Once More, a Vocabulary Primer

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The horrifying crisis unfolding at Penn State reminds us, yet again, of the carelessness of language used when we write about sexual violence.

In an AP article printed in the New York Times the headline reads, “2 Top Officials Step Down Amid Penn State Sex Scandal.” In countless other articles across far too many publications, journalists have also used the phrase “sex scandal” to refer to Penn State’s former defensive coordinator, Jerry Sandusky, allegedly raping and otherwise sexually abusing at least eight young boys.

A sex scandal is when, for example, a politician has an extramarital affair with a young female intern or when an evangelist preacher has an extramarital affair with a young masseur or another politician has a history of visiting escorts. In any such situation, there is (consensual) sex involved and the circumstances within which that sex was had are scandalous.

When we are talking about rape, sexual abuse, or sexual assault, and/or when these terrible acts of sexual violence occur between adults and children, we are talking about scandals of sexual violence. They are rape scandals, sexual abuse scandals, or sexual assault scandals but they are not sex scandals. Sex is consensual. Rape, sexual abuse, and sexual assault, as well as violent sexual acts forced upon children by adults are not consensual.

Additionally, focusing more on the impact this rape scandal might have on the legacy of an institution or a famed football coach instead of focusing on the impact the rape scandal (the acts of sexual violence themselves, the extensive, long term cover up, the permissive, corrupt culture that allowed the cover up to continue for more than a decade, etc.) has on the victims, is also careless and shameful.

The legacy that matters here is the one this travesty will create for victims of sexual violence who have so little incentive to come forward and name their accusers in a culture where acts of sex and sexual violence are represented synonymously. The language* used to write about sexual violence must reflect the acts of sexual violence that have been perpetrated and that language must do so without being exploitative or gratuitous. There can be no exception.

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The Dart Center offers an excellent set of resources for journalists on writing about sexual violence and trauma.

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You can read Roxane’s first “Vocabulary Primer” hereAlso, if you haven’t already read it, please don’t miss Brian Spears’s excellent essay “The Spirit of Violent Lamentation.”


Roxane Gay’s writing appears in Best American Mystery Stories 2014, Best American Short Stories 2012, Best Sex Writing 2012, A Public Space, McSweeney’s, Tin House, Oxford American, American Short Fiction, Virginia Quarterly Review, and many others. She is a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times. She is the author of the books Ayiti, An Untamed State, the New York Times bestselling Bad Feminist, Difficult Women, and Hunger forthcoming in 2017. She is also the author of World of Wakanda for Marvel. Roxane was the founding Essays Editor and is a current Advisory Board member for The Rumpus. You can find her at roxanegay.com. More from this author →