The Way Words Impact LGBT Survivors of Sexual Violence

As advocates and educators at Kansas City Anti-Violence Project, we define sexual assault as “any sexual contact made without a person’s consent or permission.” It’s pretty straightforward.

The gender of a victim or of an assailant does not even make it into the equation, nor does it reduce the seriousness of such an offense. We don’t categorize different types of sexual violence or assign different levels of severity to them.

However, the legal system does, and these classifications can have a significant impact on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender survivors of violence. We know that the language used with a victim of sexual assault can be incredibly powerful. Words have the capacity to make or break a trusting relationship between an advocate and a client. Words have the ability to re-traumatize an individual experiencing crisis. So, with this in mind, it’s time to rethink the words we use in the criminal justice system.

Efforts have been made to ensure that gender-neutral language is used in the legal definition of rape in Kansas and Missouri, which is important in recognizing that anyone can be the victim of sexual assault. However, the legal definition of sexual intercourse, which is an internal component of the definition of rape, is written in a way that strictly defines the victim as female, and in Missouri, the charge can only be brought against a male perpetrator. For any victim whose experience does not fall into this stereotypical definition of rape, the alternative charge that will likely be assigned to their case is criminal “sodomy.”

This is problematic for a number of reasons. There is a long history of the term sodomy being used in discriminatory public policy aimed at criminalizing consensual sex in the LGBT community, so the assignment of this word to a sexual assault case can discourage a survivor from pursuing any charges or reporting the crime altogether. Furthermore, the language does not appropriately reflect the experiences of survivors of sexual assault. Limiting the use of the word “rape” to only certain people’s experiences implicitly sends the message to all other victims that their sexual assaults were less severe.

While it is necessary to define legal terms clearly and concisely for prosecution, the unintended consequence is that some victims of violence may not have their experiences validated fully by the criminal justice system. Recent surveys show an ever-increasing number of male survivors of sexual assault, and the language of public policy must change if we are going meet the needs of all individuals experiencing sexual violence.

We cannot continue to use inappropriate and antiquated terms and we cannot continue to stratify sexual assault charges based on the gender or sex of a victim or perpetrator. We know there is still work to be done in order for all survivors of violence, including LGBT survivors, to feel safe and comfortable participating in the criminal justice system. The least we can do is ensure that the language of our criminal statutes is accurate, respectful and victim-centered. It won’t solve everything, but it would be a good first step.

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