Isolated incidents

If you read the news regularly, you may have noticed that a lot of women die in ‘isolated incidents’. Between 22 May and June 19, for instance, Melissa Belshaw suffered fatal injuries in an isolated incident in Wigan (a man was later charged with her murder); in Stockport a woman’s body was found in a park following another isolated incident (a man was arrested shortly afterwards); and in a further isolated incident outside Norwich, Gemma Cowey was stabbed to death while walking in the grounds of a disused psychiatric hospital (the police arrested a man who has since been identified as her husband).  

The cases I’ve just mentioned are only the first three I found when I searched recent news coverage for the phrase ‘isolated incident’. There have been others: in Britain these ‘isolated’ incidents occur at a rate of 2-3 a week. ‘Isolated incident’ is police-speak, and it’s meant to reassure: ‘don’t worry, this killer isn’t a danger to the public. He only had it in for the woman he killed’. But it’s also shorthand for a larger narrative which frames each killing as a unique personal tragedy–a relationship gone wrong, a man who couldn’t cope, an act of violence that, supposedly, no one saw coming (though it will usually turn out that the victim saw it coming, and not uncommonly that her warnings went unheeded). The existence of a pattern, suggesting a social rather than purely personal problem, is effectively denied.   

Feminists have long argued that the narratives a culture constructs around male violence against women are very much part of the problem. This blog has also made that argument several times before–about rape, sexual harassment, domestic homicide and mass killings perpetrated by self-proclaimed ‘incels’. Stories are powerful, especially when they’re constantly repeated. But what I want to ask in this post is, why do the media go on repeating them?  

It’s not because no one ever complains. Every so often, the reporting of a case will prompt an outcry. In February, protesters in Mexico targeted the offices of La Prensa after it reported on the Valentine’s Day murder of Ingrid Escamilla under the headline ‘It was Cupid’s fault’. Last year there was anger about the media’s coverage of the trial in New Zealand of the man who was ultimately convicted of murdering the British tourist Grace Millane. More recently, the Sun newspaper’s decision to run a front page story headlined ‘I slapped JK and I’m not sorry’ (‘I’ being JK Rowling’s first husband, whose abusive behaviour during their marriage she had written about on her website) prompted over 500 complaints to the press regulator IPSO.  But the effect, if any, is usually short-lived. Even if the media have been forced to apologise for one story, the same narratives invariably reappear the next time around. 

The piece I’ve just linked to about the Millane trial offers one explanation:

Sadly, profit is and always has been the solitary pursuit of any given news outlet, and cultural appetites for stories featuring details of violence against women are seemingly insatiable. 

But while I don’t dispute the importance of the profit-motive, I think we also need to pay attention to the way news stories are produced, and the way certain narratives get entrenched and normalised through the routine reporting of ‘ordinary’ cases. 

To explain what I mean, I’m going to focus on an example I came across back in February. More exactly, I saw the headline which had appeared in the Independent: ‘Teenager pushed woman over balcony after she rejected his advances during houseparty’. The case was in the news because the trial had just ended, and the defendant, 19-year old Yusef Ali, had been found guilty of causing grievous bodily harm to the 18-year old woman he pushed over a balcony (she fell four storeys to the ground, sustaining serious injuries to her back and neck). I decided to look more closely at the way this story had been reported across a range of media outlets.

I chose this example because it was ordinary: a bread-and-butter Crown Court case which was not seen as newsworthy enough to merit blanket media coverage (but for a single ‘spectacular’ detail–the balcony–it might only have been covered in the local press). The sample of reports I managed to compile included items from two national newspapers (the ‘quality’ Independent and the tabloid Sun), two free papers aimed at commuters (the Metro and the Standard) and one local paper (Southwark News), plus the website of one national TV news channel (Sky) and–as an example of non-mainstream coverage–the Christian webzine Joy 105.com. 

I also found two other important texts: the statements issued at the end of the trial by the Metropolitan Police and the Crown Prosecution Service. They’re important because it was clear they had served as the main if not the only sources for the news reports in my sample. Pressure to minimise costs (which also means staff) has made the news media increasingly reliant on official statements and press releases. Unless a trial is a major news event, they’re unlikely to send a reporter to observe the proceedings directly. That’s one reason why the reports are all so similar: their writers are working from the same sources, reproducing the same information (complete with the same gaps) and not uncommonly recycling large chunks of the text, right down to individual words and phrases.

Before I look more closely at some of those words and phrases, let me outline the facts of this case. In August 2019 Yusef Ali and a friend hired a fourth-floor flat in a building in Bermondsey where they planned to host an all-night party. Word of this event spread, and the young woman who became Ali’s victim was among a number of people who turned up on spec. According to witnesses Ali immediately began harassing her: he grabbed her neck, pulled her hair and slid his hand through a slit in her jeans to touch her thigh, telling her ‘this is what I do in bed’. Witnesses described her as becoming agitated, but they also said she made no direct response. Later Ali got into a fight with a group of men; as it escalated he took a knife from the kitchen and started lashing out indiscriminately. Other guests began to flee, including the woman he had harassed. But as she waited for the lift, he ran at her and pushed her over an internal balcony. He then tried to leave the building, but the police had been alerted and were waiting to arrest him. 

When the case came to trial the court heard that the young woman had been lucky to survive. Six months on, she was no longer in a wheelchair, but she was still unable to work or study. Clearly she had suffered a very serious, unprovoked assault. Yet that wasn’t quite how the media told the story. The way they told it reflects some troubling assumptions about men and women, sex and violence.  

For the purposes of this post I’m going to concentrate on the headlines. Research has shown that headlines are important (they’re also one thing news outlets don’t generally copy from press releases). It’s not just that for many readers (those who scroll through without clicking) the headline effectively is the story;  even for those who do read on, it’s been shown experimentally that headlines prime us to read what follows in particular ways, and that the presence of clarifying details in the story doesn’t always dispel assumptions based on the initial reading of the headline. With that in mind, let’s look at the headlines in my sample. 

  • Teenager pushed woman over balcony after she rejected his advances during houseparty (Independent)
  • EVIL REJECT: Teenager pushed girl, 18, off luxury flat’s 40ft balcony after she spurned his advances at a party (Sun)
  • Man found guilty of pushing teen who rejected his advances off fourth-floor balcony in south London (Standard)
  • Party host pushed girl off balcony after she rejected his advances (Metro)
  • Man pushed woman from fourth-floor balcony in SE1’s Long Lane after making inappropriate advances to her at a party (Southwark News)
  • A man has been convicted after pushing an 18-year-old woman off a fourth-floor balcony after she rejected his advances and stabbing two people at a party he was hosting (Sky News)
  • This 19 year old boy was flirting with this 18 year old girl: she declined and he pushed her off a balcony (Joy 105)

These headlines show some variation, but there are also some striking similarities. Most strikingly, four out of seven include the formula ‘rejected his advances’, while a fifth, the Sun’s, offers ‘spurned his advances’. Southwark News has ‘inappropriate advances’. Only Joy 105’s headline avoids the term ‘advances’ (though the word does appear in the story, along with ‘spurned’): instead it describes Ali’s behaviour as ‘flirting’ and tells us that the victim ‘declined’.

The fact that so many reports converged on the same or very similar formulas suggests that the writers were working from the same template–the CPS statement, which contains both ‘rejected his advances’ and ‘inappropriate advances’. It doesn’t have ‘spurned’, but it does describe Ali as ‘scorned’ (‘a scorned man who pushed a girl off a balcony after she rejected his advances’). It also describes him as behaving ‘disrespectfully’ towards the victim, and that word too appears in several reports.

The first objectionable thing about this is the mismatch between the language and the acts it describes. In what universe does grabbing someone you’ve never met or spoken to by the neck, pulling her hair and sliding your hand underneath her clothing constitute an ‘advance’, or ‘flirting’? Those terms belong to the lexicon of courtship: they denote ways of signalling sexual interest using words, gaze, posture and perhaps innocuous forms of touching, as part of an initial negotiation that may (or may not) lead to more intimate physical contact. What Ali did was far more aggressive: ‘inappropriate‘ and ‘disrespectful’ don’t begin to cover it. 

The second objectionable thing is the use of ‘rejected’, ‘spurned’ and ‘scorned’ to describe the woman’s response to Ali. Even the more neutral ‘declined’ suggests a level of engagement that’s at odds with witness testimony that the woman’s resistance was entirely passive. It’s a stretch to equate her non-response with actively ‘rejecting’, let alone ‘spurning’ or ‘scorning’ her assailant (verbs which imply that she set out to humiliate him). And that equation is significant, because it’s the basis for a narrative in which his later attack on her was payback for the earlier ‘rejection’.

I don’t think this is deliberate victim-blaming. All the reports are unsympathetic to Ali: the story ‘he pushed her over a balcony because she rejected his advances’ is told to explain his behaviour, not excuse it. But that’s still a problem, because it depends on an assumption that does get used to blame victims, and more generally puts the onus on women to prevent or contain male violence. It assumes that men will ‘naturally’ feel aggrieved when women don’t reciprocate their sexual interest. That’s one of the axioms of rape culture: it’s something every girl is taught she must manage. She must learn how to ‘let him down lightly’, in case he treats her lack of interest as a provocation. Men’s inability to tolerate rejection is also a common trope in reports on domestic homicide, where perpetrators are often said to have ‘snapped’ after a woman ended a relationship.

Can these narratives be changed? Feminists have tried: in 2018, for instance, the campaign group Level Up produced new guidelines for the British media on the reporting of domestic homicide, and in 2019 they succeeded in getting them endorsed by the press regulators IPSO and IMPRESS. Though newspapers are not obliged to follow them, the regulators’ endorsement does establish them as recommendations for ‘best practice’, and in theory that should strengthen the hand of anyone who complains about a breach. 

But complaining isn’t always a solution. It’s probably most effective in a case like the Sun’s ‘I slapped JK’ story, when the issue is a single newspaper overstepping the mark on a particular occasion. It’s not so useful when whatever you’re complaining about appears in every paper’s version of the same events.

Formulas like ‘isolated incident’ and ‘rejected/spurned his advances’ are not unusual or sensational: rather they are normalised and taken for granted. You can’t complain that they ‘overstep the mark’, because they are the mark; they’re clichés writers reach for (or copy and paste from other sources) because they’re seen as the obvious way to tell a certain kind of story. Of course it’s important to keep trying to raise awareness; but when even the CPS, the institution responsible for prosecuting crime, talks about ‘scorned men’ and ‘inappropriate advances’, it’s clear we still have a long way to go.

