Toward the end of the recently released film Nebraska, one of the family matriarchs explains that her son is not at home because he is picking garbage from the side of a highway as punishment for committing an act of sexual assault. While most of the visiting family members nod sympathetically, one of the elders is clearly horrified that one of their own could do something so ghastly. But the matriarch is adamant: It was sexual assault and not rape, a distinction that allows her to protect and defend her wayward child.
Words, and the way we use them to describe rape, sexual assault, domestic violence, and sexual slavery, can evoke sympathy or revulsion toward the perpetrator of a crime or the person who was victimized. Furthermore, both the media and the legal system have tremendous power in eliciting emotions and stirring the pot of public sentiment.
Take the mid-November arrest of George Zimmerman—yes, the same George Zimmerman who was acquitted in the murder of Trayvon Martin this summer—on charges of felony aggravated assault. NBC News reported that 30-year-old Zimmerman had been “arrested and charged with threatening his girlfriend with a gun.” The Los Angeles Times noted that he spent the night post-arrest in a 64-square-foot cell. They also reported that he’d had several ”scrapes with the law” during the previous six month. These included major and minor offenses: three traffic stops for speeding and having overly dark-tinted car windows, and one domestic abuse complaint. In the latter “scrape,” police questioned Zimmerman after his ex-wife, Shellie Zimmerman, told law enforcement that he had threatened her and her father with a gun while they were moving her possessions out of the home that she and George had once shared.
But back to the November arrest. According to USA Today, 27-year-old Samantha Scheibe, Zimmerman’s most recent flame, called 9-1-1 after Zimmerman “smashed a glass-top coffee table with the gun butt and ordered Scheibe out. He pushed her out and locked the door” of their Apopka, Florida, residence. The story then concludes that “Scheibe was not injured.”
Kim Gandy, president and CEO of the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV), told RH Reality Check that “it is outrageous for the media to report that a woman who has been terrified and thrown out into the street is unharmed. Clearly, she has been harmed. There is no such thing as a victim of domestic violence who is unharmed.”
Gandy also charged that mainstream media all too often uses “sanitized language in a misguided effort to be balanced, as if balance is required when there has been an intimate relationship.” She quickly rattled off examples, stating that when journalists report that a man was arrested and charged with domestic violence, it sounds far less menacing than reporting that he was arrested for beating her bloody or punching her until she lost consciousness. Similarly, Gandy continues, the trend to call the woman “the accuser” rather than “the victim” makes her seem less worthy of support and consolation.
And the use of the term “victim”? “When I talk to women who have been abused, they always refer to themselves as victims,” Gandy says. “This doesn’t take away from the fact that they’re also survivors. We believe that attention should be on what was done—someone was victimized.”
The NNEDV has many other gripes about word choices, including the tendency to report that a woman was beaten, rather than that a particular person beat her. According to Gandy, “It’s a small thing but ‘she was beaten’ makes it sound as if the beating descended from the ether rather than coming from Joe Smith, an actual person.” The NNEDV also rejects the pervasive storyline in which incredulous neighbors are questioned after someone commits an act of heinous brutality. The ubiquitous, “he always seemed like a nice, quiet guy,” says Gandy, undermines the veracity of the victim and makes her sound less credible. “Worse,” she concludes, “reporters almost never ask the neighbors about the victim. She’s probably nice, too, and she most certainly did not deserve to be brutalized.”
Gandy and NNEDV’s arguments were recently underscored by a report released in September by Legal Momentum, a New York City-based feminist advocacy law group. Called Raped or “Seduced”? How Language Helps Shape Our Response to Sexual Violence, the study addresses what it calls “linguistic avoidance.” For example, when the media uses the language of consensual sex—terms like recruited rather than kidnapped or took by force, and phrases like performed oral sex or engaged in sexual activity instead of writing that he forcefully penetrated her vagina with his penis—they do more than use euphemisms to blur reality; they actually mislead, misdirect, and minimize the violation. What’s more, they imply that both parties were willing players. Raped or “Seduced”? urges people who engage with and write about sexual assault victims to be direct and clear when calling out reprehensible behavior and suggests that they use words like dragged, grabbed, pushed, shoved, strangled, and threw to craft an accurate picture of what transpired.
Raped or “Seduced”? further critiques the tendency to describe what a rape victim was wearing or how she was behaving, as if she is equally culpable for the attack against her. For example, stating that a young woman was dressed provocatively, wore makeup, or had a history of hanging out with older men pathologizes her rather than the rapist who preyed on her.
They’re important distinctions. As the Chicago Task Force on Violence Against Girls and Young Women reminds us, “rape/sexual assault is not sex. A pattern of abuse is not an affair. Rape or sexual assault is in no way associated with normal sexual activity; trafficking in women is not to be confused with prostitution.”
And as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website makes clear, sexual assault is an epidemic. In the United States alone, 24 people per minute are victims of rape, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner. Over the course of a year, this amounts to more than 12 million people, most of them female. Isn’t it time to confront the issue with words that boldly capture the reality of sexual brutality and violent domestic abuse?
The post Stoking Fire: How News Outlets, Prosecutors Minimize Sexual Violence With Language appeared first on RH Reality Check.
The Hobby Lobby case going before the Supreme Court will hopefully shed new light on what, to my mind, might be one of the most disturbing avenues of attack opened by the anti-choice movement: laying claim to women’s wallets along with their uteruses. The most disturbing thing about this new movement is that it seems not to be firing up people on the left in the same way as red tape attacks shutting down abortion clinics seems to do. But in a way, it’s really just as bad, because the religious right is experimenting with legal avenues to establish the “right” to control women’s private finances, and there’s a strong possibility that they are going to get away with it.
