectively serve to debunk the myths around sexual assault and start hard conversations about the ways we comfort rapists and allow a cycle of abuse to continue.

Media outlets choose to cover what Cosby is eating in prison and the reputation of the prison where he’s serving his time, instead of looking at the real cultural impact of his actions in the larger conversation about sexual assault prevention.

For instance, the way we talk about victims of rape is so often based around them being submissive and hating men, that male victims are left out of the conversation entirely. In fact, victims are treated so poorly during rape investigation it has been referred to as “the second rape” since 1991.

Despite having recently experienced a severe and traumatic event rape victims are expected to speak it about freely, repeatedly, and without fear for the court and the press. This is where arguments about victims taking so long to report proving their motives are vengeful fall flat. Rape victims do not gain anything during a trial – not fame, not money, and often times not even justice.

Until we can work to address the roots of rape culture and the ways in which it has embedded itself in our language, this dangerous cycle will continue.Organizations who have been working to providing resources for victims of sexual assault and educating about consent and healthy relationships include the Rape Abuse and Incest National Network and the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.

Change starts with language and ends when we listen to the victims, because predators gonna prey.

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