More bad news about rape

In my round-up of 2019 I chose ‘rape’ and ‘rapist’ as my Words of the Year—partly as a protest against the way those words are avoided in many public discussions of sexual violence, and partly as a tribute to the women in Spain, Chile and elsewhere who used them so powerfully in public protests. I predicted that this story would continue in 2020, and sure enough, it has.

The Chilean anthem ‘Un violador en tu camino’ (‘A rapist in your path’) was performed again last week, in both Spanish and English, outside the New York City courtroom where the trial of Harvey Weinstein has now begun. In New York he is on trial for rape and sexual assault, and he has just been charged with the same offences in Los Angeles, where prosecutors reportedly considered bringing criminal charges in relation to eight different women’s complaints. In New York there are two complainants, but the court will hear supporting testimony from at least one woman whose case can’t be prosecuted because the events took place too long ago. Complaints that could potentially lead to further charges, including rape charges, have also been made in Britain and France.

In the light of all this, it is hardly controversial to refer to Harvey Weinstein as an ‘alleged rapist’. Yet on January 6, a report on BBC Radio prompted Sophie Walker to tweet:

Hey @BBCRadio4 there’s a clear, short word that you’re overlooking every time your journalist refers to allegations of ‘non-consensual sex’ against #HarveyWeinstein. Please use it. #rape

One reply to this tweet, from someone whose bio identified him as a journalism student, said: ‘I think they’re tied legally to not use the word rape. Frustrating but it could impact the case against Mr Weinstein’. I’ve seen this argument being made in other cases: it seems to be an increasingly widespread belief that using the word ‘rape’ (even qualified with ‘alleged’) before there has been a conviction is in itself prejudicial, and that its avoidance is legally required.

But this is a misconception. ‘The case against Mr Weinstein’ is, precisely, the case that he has committed what the laws of the state of New York define as the criminal offence of rape. That is what he is on trial for. So long as the media do not say or imply that he is guilty, it surely cannot be prejudicial for them to describe his alleged offence using the same word that appears on the indictment. On the contrary, if their job is to report the facts, there is no justification for not using that word. Substituting less ‘emotive’ terms implies a judgment which it is not their place to make.

The BBC has not consistently avoided the word ‘rape’ in its coverage of the Weinstein case. In a detailed timeline published on its website that word is used many times—it appears in every instance where a complainant has alleged that Weinstein raped or attempted to rape her. However, the piece does use the term ‘non-consensual sex’ when reporting statements made by Weinstein or his representatives. For instance, in relation to a rape allegation made by Rose McGowan in 2017, it says that ‘Weinstein has “unequivocally denied” any allegations of non-consensual sex in a statement released through his publicist’.

The placement of quotation marks here implies that ‘unequivocally denied’ is the only verbatim quote from the statement, but the fact that ‘non-consensual sex’ always appears in reference to Weinstein’s denials suggests that this phrase may also have been taken from that source. Either way, it raises questions. If the BBC is reproducing the language of the statement (without making that clear by putting the whole thing in quotation marks), does that give an accused rapist too much influence over the terms in which his case is reported? If ‘non-consensual sex’ is the BBC’s own wording, what’s the thinking behind that editorial choice?

Maybe they think it makes no difference, because (at least in jurisdictions which treat the absence of consent as a defining feature of the offence), ‘non-consensual sex’ means the same thing as ‘rape/sexual assault’. But I suspect Donna Rotunno, the lawyer in charge of Weinstein’s defence, knows better. Rotunno told an interviewer last September (as quoted in another piece on the BBC website) that

Any time we talk about men and women in sexual circumstances, I think we have to look at the fact that there’s always an area of grey. So there are these blurred lines, and I think sometimes one side walks away from an event feeling different from the other.

I think Rotunno understands why using ‘non-consensual sex’ rather than ‘rape’ (even when the message is that your client ‘unequivocally denies’ it) does make a difference. It’s not just that ‘rape’ is an emotive term. When you avoid what seems like the obvious word to use in a particular context, that prompts the recipient of the message to look for some unstated proposition that would explain the avoidance. In this case the conclusion a lot of people will come to is the one Rotunno spells out in the remarks just quoted, that there are ‘grey areas’ and ‘blurred lines’; it is possible for sex to be in some sense ‘non-consensual’ while still not quite counting as rape. For instance, it remains a widespread view that if a woman didn’t communicate her refusal clearly, the man can’t be blamed for (wrongly) thinking she consented. Maybe he’s obtuse but he’s not a rapist.

This is a belief Rotunno has clearly set out to foster in her presentation of her client, making a number of statements to the effect that his behaviour, though perhaps morally questionable, falls ultimately on the legal side of the line. (‘I’m not here to say he was not guilty of committing sins, but there’s a difference between sins and crimes’.) And it can only help her cause if the media use phraseology that supports this thesis.

There are worse offenders than the BBC. Rotunno has attracted a lot of media attention, not only because there’s so much interest in the case, but also because a woman defending someone like Harvey Weinstein is newsworthy in her own right (as Grazia put it, she’s ‘someone many are curious to get to know’). In profiles and other ‘soft’ pieces she’s been able to make controversial statements about Weinstein’s accusers without being seriously challenged. But while the BBC may not have given that kind of platform to people on Weinstein’s payroll, it still needs to think carefully about the way interested parties may be actively trying to manipulate the terms in which a story is reported.

This is not the only recent instance where the BBC has used questionable language. It has also done so in its reporting of the case of a young British woman who reported that she had been raped by a group of twelve young Israeli men in Ayia Napa, Cyprus. Later, following a lengthy police interrogation conducted without a lawyer present, the woman signed a statement retracting her original report. The men she had accused were allowed to leave Cyprus, while she was put on trial for causing ‘public mischief’, and eventually given a (suspended) sentence of four months in prison.

This case has prompted concern because there are reasons to think the woman’s rights may have been violated. She herself maintains that her retraction statement was dictated to her by the police, and that she signed it under duress. A forensic linguist who has analysed the statement believes it was composed by someone whose first language was not English. This linguist, Andrea Nini, was interviewed on the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire programme last week. In a clip from the interview which was tweeted out from the programme’s account, you can see a ribbon at the bottom of the screen reporting on a rally which had been organised to support the woman and protest her treatment by the authorities. The caption reads: ‘Rally in support of woman in Cyprus “rape” case’.

What is going on with those scare quotes around the word ‘rape’?

My guess is that the formulation ‘Cyprus “rape” case’ was meant to convey a neutral or non-committal stance on the question of whether the woman had been raped. Since her allegation remains unproven, because the suspects were released without trial—but at the same time, the finding that she lied can no longer be considered definitive because of evidence that casts doubt on the authenticity of her retraction statement—the caption writer may been looking for a form of words that would not commit the BBC to either of the two competing narratives (that the woman was raped and then forced to retract her complaint, or that the original allegation was false).

But if that was the objective, putting ‘rape’ in scare quotes did not achieve it. Scare quotes are a distancing device, a signal that whatever the quote marks enclose should not be taken at face value. But the stance their use conveys is not agnosticism or lack of certainty, it is scepticism or disbelief. (Scare quotes can also signal irony or mockery, but in relation to rape that’s a less likely interpretation.) So, while it may not have been intentional, the caption’s reference to the ‘Cyprus “rape” case’ is likely to have been taken as supporting the false allegation narrative.

Perhaps the caption could have referred to the ‘Cyprus rape controversy’: that’s compatible with the understanding that the facts are disputed, but it doesn’t suggest the BBC itself is taking sides. However, in this context I don’t think it would have been unreasonable to use the phrase ‘rape case’ without scare-quotes. ‘Rape case’ does not just have the meaning ‘court case in which someone has been found guilty of rape’, and we really need to push back against the idea that the word can only be used in that very narrow sense. Those who think its use should be restricted in this way may be sincerely concerned about protecting defendants’ right to a fair trial, but they seem to have difficulty grasping the point that reports which systematically avoid the word ‘rape’, put it in scare quotes or replace it with euphemisms, are not just neutral and inconsequential.

As the Glasgow Media Group long ago pointed out in an analysis of the reporting of industrial disputes (where it was always the management who made ‘offers’ while the unions made ‘demands’ or ‘threats’), the repetition of certain formulas over time tends to normalise their underlying assumptions. What is normalised by the repeated avoidance of the word ‘rape’ is the assumption that complainants’ accounts should be approached with extreme suspicion. And according to this in-depth investigation, that suspicion—the author calls it an ‘epidemic of disbelief’–is the single most important reason why so many rapists are never brought to justice.

This doesn’t just harm individual complainants. If we as a society have an interest in seeing rapists brought to justice, reporting that normalises disbelief cannot be said to serve the public interest. The BBC is not the only or the worst offender, but as a public service broadcaster it should arguably be setting a higher standard. When the story is sexual violence, it really needs to sort its language out.

2019: (not) the end of an era

In a couple of days’ time we’ll be marking not just the passing of another year, but by most people’s reckoning the end of the current decade. All kinds of commentators will be looking back over the last ten years, and many will turn to language (or at least, vocabulary) as a source of insight about what mattered in the 2010s. They’ll remind us this was the decade that gave us ‘Brexit’, ‘fake news’, the ‘gig economy’ and ‘influencers’; it was when ‘climate change’ became the ‘climate emergency’, and when global protest movements formed around the hashtags #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo.

This approach to documenting social trends—epitomised by the annual ritual in which dictionaries select a Word of the Year (WOTY)—has its limitations. It doesn’t capture the preoccupations of the speech community as a whole (if I quizzed a sample of my neighbours on the vocabulary items listed in the last paragraph, asking ‘have you come across this expression, can you define it, have you ever used it yourself?’, I suspect that only one item—‘Brexit’—would get affirmative answers across the board). It also imposes artificial temporal boundaries on a much messier reality: though some notable linguistic developments can be tied to specific events and dates, most don’t fit neatly into a single year or even a decade. In addition, the search for zeitgeist-defining terms encourages a focus on what’s new or what’s changed, though arguably it’s no less important (and may even be more revealing) to consider what has stayed the same.