At stake right now are insurance plans. Brick by brick, anti-choicers are trying to create the illusion that it’s perfectly reasonable for strangers who disagree with your private religious views regarding contraception and abortion to determine for you what kind of coverage you can buy. The attack is two-fold: On the contraception front, corporations and other employers are claiming that they should be the decider and not their employees on what kind of coverage the employees’ insurance plans cover, even though those plans belong to the employee and not the employer, since the employee earned the insurance coverage just as surely as she earned her paycheck. On the abortion front, anti-choicers are claiming, successfully in 23 states now, that insurance companies should be banned from selling policies that include abortion coverage, on the grounds that the woman who uses that coverage is pulling from a pool that everyone has paid into, and, well, there’s a bit of magical thinking that justifies believing your premium is “tainted” if a dollar that you paid into the pool ends up being paid to an abortion provider.
It’s an argument that assumes if money has ever passed through the pocket of an anti-choicer, they get to retain control over it no matter who else legally has control of it now. This is not how transfer of control of funds works with anything else, as I explain in this week’s podcast. If I give you anything, it belongs to you and not me. But anti-choicers are arguing that when it comes to reproductive health coverage, that rule should be suspended. If they pay an insurance company, then they should retain control over the money that belongs to the insurance company, even when the insurance company is offering a service to another person, who also purchased coverage.
By the same logic, if an anti-choicer shops at a pharmacy, that pharmacy should not be able to sell birth control pills. After all, a pharmacy may take an anti-choicer’s money and provide, say, heart medication. And then they may take the money they made that day and buy some more drugs to sell, including birth control pills. That bundle of money will have the dollars in it that the anti-choicer used to buy heart medication. Are we going to see anti-choicers start claiming that pharmacies should be banned from selling contraception because, as with insurance, anti-choicers have a special privilege to continue to control dollars even after they relinquished control over them? I expect that we will. Maybe not with pharmacies, but if insurance coverage is subject to this logic, as they do with all other things, anti-choicers will start casting around for a way to expand the scope of control, specifically control over women.
Right now, the focus is on insurance companies, for one reason only: Obamacare. The repeated media discourse around what health insurance is and does has given anti-choicers a unique opportunity to inject their ideas about how they deserve to control what women do with their own private finances. Right-wing lies about how the new health-care law is “socialized” medicine has confused enough people that they think we’re debating how tax money is spent and not private insurance plans. An opportunity to increase the scope of control has presented itself, and they are taking it to the limit.
And they could very well get away with it. After all, they’ve had smashing success in the past with the nonsense claim that anti-choicers retain a special right to control money after it’s been relinquished to another party, via taxes. The public defense of laws like the Hyde Amendment, which bans federal money from being spent on abortion, has never been that legislators get to determine what the government does and doesn’t spend money on, using their constitutional power to write budgets, even though that’s the legal mechanism that makes it work. The argument is always forwarded in public by the right as this: Because anti-choicers pay taxes, they get to retain control over that money. Never mind that the government has all sorts of programs that various groups don’t like. Anti-choicers have successfully secured in the public mind that they, unlike everyone else, have a special right to retain control over money after they’ve relinquished it.
That’s why we should be very afraid that they will get away with expanding that nonsense argument to insurance companies. Once the claim has been established that an anti-choicer retains control over a dollar after he’s given it to someone else—whether a private entity like an insurance company or a public entity like the government—there’s no reason not to expand it to other institutions. Like pharmacies. Or, and this is where I really start to worry, banks.
After all, banks work on the exact same principle as insurance companies. You give them a certain amount of money and it’s not like they put it in a little vault with your name on it. They put it into a pool that everyone pays into and invest it. Your bank account is just what they agree they owe you if you pull it out, just as your benefits are what the insurance company agrees to pay out in exchange for your premiums. Indeed, your insurance plan is much like your bank account: you pay in, you have a little number so they keep track what you’re owed, and you can withdraw what you’re owed from a common pool at certain times based on a prior agreement. And, of course, your deposit is guaranteed even if the bank loses money on their investments because of insurance.
If one account-holder gets to say how all the other accounts are used at an insurance company, then what’s to stop them from trying the same stunt with banks? It’s hard to imagine how that would work, since banks don’t ask you what you’re using it for when you withdraw cash. But banks pay your debts for you, as insurance companies do, in ways beyond just giving you cash you can walk over to the person you want to give money to. They honor checks. They have credit and debit cards. It would be very easy for banks to refuse transactions for abortion or contraception. After all, Obamacare is just a bunch of federal regulations on insurance companies. Banks are also subject to a bunch of federal regulations—and their money is backed by insurance—creating the same sense of justification that anti-choicers have when interfering with insurance coverage.
If nothing else, it’s easy to imagine anti-choicers pressuring legislators to force banks not to hold accounts for abortion providers.
If a common pool means that your insurance plan is controlled by an anti-choicer, then it’s a quick leap to make the same argument about banks. That may seem ludicrous now, but it was ludicrous just a few years ago to imagine that employers would try to opt out of federal labor law based on “religion.” Yet that’s exactly what the Hobby Lobby case going in front of the Supreme Court is about. If that door opens, it’s not a leap to fear banks are next. After all, we are talking about fanatics who spend all day every day seeking for new ways to gain control over women’s lives. Bank accounts are going to be attractive prey, and now they’re building up the legal argument to gain control over them.
The post First They Come for Your Insurance Coverage. Is Your Bank Account Next? appeared first on RH Reality Check.