That last point will be reflected in my own attempt to summarise the decade. When I look at this blog’s archive (over 100 posts going back to 2015) I see more continuity than change. The specifics differ from year to year, but the same general themes recur; and I’m sure they would have featured just as prominently if I’d started blogging in 2010. So, in this post I’m going to pick out (in no particular order) my top five recurring themes, using the way they presented themselves in 2019 as a starting point for some reflections on what has—or hasn’t—changed during the 2010s.

1. The return of crass sexism

In January this year, after belatedly learning that she had died, I wrote a post about the writer and editor Marie Shear, who will be remembered for her definition of feminism as ‘the radical notion that women are people’. She was also a sharp and uncompromising critic of sexist language, and the author of a widely-read piece which described what she called its ‘daily toll’: a continual insidious wearing down of women’s dignity and self-esteem whose cumulative effects she thought were too often underestimated.

Shear wrote this piece in 2010, at a time when sexist language had become an unfashionable topic. In the noughties some writers had argued that the overt sexism feminists had criticised in the 1970s was no longer a major issue: it survived only among ageing dinosaurs (like the surgeon in Shear’s opening anecdote) who would not walk the earth for much longer. Attention had turned to the subtler forms of sexism that were said to be more typical of the postmodern, ‘postfeminist’ era. But while postmodern sexism is still a thing (particularly in advertising and branding), the 2010s turned out to be the decade in which crassly sexist and misogynist language returned with a vengeance to the public sphere.

I say ‘with a vengeance’ because the crassness was more extreme this time around. In the past, the norms of mainstream public discourse discouraged the grossest expressions of contempt for women—they were reserved for taboo-busting radio shock jocks and men talking among themselves. But the 2010s saw the rise of public figures–most notably populist ‘strongman’ leaders like Donald Trump and Rodrigo Duterte–whose speech was not constrained by older notions of decorum (or gravitas, or honesty, or any other traditional public virtue). Crude misogyny is part of these men’s brand: I’ll leave aside Trump’s infamous reference to ‘grabbing [women] by the pussy’, since it wasn’t intended for public consumption; but think of his comment, made on CNN in 2015, that the journalist Megyn Kelly ‘had blood coming out of her wherever’ (her offence had been to question Trump about his earlier references to women as ‘dogs’ and ‘fat pigs’). In 2019 Britain got its own imitation strongman leader, Boris Johnson, who specialises in the crass sexism of the public school playground, denouncing his (male) opponents as ‘girly swots’ and ‘big girls’ blouses’.

But you didn’t have to be a political leader to broadcast male supremacist messages to a global audience. The internet gave ‘ordinary’ men with a grudge against women—incels, pick-up artists, MGTOWs et al—a megaphone for their misogyny (and for the violent fantasies which some of them, like Alek Minassian, would go on to enact in reality, making 2018 the year when mainstream, nonfeminist commentators started to talk about  ‘incels’, ‘misogyny’ and ‘toxic masculinity’). Not dissimilar messages also circulated under the banner of ‘harmless fun’. For instance, one of the items I reproduced in a post about greeting cards this year bore the message: ‘Women. Can’t live with them, can’t shoot them and bury them in the garden’. Which brings me to the second major theme of the decade…

2. The linguistic (mis)representation of sexual violence

Any feminist survey of the 2010s will be bound to treat the #MeToo movement as one of the most significant developments, if not the most significant, of the last ten years (the hashtag would be an obvious candidate for the feminist Word of the Decade.) But #MeToo also dramatized what for me was probably the most troubling linguistic trend of the decade: an increasingly marked reluctance on the part of institutions—educational establishments, the criminal justice system and above all the media—to name sexual violence and those who perpetrate it without equivocation, euphemism and overt or covert victim-blaming.

In 2017 and 2018, as #MeToo allegations multiplied, the media converged on a couple of phrases which were repeated ad infinitum: the whole spectrum of abuse, up to and including rape, was now covered (or covered up) by the bland euphemisms ‘inappropriate behaviour’ and ‘sexual misconduct’. This vague, affectless language was a boon to anyone who wanted to argue that the women making allegations were lying, exaggerating, reframing consensual exchanges of sexual for professional favours as abuse, or simply making a fuss about nothing (‘can’t men even flirt now without being accused of misconduct?’)

In 2019 we saw a similar pattern in reports on the case of Jeffrey Epstein, who was charged with child abuse and trafficking (though he killed himself in prison before he could stand trial). Oxymoronic terms like ‘underage women’ were used to describe girls who at the time were 14 or 15; and when attention turned, after Epstein’s death, to the actions of other men the victims had named, the words ‘rape’, ‘assault’ and ‘abuse’ were conspicuous by their absence.

Earlier in the year, most news outlets had even resisted using those words without qualification when reporting on the case of a severely disabled woman who unexpectedly gave birth in the care facility where she had spent most of her life. Though she could only have become pregnant as the result of a criminal assault—her vegetative state rendered her legally and medically incapable of consenting to sex (and also of lying about it)—reporters’ first impulse was still to hedge their statements with doubt-indicating words like ‘alleged’, ‘apparent’ and ‘possible’.

But in the last part of 2019 there were some memorable protests in which feminists harnessed the power of the R-word. In Spain, women who were disgusted by the verdict in a gang-rape case—the perpetrators were convicted only of ‘abuse’, because they had not used physical force against their barely-conscious victim—took to the streets to protest, shouting ‘no es abuso, es violación’ (‘it’s not abuse, it’s rape’). And in Chile on November 25, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, women gathered outside the Supreme Court to perform a chant which has since been taken up around the world (its title in English is ‘The rapist in your path’), calling attention to the way individual men’s ability to rape and kill with impunity depends on a larger culture of complicity and victim-blaming.

In acknowledgment of the power of these protests, and because nothing has made me angrier this year than reading about men ‘having sex’ with 14-year olds or police investigating a ‘possible/alleged assault’ on a woman who gave birth while in a vegetative state, I choose ‘rape’ and ‘rapist’ as my words of the year for 2019.

3. Curious contradictions: the case of the authoritative woman speaker

Among the themes which have recurred in each of the four-and-a-half years of this blog’s existence are two that, taken together, embody a stark contradiction. On one hand, women are constantly castigated because their speech allegedly ‘lacks authority’: how can they expect to be taken seriously when they’re forever apologising and hedging every request with ‘just’? On the other hand, women who do speak with authority are constantly criticised for being ‘angry’, ‘abrasive’, ‘arrogant’, ‘bossy’, ‘immodest’, ‘shrill‘, ‘strident’ and generally ‘unlikable’.

This familiar contradiction was on show again this year. We had more of the same old bullshit about ‘sorry’, ‘just’ and other female ‘verbal tics’, and more complaints about high-profile women leaders being ‘strident’ (teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg), bossy and ‘self-righteous’ (Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson), ‘angry’ (Democratic presidential hopefuls Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris) and ‘unlikable’ (every woman in the race for the Democratic nomination).

More unusually, two women—Marie Yovanovitch and Fiona Hill—attracted praise for their authoritative testimony during the proceedings that led to Donald Trump’s impeachment by the US House of Representatives. Unfortunately, I don’t think this is a sign of things to come. The positive reception Yovanovitch and Hill got was linked to their status as non-partisan public servants, and the same courtesy is unlikely to be extended to any of the female politicians who are still in the running for next year’s presidential election. It’s one thing for a woman to have authority thrust upon her, but actively seeking it is a different matter. Powerful and politically outspoken women will still, I predict, be ‘unlikable’ in 2020.

4. Studies show that women are rubbish

The training course where women executives at the accounting firm Ernst & Young learned that women’s brains are like pancakes and men’s are more like waffles (as reported in October by the Huffington Post) almost certainly wasn’t based on any actual science (or if it was, whoever designed the course should get the Allen and Barbara Pease Memorial Award for Neurobollocks). But while science can’t be held responsible for all the sexist drivel that gets talked in its name, it shouldn’t get a free pass either.

In the 90s and noughties we were endlessly told that women were naturally better communicators than men, but in the 2010s there’s been something of a shift: there are, it transpires, certain kinds of communication in which it’s men who are hard-wired to excel. This year, for instance, a widely-reported meta-analytic study put together the findings of 28 experiments investigating the proposition that men are better than women at using language to make others laugh. The conclusion was that men really do have more ‘humor ability’ than women, probably because this ability is ‘correlated with intelligence’, and as such is a useful diagnostic when females assess the fitness of potential mates. (Ah, evolutionary psychology: a 90s/noughties trend which sadly didn’t die in the 2010s.)

It isn’t hard to pick holes in these studies; but while it’s important to interrogate specific claims about why women are rubbish at [fill in the blank], we also need to ask more basic questions about why so much research of this kind gets done in the first place. What interests are served by this unceasing quest for evidence that sex-stereotypes and the judgments based upon them reflect innate differences in the abilities and aptitudes of men and women?

Another study published this year on the subject of gender and humour found that women who used humour in a professional context were perceived to be lacking in competence and commitment. This had nothing to do with their ‘humor ability’: in this study, subjects watched either a man or a woman (both actors) giving exactly the same scripted presentation, complete with identical jokes. But whereas the man’s humour was perceived as enhancing his professional effectiveness, the woman’s was perceived as detracting from it.

What this illustrates is the general principle that the same verbal behaviour will attract different judgments depending on the speaker’s sex. Judgments about women and humour are similar to judgments about authoritative female speakers, and they embody the same contradiction: women are widely disparaged for lacking humour, but those who don’t lack humour are disparaged as incompetent lightweights. What explains this effect–‘heads men win, tails women lose’–isn’t women’s behaviour or their natural abilities: it’s a consequence of sexism, which science too often reinforces.

5. The War of the W-word

In my round-up of 2018 I wrote at length about the increasingly contested status of the word ‘woman’, whose definition, use, avoidance and even spelling prompted heated arguments throughout the year. This isn’t totally unprecedented: as I’ve said before (beginning in my very first post), the W-word has a longer record of causing controversy than many people realise. But its current contentiousness is linked to something that is specific to the 2010s—the rise of a new politics of gender identity, which has also influenced language in other ways. It’s a development that divides feminists, and the kind of conflict we saw so much of in 2018 will undoubtedly continue in the 2020s.

In 2019, however, the most notable controversy about ‘woman’ was much more old-school. It started when the feminist Maria Beatrice Giovanardi was looking for a name for a women’s rights project she was working on. In search of inspiration she typed the word ‘woman’ into Google, and was shocked when her search returned a series of online dictionary entries full of offensive synonyms (‘bitch’, ‘chick’, ‘filly’) and insultingly sexist examples of usage (‘one of his sophisticated London women’; ‘male fisherfolk who take their catch home for the little woman to gut’). When Giovanardi started a petition calling on Oxford Dictionaries to change their entry, her intervention attracted extensive media interest, and by September the petition had over 30,000 signatures.

This is a good illustration of the point I made earlier—that the advent of new concerns does not mean the old ones become irrelevant. What Giovanardi drew attention to is one of many examples of the quiet survival of ‘banal sexism’, the kind of tediously familiar, low-level stuff whose ‘daily toll’ Marie Shear warned us not to underestimate. In the past five years I have come to agree with Shear. It’s striking to me that many of the most popular posts on this blog have been about things that would never register on any trend spotter’s radar: old chestnuts like ‘should women take their husband’s names?’, and ‘does swearing make women unattractive?’, which I could equally have written about at any time in the last 40 years, are still significant issues for many women. If feminism had started a linguistic to-do list in 1975, it would certainly be a lot longer now, but very few of the original items would actually have been crossed off.

So am I saying the next decade will look a lot like the last one? Yes: though change is a constant, in language and in life, what we mostly see is evolution, not revolution. That was true in the 2010s, and—barring some catastrophe that puts an end to civilisation as we know it—it will also be true in the 2020s. I know that’s not much of a prediction, and maybe not the happiest of thoughts when you look at the current state of the world, but there it is: we are where we are, and all we can do is keep going. I wish readers of this blog a happy new year/new decade (thanks as always to all the other feminists and/or linguists whose work I’ve drawn on in 2019), and I’ll see you on the other side.

We need to talk about rape

Content note: this post does what its title suggests

When is a rape not a rape? The answer, apparently, is ‘most of the time’.  Of more than 58,000 rapes reported to the police in England and Wales last year, only 1758 resulted in anyone being charged with rape, let alone convicted. Of course there are legitimate reasons why some cases aren’t pursued. Some rapists are never caught; some complainants are too traumatised to participate in the long and gruelling process of bringing a perpetrator to justice. (And yes, a small percentage of reports—as with any crime—may turn out on investigation to be untrue.) But the number of reported rapes that disappear into the void—that get ‘no-crimed’, reclassified, put on the back burner, or abruptly dropped without charge—suggests a deeper and more systemic problem. As EVAW, the End Violence Against Women Coalition, said last month, the chance that a rapist will be convicted is now so small, rape is ‘effectively being decriminalised’.

Language can also make rape disappear. When I called this post ‘we need to talk about rape’, what I meant was that we need to talk about the word ‘rape’: how it’s used, when it’s avoided, and how that both reflects and contributes to a culture of impunity and injustice.

Earlier this year, when the victims’ commissioner Dame Vera Baird expressed concern about the low rate of rape convictions, one critic accused the QC and former Solicitor-General of failing to grasp a fundamental principle of the justice system. ‘The jury’ he mansplained,

is there to ensure that what gains a rape conviction is what the general society agrees is indeed rape. That’s actually the point.

Though I do not draw the same conclusion this writer does–that the system is working as it should–he is surely right to say that the treatment of rape in the justice system is affected by ‘what the general society agrees is indeed rape’. From a feminist perspective that’s exactly the problem: what is generally agreed to be rape overlaps only partially with what women experience and report as rape, or even with what the law defines as rape. There’s a mismatch between the legal definition (which in England and Wales, as in many other modern jurisdictions, centres on the absence of consent, or of a ‘reasonable belief’ in consent) and the common-sense understanding people carry in their heads.

One place where you can see this mismatch is in language, which is both an expression of our cultural common sense and a means through which it is reproduced. That’s why I think it’s instructive to examine the way words like ‘rape’ are used–or, just as importantly, not used–in public discourse. Here I’m going to concentrate mainly on the language of the media, whose reporting both reflects and shapes public opinion. How do the media talk about rape? What tacit assumptions underlie their linguistic choices?

I’ll start with a case that made headlines at the end of August, when Virginia Roberts Giuffre, one of the victims of the now-deceased child abuser and trafficker Jeffrey Epstein, made a public statement in which she described three coerced sexual encounters with Prince Andrew. (For the record, he denies this.) The first two took place when she was 17, and in Florida, where she made a sworn statement of these facts in 2011, a 17-year old is below the legal age of consent. It is also illegal, not just in Florida but in most jurisdictions, to make use of the sexual services of a person under the age of 18. Furthermore, Giuffre’s statement made clear that even if she had possessed the legal capacity to consent, she was not, and did not act like, a willing participant.

If ‘rape’ means sex without consent, then what Giuffre alleged in her statement was rape (or in legal terms, possibly, depending on the details, sexual assault). But as a number of people noted on Twitter, the word ‘rape’ did not appear in any of the news reports, which in most cases used the formula ‘forced to have sex’. Though ‘forced’ obviously implies coercion, those who tweeted about it saw ‘forced to have sex’ as a euphemism, deliberately avoiding the strongest term the English language makes available for describing non-consensual sex. And many evidently suspected that the reason for that avoidance was Andrew’s status as a member of the royal family.

My own explanation is different. While I’m sure the media were keen to avoid suggesting that the Queen’s son might be a rapist, the fact is that they also avoid the term ‘rape’ (or ‘alleged rape’) in many ‘ordinary’ cases. This avoidance, as we’ll see, reflects various assumptions about what rape is and what it isn’t. In this case, I think the basis for those assumptions was not the status of the people involved but the context in which their encounters took place.

‘Forced to have sex’ is an agent-deleted passive: once you make it active, you see that the grammatical subject and semantic agent of the verb ‘force’ is not Prince Andrew but Jeffrey Epstein. The underlying structure, in other words, is ‘A forced B to have sex with C’. And in this scenario, where one man (let’s call him a pimp) makes a contract with another (a punter–though in this case not a paying punter: girls were ‘loaned’ to Epstein’s associates without charge), we do not generally call either man’s actions ‘rape’. We only think of it as rape when the two roles, forcing someone to have sex and actually having sex with them, are played by the same individual.

It is also typically assumed that sexual encounters of this type must be consensual by definition, because that’s what punters pay for, and because women who sell or are sold for sex have neither the right nor any reason to refuse (prostitutes who make rape complaints tend to get particularly short shrift from the police.) Repulsive though feminists may find them, these assumptions are widely accepted, and they explain why the word ‘rape’ is rarely considered applicable to this kind of situation.

But it should not be thought that this is the only context in which the media prefer formulas that do not contain the ‘R-word’; the same avoidance can be observed in almost all contexts. Jane Gilmore, the Australian feminist behind the ‘Fixed It’ project, where she takes a red pen to sexist headlines and publishes a screenshot of her amended version with the caption ‘here you go [name of media outlet], I fixed it for you’, is particularly exercised by the persistent use of the word ‘sex’ rather than ‘rape’ in reports on rape cases, even though the media could meet their legal obligation not to prejudice criminal proceedings simply by adding the modifier ‘alleged’. cropped-fixedit_ex-cop-rape-400x468.jpgAs Gilmore says, this is not how they approach the reporting of other crimes which no one has yet been convicted of. If someone is accused of stealing a car, the media feel no need to describe them as merely ‘driving’ the car until a jury has convicted them of theft. Even if their defence is ‘I was driving it with the owner’s permission’, words like ‘theft’ or ‘steal’ won’t be completely off-limits. ‘Rape’, however, is a different matter.

I came to similar conclusions while researching an article for the TES on the language used in media reports on child sexual abuse. The reports I read, especially on cases involving adolescent girls, showed a marked reluctance to use either the word ‘rape’ or other words implying criminality, like ‘assault’ or ‘abuse’. For instance, teachers who had been charged with abusing a position of trust were most commonly said to have ‘had sex with’ the teenage pupils they solicited; sometimes they were said to have had a ‘relationship’ or an ‘affair’. The language, in other words, was drawn from the register we would normally use to talk about sex or romance between consenting adults—even when the teacher was a serial offender preying on pupils as young as 13, and even in reports published after he had been convicted.

Why are reports on cases involving children so cautious about words like ‘rape’, ‘assault’ and ‘abuse’? I did wonder if it might be because the actual charge in most of these cases isn’t rape (offences against minors have other names, like ‘sexual activity with a child’). But on reflection I concluded that the charge was not the issue: the avoidance had more to do with two other factors.

One of these factors is a reluctance to use words which imply violence in cases where the perpetrator used emotional and psychological manipulation rather than force or threats. This is how many child abusers operate. In a talk I heard recently about the case of Larry Nassar, the US gymnastics team doctor who abused hundreds of girls over a period of two decades, the journalist Lindsey Smith (who, with her colleague Kate Wells, covered the case for Michigan public radio, and went on to tell some of the survivors’ stories in the award-winning podcast Believed) explained that the main reason Nassar got away with it for so long was his ability to win the trust both of his victims and of their parents and coaches. Teachers who exploit their pupils also rely on trust; perhaps, then, it’s not surprising that the ‘abuse of a position of trust’ cases were the ones where formulas like ‘had sex/a relationship/an affair with’ were most consistently favoured. By using this language, though, the media just repeat the gaslighting which enables this form of abuse to flourish.

The second factor is a tendency to deny or gloss over the power imbalance between adult men and adolescent girls. The language of ‘relationships’ and ‘affairs’ implicitly affirms what Jeffrey Epstein argued explicitly–that teenage girls should not be thought of as vulnerable children. They may be technically underage, but in reality they are sexually and socially mature adults: they neither need nor want protection from the sexual attentions of older men.

Sometimes the denial of girls’ vulnerability is taken to the next level, by representing them as more powerful, calculating and in control than the men who have exploited them. This victim-blaming story is quite often told in court. At one trial in 2015, the judge said, of a 44-year old teacher who had just been convicted of abusing a position of trust by having sex with a 16-year old pupil, that he had been ‘groomed’ by an ‘intelligent and manipulative girl’. Another adolescent victim was described as a vindictive ‘bunny boiler’.

This portrayal of adult men as the real victims, ensnared and manipulated by predatory teenage girls, is a good example of what the philosopher Kate Manne calls ‘himpathy’, our socialised tendency to feel a man’s pain more easily and keenly than we would feel a woman’s, and to give him, wherever possible, the benefit of the doubt. That tendency provides another motive for not naming men’s actions as rape: since everyone agrees that rape is a particularly heinous crime, we must be ultra-cautious about making such a damaging accusation. We see this concern about ruining men’s lives in everything from the reluctance of judges to punish young men with promising futures to the demand that defendants in rape cases should be granted the same anonymity as their victims. Though the world is full of men who have been accused of rape and have not lost everything (think of Roman Polanski and Donald Trump), this may be yet another reason why  people so often shy away from the R-word.

Himpathy can influence attitudes to rape in other, less obvious ways. Earlier this month, the Court of Protection delivered a judgment in the case of a cognitively impaired man who wanted to have sexual relationships, but who had no understanding of consent. In the past he had behaved ‘inappropriately’ towards women, and his carers, worried that he might be arrested for reasons he was unable to comprehend, had put measures in place to prevent this. The judge, however, ruled that those measures infringed his fundamental rights. He was entitled, as she put it, ‘to make the same mistakes which all human beings can, and do, make in the course of a lifetime’.

As the lawyer Ann Olivarius commented on Twitter, the judge seemed wholly indifferent to the consequences of her ruling for the women this man’s carers believed he would victimise. In fact, she actively minimised the threat he posed to women by reframing it in bland, euphemistic language. Talking about ‘mistakes which all human beings can and do make in the course of a lifetime’ suggests that the issue is something commonplace and relatively minor–like the possibility the man might cause offence or embarrassment by making clumsy and unwelcome advances. In reality his carers feared he would commit a serious sexual offence. Few people would describe raping someone as a ‘mistake’, and certainly not as the kind of mistake that ‘all human beings can and do make’ (especially if we think women count as human beings). Of course, the judge could hardly have said, in so many words, ‘this man should have the same freedom to rape women as all other men’. But if you can get past the silences and the euphemisms, is that not, in essence, what her ruling does say?

This year, schools in England and Wales will be required to teach their pupils what the law says about sexual consent. Young people will learn that you have to be 16 to give consent, and that sex without consent is illegal. But outside the classroom the same young people will encounter large quantities of discourse in which non-consensual sexual acts, including acts involving minors, are described in terms that either normalise them (‘sex’, ‘relationship’, ‘affair’) or trivialise them (‘behave inappropriately’, ‘make mistakes’). Which of these conflicting messages do we think they will retain?

We need to talk about rape—by which I mean, talk about it as rape. EHcdN-TVUAAaSgZThe legal definition may have changed, but ‘what the general society agrees is indeed rape’ is still, in many ways, closer to the view Susan Estrich critiqued in her 1987 book Real Rape, according to which rape was only ‘real’ if it involved a savage attack by a stranger on a woman of blameless reputation. (The reporting of this kind of case is the one context in which we don’t see any avoidance of the R-word.) If we want to change the current consensus, we need (among other things) to stop using, or tolerating, language that makes the reality of rape disappear.

 

Postscript

Since I originally wrote this post, two high-profile news stories have underlined its point about the way language is used to downgrade the seriousness of sexual violence against women and children, and to cloak the reality of violence in vagueness and euphemism. They’ve also demonstrated that this isn’t just an English language problem.

In Spain there have been street protests following the decision of a court in Barcelona that six men who gang-raped a 14-year old girl in Manresa in 2016 could only be found guilty of the lesser charge of ‘abusing’ her, because they did not use ‘violence or intimidation’. They didn’t have to, because drink and drugs had rendered their victim incapable of resistance. Although the Spanish penal code does not recognise ‘rape’ as a specific offence (the more serious crime is ‘sexual assault’), ‘rape’ was the word protesters used in denouncing the ruling and calling for the law to be changed to frame the offence in terms of (non-)consent. ‘No es abuso, es violación’–‘It’s not abuse, it’s rape’–they chanted.

In France, the actor Adèle Haenel gave an interview in which she recounted her experience, between the ages of 12 and 15, of being abused by the director Christophe Ruggia. I have chosen the word ‘abused’ because Haenel was a child at the time. The details she has given do not suggest rape (i.e. penetration), but they do indicate a sustained pattern of abusive behaviour–forced touching/kissing and constant unwanted sexual attention–by a much older man towards a minor girl he had power over. But media reports, as usual, preferred other words, like ‘sexual harassment’ (as used in reports on #MeToo cases involving adults in the entertainment industry), and in the case of Screen Daily, the old-fashioned, euphemistic ‘molest’ and ‘molestation’.

What we see in these cases is a pattern whereby the language used, by the courts and/or the media, systematically downgrades the seriousness of whatever behaviour has been complained of. Gang-rape becomes ‘abuse’; child abuse becomes ‘harassment’ or ‘molestation’ (and as we saw at the height of #MeToo, harassment becomes ‘inappropriate behaviour’). The repetition of these formulas establishes them as the ‘official’ reality.

But the Spanish case shows how powerful it can be to challenge this linguistic downgrading. abuse Even where the word ‘rape’ has been removed from the penal code, it remains meaningful–and potent–in everyday language. The protestors are saying, in effect, ‘your patriarchal law cannot define our experience; its language does not speak for us’. (The cartoon alongside captures this sentiment: it’s captioned ‘sorry, but the only one who can decide if you were raped or not is me’.) Spanish feminists have insisted on talking about rape as rape; they have foregrounded the naming of the crime in chants and hashtags (#NoEsAbusoEsViolacion). Wherever we see the same kind of linguistic avoidance and downgrading, we should follow their example.

The illustrations are reproduced from Jane Gilmore’s ‘Fixed It’ project, from the Denver Post (h/t Twitter correspondents Jarvis Good and EwokNews), and from the Facebook page of Campus Relatoras (h/t Pilar Cuder Domínguez)

Unreasonable doubt

Content note: This post deals with the reporting of sexual violence, and contains details of a very distressing case.

In the first week of 2019, news media around the world reported that a woman in a healthcare facility outside Phoenix, Arizona, had unexpectedly given birth to a baby boy. This was not a happy event. The woman had been in a vegetative state since suffering brain damage many years earlier (some reports said ‘over a decade’, others 14 years; later it was suggested she had spent as long as 27 years—by implication, most of her life—in full-time medical care, relying on others to take care of her most basic needs. Yet her pregnancy went unnoticed until, alerted by her moaning, a staff member realized she was in the advanced stages of labour.

Clearly, there are all kinds of questions that need to be asked about this horrific case. And while it isn’t the most important or the most urgent, one of those questions concerns the way it was reported by the media.

Criticism of the media’s coverage of sexual violence often focuses on the twin problems of victim-blaming and ‘himpathy’, the tendency to make excuses for men or to present them as victims themselves. In this case those problems did not arise. But there was another problem with the language used in reports, as you may notice if you look at these examples:

  1. The police in Phoenix have opened an investigation into allegations that a woman in a vegetative state at a private nursing facility was sexually assaulted and gave birth to a child last month (New York Times)
  2. An Arizona health care facility is investigating what it calls a “deeply disturbing incident” that a local television station has said involved the alleged sexual assault of a patient in a vegetative state (People)
  3. Local news outlet KPHO-TV reports that the Phoenix Police Department began investigating the incident as a possible rape case after the woman gave birth on Dec. 29. (Huffington Post)
  4. Police in Phoenix, Arizona, are investigating a possible sexual assault after a woman in a vegetative state gave birth at a healthcare facility on Saturday (Insider.com)
  5. Woman in vegetative state gives birth after apparent assault (ABC News)
  6. She gave birth on December 29 after apparently being raped at the facility some months earlier. (Mail Online)

A fancy name for what concerns me about these examples is ‘epistemic modality’—the expression of meanings relating to certainty or uncertainty, belief or disbelief. Suppose I’ve lost my keys and you ask me when I last had them. I can convey the same basic information—that I had them yesterday—in a range of different ways that communicate different degrees of confidence in the truth of that proposition. I might say, for instance (though there are many other possibilities):

It must/ might/ may/ could have been yesterday
I know/ think/ guess I had them yesterday
It was definitely/ probably/ possibly yesterday
I’m absolutely/ quite/ pretty/ almost sure it was yesterday

I’ve deliberately used a banal example to make the point that we all do this all the time. But in some contexts it’s particularly important to pay attention to this aspect of language. News reporting is one example. In a genre where, proverbially, ‘facts are sacred’, reporters must choose their words to make clear whether a proposition is being presented as a fact, a theory, a belief, a rumour, a supposition, a speculation or an opinion.

In news reports on the Arizona case, the proposition that the woman who gave birth had been sexually assaulted or raped (Arizona’s state law uses the term ‘sexual assault’ for both) was persistently worded in a way that implied a lack of certainty. In the first two examples reproduced above, the assault is said to be ‘alleged’ or an ‘allegation’, i.e. a claim someone has made that could be either true or false. The next two refer to a ‘possible’ sexual assault or rape. In the last two we get ‘apparent(ly)’, which suggests a higher degree of confidence, but stops short of full commitment (‘we don’t know for sure, but this is how it looks’). In everyday talk ‘apparently’ is often used to indicate that a proposition is hearsay, second-hand information whose truth the speaker can’t vouch for independently (e.g., ‘she’s broken up with her girlfriend, apparently’).

I didn’t make a full survey of the coverage, but this was the dominant pattern in the sample of reports I looked at. Among those which did not fit the pattern, most avoided taking any position at all (for instance, by reporting only that the woman had given birth and the police had launched an investigation). I found only one report, in the Washington Post, that expressed a high degree of confidence a crime had been committed:

The birth — and the sexual assault of a vulnerable individual that must have preceded it — has cast a harsh glare on conditions at a nonprofit organization that bills itself as a leading provider of health care for Phoenix’s medically fragile.

By using the modal verb ‘must’, this report presents the proposition that the woman was assaulted as something we are logically obliged to treat as certain. Even if there were no witnesses (or more exactly, none capable of making a statement), there is no other explanation for what some people did witness, the birth of a child to a woman who had been in a vegetative state for (much) longer than the duration of her pregnancy.

To me, and I imagine most readers of this blog, the conclusion drawn by the Post is self-evidently the correct one, while the caution displayed in other sources is excessive. If ‘sexual assault’ is understood to mean sex without consent (which is how Arizona’s legal code defines it), then there is no doubt that this woman was assaulted. Her pregnancy is evidence of sex (or in a hypothetical alternative scenario involving artificial insemination, of a bodily intrusion that would also count as assault by Arizona’s definition), and because of her vegetative state we can be certain that she did not consent, nor do anything that could have been construed as consent. In any case, under Arizona law a person affected by ‘a mental disorder, defect, drugs, alcohol or any type of impairment’ lacks the capacity to consent to sex.

In this case there really are no ifs, buts or maybes: what was done to this woman was a criminal assault. Why couldn’t the media just say so, without all the hedging and equivocating? The impression their language gave was that they didn’t understand either the legal definition of sexual assault or the concept of consent. The hedging invited readers to look for reasons why this might not have been rape, potentially reinforcing well-worn myths like ‘it’s not rape if he doesn’t use force’ and ‘it’s not rape if she doesn’t resist’.  Or in this situation, ‘it’s not rape if she’s in a permanent vegetative state’. (Yes, it’s a horrible thought–but there are men who think it’s not rape if a woman is asleep.)

On Twitter, I saw a number of comments suggesting that cautious language had been used for legal reasons (‘they can’t say it’s rape when it’s still being investigated’). In some cases, it’s true, the legal presumption of innocence obliges the media to remain non-committal on the question of whether a rape occurred. If the defendant in a case is denying he raped the complainant and claiming it was consensual sex, then the complainant’s account of it as rape cannot be presented as factually true, or even as more credible than the alternative, because that would be prejudicial to the defendant, presupposing his guilt before it has been proved ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ (the standard of proof required for a criminal conviction). Unless and until there is a conviction, the complainant’s statement can be presented only as an ‘allegation’. And most rape cases where the disputed issue is consent do not result in a conviction. The arguments made by defence lawyers and the conclusions drawn by jurors reflect the attitudes of the wider culture, which is not only predisposed to doubt women’s accounts, but willing to accept almost any argument for doubting them as ‘reasonable’.

But in the Arizona case it should have been obvious that these considerations did not apply. No police officer or lawyer will ever question this woman; no jury will ever be asked to determine whether she consented, or whether she lied. If there’s a trial, it will be all about the DNA. How, in these circumstances, could anyone have thought it was necessary, or indeed accurate, to report that the police were investigating an ‘alleged’ assault? Who is supposed to have made the ‘allegation’? Clearly not a woman who is unable to communicate. And if it’s the staff at the facility, what they did was not ‘allege’ something but report something some of them had directly witnessed. As for ‘possible’ assault, when you describe something as a ‘possible X’, you’re saying it might turn out that either nothing happened or that what happened was something other than X. In this case, what would that have been? Abduction by aliens? A miracle?

What were the people who wrote this stuff, or passed it for publication, thinking? One answer to that question might be quite simply that they weren’t thinking: they just reached for the conventional formulas on autopilot, without stopping to ask themselves whether in this situation the result would be inaccurate and misleading. Like the political writers George Orwell criticized in his essay ‘Politics and the English Language’, they were stringing together stock phrases in the manner of ‘a prefabricated henhouse’.

Feminist efforts to change the language of rape reporting have often assumed that this thoughtless recycling of outdated formulas is the central problem, and that the solution is a combination of awareness-raising—getting people to notice what’s implied by the language they habitually use—and offering practical alternatives. That’s the approach taken in, for instance, this checklist for journalists produced by Canada’s Use the Right Words project , which touches on the question of epistemic modality: it notes for instance that ‘allegedly’ may be necessary in certain contexts but warns against over-using it, and recommends that complainants’ statements should be framed using neutral verbs (e.g., ‘she said’) rather than verbs that imply doubt or blame (like ‘she claimed’ or ‘she admitted’).

But while this kind of advice can be helpful to those who are disposed to take it, the problem it can’t address is that which words are ‘the right words’ depends on what story you’re using them to tell. What if the media use the words they do strategically, because they are in fact the ‘right words’ for the narrative being constructed? Is the problem the words themselves, or is it the narrative?

In a 1992 article entitled ‘The linguistics of blame’, Kate Clark analysed the vocabulary and grammar used in the Sun newspaper’s reporting of violence against women,  and found that different patterns were associated with two contrasting narratives: one in which an innocent victim—a child, a chaste young woman or a good wife and loving ‘mum’—was attacked by a man described as a ‘monster’, a ‘beast’ or a ‘fiend’, and another in which a bad woman—a negligent or frigid wife, a provocative ‘Lolita’ or promiscuous ‘blonde divorcee’—was held responsible for provoking whatever had happened to her. In addition to being a standard-bearer for sexism, the Sun was a staunch supporter of right-wing ‘law and order’ policies: cases of violence against ‘innocent’ women could be used to advance that part of its political agenda. More recently we’ve seen some sections of the press eschewing the usual scepticism and victim-blaming where that enables them to construct a racist narrative in which ‘our women’ [i.e., white women and girls] are being exploited and abused by non-white, foreign or Muslim men.

In the Arizona case it seemed the media had no strong or consistent narrative. We might have expected this to be, in the Sun’s terms, an ‘innocent victim abused by a monster’ story, worded to express outrage rather than caution. But the outrage was noticeably muted (‘a deeply disturbing incident’ was as strong as it got). Though the victim’s ‘innocence’ was not in question (many reports contained obfuscation and needless scepticism, but none engaged in actual victim-blaming), there did not seem to be much empathy for her either. As this comment piece notes, abusers of women with disabilities (who as a group suffer disproportionately high levels of sexual violence) can exploit not only their victims’ inherent vulnerability, but also their cultural invisibility. The mistreatment of disabled people in institutions is hidden from public view, and the media that might bring attention to it are, as one disability activist quoted in the piece puts it, ‘still largely uncomfortable seeing disabled people as, well, people’.

Even if they are deemed ‘innocent’, some victims may still be treated as less deserving of our sympathy and concern than others. Race, class, age and (dis)ability all influence the ranking. (Another pertinent example recently in the news is the way the media covered R. Kelly’s marriage to 15-year old Aaliyah in the 1990s, described in this piece as a ‘collective shrug’ which resulted from a combination of celebrity-worship, himpathy and misogynoir.)

I am not suggesting feminists shouldn’t criticize the media’s use of specific words, stock formulas or linguistic strategies (something I’ve done myself in this post), but I do think we need to recognize that the problem here goes far beyond language. The language of rape reporting is more a clue to the problem than a cause of it: it reflects the narratives the media construct around sexual violence, the culture of disbelief those narratives spring from, and the male dominance which that disbelief protects. Those things, ultimately, are what we have to change.

Update: since this post was written a man who worked at the Arizona facility as a practical nurse has been arrested on charges of sexual assault and vulnerable adult abuse. 

 

Is ‘terrorism’ the right word?

Since the self-styled ‘incel’ Alek Minassian killed ten people in Toronto last week, deliberately mowing them down with a van he had rented for the purpose, a number of writers have suggested that it is time to start calling this kind of violence ‘terrorism’. These commentators have also called attention to the role of online ‘hate-groups’ (meaning the various misogynist subcultures whose home-base is the ‘manosphere’) in ‘radicalising’ men like Minassian, exposing them to extreme beliefs and inciting them to commit acts of violence.

One feminist writer who made this argument was Jessica Valenti, who wrote in an op-ed for the New York Times that 

despite a great deal of evidence that connects the dots between these mass killers and radical misogynist groups, we still largely refer to the attackers as “lone wolves” — a mistake that ignores the preventable way these men’s fear and anger are deliberately cultivated and fed online.

Here’s the term we should all use instead: misogynist terrorism.

David Futrelle, who has spent years tracking online misogynist groups on his blog We Hunted the Mammoth, concurred. In a piece written for Elle magazine he described the incel worldview as ‘a poisonous and hateful ideology’, adding that 

killings carried out in its name should be considered deliberate terrorism just as ISIS bombings or KKK lynchings are.

This suggestion was echoed by Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedman, a mainstream liberal who confessed that until last week he had never even heard of incels:  

terrorism is precisely the right word for what happened in Toronto, right down to the online radicalisation that preceded it.

All three writers are making a more or less explicit analogy between Minassian’s acts and the acts of people we have no hesitation in calling terrorists, like radical Islamists and white supremacists. And it is not difficult to see the basis for that analogy. Islamist terror groups have used the internet for recruitment and propaganda purposes: the concept of ‘online radicalisation’ entered public consciousness via discussions of so-called ‘home grown’ terrorists like the London 7/7 bombers, who were said to have been inspired by the online preaching of Anwar al-Awlaki, a US-based recruiter for al-Qaeda. Minassian’s method of killing, using a vehicle as a weapon, has been used in some recent attacks claimed by ISIS, as well as in the attack on anti-fascist protesters in Charlottesville last year.

It’s also clear that misogynist killers see themselves as making a political statement. On Facebook Minassian referred to the attack he planned as an ‘incel rebellion’, and referenced the earlier incel killer Elliot Rodger, who composed a rambling ‘manifesto’ explaining/justifying his actions before murdering six people in 2014. Responses to these events on incel forums suggest that other members of the subculture have understood them as terrorist acts, in the textbook definition of terrorism as ‘the politically-motivated use of violence for the purpose of instilling fear’. After Toronto, one commenter wrote that    

normies must now live with fear for the rest of their lives, they can’t go to school, the mall, or on a date without having to fear another incel attack.

The argument that we should adopt the language of terrorism to talk about this phenomenon is essentially a proposal for what the linguist George Lakoff would call ‘reframing’—changing the language we use about something in order to change people’s perceptions of it. And what’s behind that proposal is the frustration felt by feminists like Valenti, and knowledgeable allies like Futrelle, about the failure of the authorities, mainstream commentators and the public at large to take misogyny seriously. As Valenti points out, the frame which has dominated previous discussions downplays the connection of mass killing with misogyny and the online groups which promote it: it has presented killers like Elliot Rodger as isolated ‘lone wolves’, driven to destroy others, and sometimes themselves, by their personal inadequacies and/or mental health problems. Reframing such acts as ‘misogynist terrorism’ is an attempt to make their political dimension visible.  

It is also an attempt to promote the idea that misogynist violence is preventable. The ‘lone wolf’ frame implies that nothing can be done: you can’t stop disturbed individuals from going off the rails and causing mayhem. But if what those individuals do is reframed as the result of being ‘radicalised’ by online ‘hate-groups’, the implication is that we could and should take action against those groups. We could, for instance, try to take away their platform by lobbying the companies that host their sites to shut them down (David Futrelle has argued for this). Or we could consider the kinds of counter-terrorism strategies that have been used in other contexts, like proscribing certain organisations or setting up programmes to help susceptible men resist their message.    

But while I agree with the writers I’ve quoted about the need to take misogyny seriously, and also with their criticisms of the ‘lone wolf’ frame, I have very mixed feelings about their proposed reframing. In the rest of this post I want to try to explain why I think we should be cautious about adopting the language of terrorism.    

The idea that we should combat misogynist terrorism by taking action against the online extremists who are radicalising men like Alek Minassian borrows not only the terminology but also the strategy of the post-9/11 ‘war on terror’. The western governments which have been fighting this ‘war’ since 2001 have devoted considerable effort to preventing radicalisation, but they have not been particularly successful; they may even have exacerbated the problem, by sharpening the sense of grievance felt by young Muslim men, and by sending the message that embracing radical Islamism is the ultimate act of rebellion against authority. Defining misogynist groups as terrorist organisations could have a similarly counterproductive effect. The problem is, as the old cliché has it, that ‘one person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter’. That’s exactly how the manosphere misogynists like to think of themselves—as a radical resistance movement rising  up against feminist tyranny. Do we really want to adopt a frame that will reinforce their own preferred narrative?  

Another thing we need to think about is what the ‘terrorism’ frame leaves out. All frames have the effect of bringing some aspects of the phenomenon being represented into the foreground, while relegating others to the background or obscuring them entirely, and this one is no exception. It foregrounds a particular kind of misogynist violence, the kind perpetrated by Alek Minassian and Elliot Rodger, and it focuses attention on certain features of those killings. For instance, they were public and intended to be spectacular; they targeted strangers en masse, choosing weapons like vehicles or firearms, which can kill large numbers of people quickly and efficiently; their perpetrators subscribed to an identifiable ideology and claimed to have a political motive. What we see in this frame is the similarity with other forms of terrorism. What we don’t see is the connection with other forms of male violence against women and girls.

Most violence against women and girls has none of the characteristics just listed. It most often takes place in private, and is rarely intended to be spectacular. Its targets are not usually strangers: most women and girls who die or suffer serious harm at the hands of violent men are attacked by men they know, especially intimate partners or ex-partners and family members. They are typically attacked individually, and the commonest methods are ‘personal’ ones requiring direct physical contact, like beating, kicking and strangling. Some attacks have a sexual element: they are, or include, acts of rape or sexual assault. The vast majority of perpetrators have not been ‘radicalised’ and do not think of their actions as political.

From this long list of differences it would be easy to conclude that misogynist mass killings have nothing in common with more ‘everyday’ forms of male violence. But that would be a mistake. 

Killings perpetrated by incels are intended as acts of revenge against the women who refuse to consider them as sexual or romantic partners. This is their signature feature, and it is generally taken as the expression of an extreme and deluded belief system. But many acts of violence committed by non-incel men have a similar rationale. The man who kills his wife or girlfriend because she has left him, or is planning to leave him, has the same grievance against her that the incel has against ‘Stacys’. He cannot tolerate being rejected: it is a slight that must be avenged. Men who stalk women–often women who either rejected or left them–feel the same. These are different expressions of the same impulse, rooted in what has been labelled ‘aggrieved male entitlement’. 

The philosopher Kate Manne has argued that this is how misogyny works. Unlike, say, anti-semitism or homophobia, misogyny is not usually a generalized hatred of the kind that prompts calls for the entire group to be exterminated. Rather, misogyny is the enforcement arm of patriarchy: it’s about punishing any woman who does not fulfil what men consider to be her obligations to them. Misogynists become enraged when women either take something men think is theirs by right (like a position of power), or else withhold something men assume they are entitled to (like the sex, love and admiration which incels believe they are owed).  

Jessica Valenti complains that the ‘lone wolf’ frame does not join the dots that connect mass killers to radical misogynist groups; I am suggesting that the ‘terrorism’ frame does not join the dots that connect mass killers to the perpetrators of everyday violence against women and girls. For feminists I think that’s a serious drawback. We can’t tackle misogyny if we limit our focus to a handful of spectacular but untypical cases.

Nor do I think we can tackle it effectively by concentrating our efforts on the forums which are said to be ‘radicalising’ men online. The manosphere is certainly a magnet (and a megaphone) for the aggrieved and entitled, but I don’t think it’s where most men learn to be misogynists. Take away the in-group jargon and what you’re left with is ideas and attitudes (like ‘women owe men sex’, or ‘a “hot” girlfriend enhances a man’s status among his peers’) which are also ubiquitous in the surrounding culture, and are shared by millions of men with no connection to any online group. What produces these beliefs in most men who hold them isn’t ‘radicalisation’, it’s just everyday patriarchal socialisation.  

The introduction of the ‘terrorism’ frame (which has quickly gained traction in the media) has had some positive effects. The ‘lone wolf’ frame has not dominated commentary on the Toronto killings in the way it dominated discussion of earlier cases; there has been less interest in the individual killer and more in the misogynist subculture he belonged to. But I find it depressing if the only way to make people take misogyny seriously is to compare it to other forms of violence and hatred which it only resembles up to a point. And if the effect is to obscure the connections between the spectacular misogyny of incel killings and the misogyny expressed in more ‘everyday’ acts of violence, I think that’s a high price to pay. Let’s not forget that from a feminist perspective, all violence against women is political.

  

 

 

 

 

 

Banal sexism

Last month I wrote about David Bonderman, the billionaire businessman who resigned as a director of Uber after suggesting that appointing more women to the board would mean ‘more talking’. Allegedly he meant this comment as a joke; but even if no one present had been offended, you have to wonder who would have found such a hoary old cliché amusing. An enormous amount of sexism is like this: thoughtless, repetitive, trite and formulaic. What—as bad stand-up comedians say—is that about?

Back in 1995, Michael Billig wrote a book about a phenomenon he called ‘banal nationalism’. The term ‘nationalism’ is most commonly used to denote what Billig refers to as ‘hot’ nationalism—a political ideology driven by strong emotions, which is often associated with conflict and violence. But his point was that there’s a less overt, lower-level form of nationalism which we don’t generally call by that name. Unlike the ‘hot’ variety, its main function is not to foment conflict or hatred of the Other. It’s to maintain our awareness of ourselves as national subjects—keep ‘the nation’ as a concept ticking over at the back of our minds. In Billig’s words:

National identity is remembered in established nations because it is embedded in routines of life that constantly remind, or ‘flag’ nationhood. However, these reminders or ‘flaggings’ are so numerous, and they are so much a part of the social environment, that they operate mindlessly, rather than mindfully.

The word ‘flag’ in this quote is a pun: one obvious daily reminder of nationhood is the national flag, flying (or as Billig puts it, ‘hanging limply’) on hundreds of public buildings. But banal nationalism takes subtler forms too, and many of them have to do with language.  For instance, the use of first person ‘we/us’ to mean ‘the people of this nation’, whereas the people of other nations are referred to with the third person ‘they/them’. The presence on every high street of businesses with names like the ‘Nationwide Building Society’ and—until recently—‘British Home Stores’. TV programmes hailing viewers with ‘Good Morning Britain’. Formulaic phrases that reference people’s shared membership of a nation, whether explicitly (‘best of British luck’) or implicitly (‘it’s a free country’).

The same idea can be applied to sexism.  Sexism also has ‘hot’ forms, and those are the ones mainstream discourse finds it easiest to recognise and condemn. The western media have no difficulty in recognising the sexism of the Taliban and Boko Haram; the more liberal parts of the western media have no difficulty in recognising the sexism of Gamergaters and Donald Trump.  But what you might call ‘banal sexism’—ordinary, unremarkable, embedded in the routines and the language of everyday life—is a different story. It does often go unnoticed, and when feminists draw attention to it they’re accused of taking offence where none was intended or embracing ‘victim culture’. These knee-jerk defences are often delivered with an air of surprise—as if the people responsible hadn’t realised until that moment that anyone could possibly dissent.

The idea that women talk incessantly is a classic example of banal sexism—it’s something people trot out on autopilot, as if they were commenting on the weather.  Most remarks about the weather fall into the category of small talk, or what the anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski called ‘phatic communion’: their function is not to exchange information, but just to establish common ground and reassure others of our good intentions. That’s why statements like ‘lovely day today’ are almost invariably met with agreement: ‘Yes, beautiful!’ It would be odd to respond with something like ‘well actually it’s two degrees below the mean temperature for mid-July’. That might be an impressive demonstration of your meteorological knowledge, but it would also reveal your social incompetence, since you’d have missed the whole point of a phatic exchange. It’s the same with banal sexism: challenging the proposition (‘well, actually studies show that men talk more than women in most situations’) will be seen as a peculiar and hostile act. It’s especially hard to challenge a joke, because no one wants to be accused of lacking a sense of humour.

In my youth I didn’t understand this. I remember the first time I ever heard Chas & Dave’s pop classic ‘Rabbit’, a jolly cockney moan about women who give their husbands earache. It was 1980, and—at the age of 21—I had recently discovered my inner Radical Feminist. I thought, ‘you may sell that record today, but it won’t be long before you’re history’.  I was wrong: nearly 40 years later, the myth of the Woman Who Never Shuts Up remains ubiquitous in popular culture. Consider, for instance, this advertisementIMG_7139 for cruising holidays, which was recently photographed by a Swiss follower of this blog*:

Translated into English, this says: ‘Peace/quiet on holiday? Make your wife simply speechless’.  It’s a banal sexism double whammy, combining the old ‘rabbit, rabbit’ cliché with the idea that you can always shut a woman up by spending your hard-earned wages on something she wants. The ad’s presuppositions are both insulting and false (women don’t talk more than men, and according to one 2013 industry survey they make about 80% of household travel plans), but whoever came up with it seems not to have been concerned about offending potential customers.

Nor do I suspect its creator of deliberately courting controversy, though that’s certainly a strategy some advertisers have used. Banal sexism doesn’t provoke outrage. It occupies the part of the spectrum that runs from ‘seen but unnoticed’ (like the ‘default male’ convention which I discussed in an earlier post) through to ‘annoying but not worth getting all fired up about’. You might shake your head, roll your eyes, post a photo with a scathing comment on Facebook, but most people wouldn’t bother to make a formal complaint.

But sometimes the zeitgeist changes, and a form of sexism which has previously been tolerated gets moved from the ‘banal’ into the ‘hot’ category. Last year, for instance, a friend of mine spotted this greeting card, womenpart of a range addressed to men, in a university bookshop. Greeting cards in general are like a bottomless well of banal sexism, and ‘humorous’ cards like this have been around forever: though feminists have long found their message objectionable, most people have treated it in the same way as the ‘make your wife simply speechless’ ad, as an essentially harmless (if perhaps tasteless) joke based on the banal trope of ‘the eternal battle of the sexes’.

But recently more people have become aware (thanks in part to the work of feminists like Karen Ingala Smith and her Counting Dead Women project) that in the UK a man actually does kill a woman, most commonly a current or former partner, about every 2-3 days. If you’ve thought about that statistic, you’re less likely to let a joke about ‘shooting women and burying them in the garden’ pass without protest. I wasn’t surprised to hear that my (feminist) friend had complained, but I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the bookshop manager had agreed with her–and had promptly withdrawn the card from sale.

But the issue here is not just about the (un)acceptability of joking about male violence. Banal sexism is also exemplified by the formulas used in serious news stories about the killing of women by men. In France (where the statistics are similar to the UK’s), the journalist Sophie Gourion has set up a tumblr called Les Mots Tuent (‘words kill’) to document and criticise the linguistic ‘banalisation’ (‘normalisation/trivialising’) of violence against women and girls. She is exasperated by the constant repetition of phrases like crime passionel (‘crime of passion’, a category that does not exist in current French law), drame familial (‘family drama’, typically referring to ‘family annihilation’ cases where a man murders his partner and their children before killing himself) and pétage de plomb (‘blowing a fuse’, ‘flipping/freaking out’, ‘having a meltdown’). As she notes, these terms imply that the perpetrator was overcome by a sudden, uncontrollable impulse—whereas in fact many of these killings turn out to have been premeditated, not uncommonly by men who have long histories of domestic violence.

Similar formulas are well-established in the English-speaking media. In 1992, Kate Clark published an analysis of the Sun’s reporting of violence against women and girls, and found a pattern in the language used to label perpetrators and victims. In cases where ‘innocent’ women (in the Sun’s worldview that meant young girls or dutiful wives and mothers) were killed or assaulted by strangers, the perpetrators were given dehumanising labels like ‘beast’, ‘fiend’, ‘maniac’ or ‘monster’.  By contrast, reports of domestic violence, including homicide, tended to label men in ways that both humanised them and emphasised their own status as victims. One man who killed his wife and then himself was referred to as a ‘tormented’, ‘debt-ridden Dad’ (the word ‘tormented’ recurred in the reporting of so-called ‘family tragedies’); another who shot his wife and her mother dead was described as a ‘spurned husband’. Even the affectionate diminutive ‘hubby’ appeared in one report about a man whose 12-year history of domestic violence was revealed in court after he almost killed his wife.

Kate Clark’s data were taken from reports that had appeared in the late 1980s, but much of her analysis remains pertinent today. In Ireland last year, for instance, when a man named Alan Hawe stabbed his wife Clodagh to death, strangled their three sons and then hanged himself, the case was reported in both the Irish and British media as a ‘family tragedy’. The Mirror printed a photo which showed the family (in the words of the caption) ‘smiling together before all five lost their lives’.  ‘Lost their lives’ suggests an accident rather than the intentional killing which actually took place, but in the ‘family tragedy’ frame, as Clark’s earlier study found, the killer is usually portrayed as another victim, and often as the primary victim. In the Hawe case, again typically, much of the media’s attention focused on the mental ‘torment’ that must have driven Alan Hawe (described in numerous sources as a ‘real gentleman’ and a pillar of the community) to such extremes. Some commentators even portrayed him as a victim of sexism—the sexism of a culture which does not permit men to show weakness or express emotion.

This representation only began to be questioned after a blog post entitled ‘Rest in peace, invisible woman’, by the Dublin-based feminist writer Linnea Dunne, was picked up by the mainstream media. Dunne remarked on the way media reporting centred on the killer and his imagined state of mind (there was no actual evidence that Alan Hawe had any history of mental illness), while those he killed were treated as minor characters, or erased from the story entirely. Even the discovery of the family’s dead bodies was couched in terms that adopted the killer’s perspective: they were said to have been discovered by ‘his mother-in-law’ (aka Clodagh Hawe’s mother and the children’s grandmother).

By contrast with the keen interest they took in his mental state, reporters did not ask if Alan Hawe had a history of domestic violence. It would later turn out that he did: in the words of one family friend, ‘he controlled everything around him, he controlled how his family lived, he controlled how they died’. It would also emerge that Clodagh Hawe’s family, initially portrayed as grief-stricken but forgiving, had fought an eight-month battle to have the killer’s body removed from the grave in which he had originally been buried alongside his victims.

As time went on it became clearer and clearer that the framing of this story by most of the press had persistently obscured the material facts. And this is far from being an isolated example. This month, the UK press has been reporting on the case of Francis Matthew, a Briton living in Dubai, who killed his wife Jane with what the Emirati authorities described as ‘a strong blow on the head with a solid object’. Initially Matthew claimed that the attack had been perpetrated by burglars who broke into their home. Later, when it was clear this story would not stand up, he admitted that he had thrown a hammer at his wife during ‘a row’, but he continued to insist that her death was an accident. This example differs from the Hawe case in that there was only one victim: no children were involved and the perpetrator is still alive. But reports on it (like this one in the Telegraph) have used many of the same generic and linguistic conventions. For instance:

  1. The repetition of the words ‘tragedy’ and ‘tragic’. If the crime really had been committed by intruders, the reports would have used words suggesting anger and condemnation, but when murder is ‘all in the family’, the emotions we are directed to feel are sadness and pity for both/all parties.
  2. The centring of the (male) killer and the near-total erasure of his victims. Dead or alive, he is the main protagonist of the ‘tragedy’, while the victims exist only in relation to him. In the Telegraph’s report, for instance, we are told a fair amount about Francis Matthew’s life history, and we also learn that ‘the couple…were a fixture of Dubai’s social scene’, but nothing is said about Jane Matthew’s history, activities, interests or personality. Like Clodagh Hawe, she is rendered invisible.
  3. The presentation of the killing as a sudden, inexplicable eruption of violence into a previously happy relationship. In this case (as in the Hawe case before it, at least immediately after the murder), the message that Matthew’s act was ‘out of character’ is conveyed by reporting the reactions of others: ‘Friends and associates of Mr Matthew said they were astounded to hear that the genteel editor was under arrest. “He is the biggest teddy bear I know,” said one family friend’. Another acquaintance is quoted describing him as ‘relaxed, calm and laid back’. Though the Telegraph does mention that he has been charged with ‘premeditated murder’, it does not probe the apparent contradiction between this charge and Matthew’s own  claim to have killed his wife accidentally in the heat of the moment.
  4. The inclusion of multiple details which portray the killer as a man of good character and reputation. The Telegraph‘s report is headed by a photo of Francis Matthew shaking hands with the Emir of the UAE; it goes on to extol his educational and professional achievements, and makes several references to his standing in the expatriate community. This, we infer, is what makes the case so ‘tragic’. Not that a woman died following a brutal assault (and who knows how much other abuse in the months and years preceding it), but that a successful man’s life has been ruined by a momentary loss of control.

If I’m putting this kind of reporting in the category of banal sexism, it’s not because I think it’s trivial, but because I think it operates, as Billig says about banal nationalism, more mindlessly than mindfully. I don’t think there’s some media conspiracy to defend homicidal men: it’s more a case of reaching for the familiar formulas (the ‘family tragedy’ frame and the associated clichés—‘out of character’, ‘pillar of the community’, ‘lost their lives’) without ever thinking to interrogate the assumptions that lie behind them. It’s the news-story equivalent of the political discourse which Orwell, in 1946, compared to a ‘prefabricated henhouse’—assembled rapidly and unreflectively from a pile of standard, mass-produced components.

Let me hasten to make clear, though, that this analysis is not meant as an excuse for the journalists who produce these stories. On the contrary, I think this mindless recycling of familiar banalities about domestic violence is an absolute dereliction of their professional duty. Professionals who like to think of themselves as fearless seekers after truth should not be taking the conventional ‘family tragedy’ story at face value, particularly when—thanks to several decades of feminist activism and research—the facts which contradict it are readily accessible. There is ample evidence, for instance, that intimate partner killings like the murder of Jane Matthew are rarely ‘isolated incidents’, and that many men who are violent in private appear ‘calm and laid back’ in public.

Journalists are also professional language-users, and as such should be expected to make considered linguistic choices. Would anyone in any other context talk about ‘spurned husbands’ and ‘tormented dads’? It’s 2017, FFS: why are news reports still full of these archaic, tone-deaf clichés? If you call yourself a writer, you should try engaging your brain and actually thinking about the words you use.

Words may not literally kill, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have consequences. The banal sexism we see in the reporting of domestic homicide cases echoes, and so contributes to perpetuating, some of the same attitudes which are held more actively by men like Alan Hawe—like the idea that women are appendages rather than people who matter in their own right, and the view that violence is an understandable response to the pressures society puts on men. (‘Women. Can’t live with them, can’t let them live if they don’t want to live with you’.) I’m glad that this traditional formula is now attracting more outspoken criticism, and not only from the usual feminist suspects. It’s lazy, it’s sexist and no self-respecting news outlet should give it house-room.

*thanks to Martina Zimmermann

The amazing disappearing ‘women’

September began with some good news: Purvi Patel, the woman sentenced to 20 years for ‘feticide’ by an Indiana court, was finally released from prison after her conviction was overturned. But the pro-choice organisation Planned Parenthood warned that the fight wasn’t over. ‘People’, it said, ‘are still being criminalized for their pregnancy outcomes’. The organisation had already commented on another welcome development, New York State’s decision to stop levying sales tax on sanitary products. Once again, though, there was a hitch: not all drugstores had implemented the change, and some ‘menstruators’ were still being charged.

Planned Parenthood is not alone in its careful avoidance of the word ‘women’. Last year the Midwives’ Alliance of North America rewrote its core competencies document using ‘inclusive’ terms like ‘pregnant individuals’, to acknowledge that some of the individuals in question do not identify as women. And let’s not forget the UK Green Party’s brilliant solution to the same problem—putting women, trans and non-binary people into a single category of ‘non-men’.

Expressions like ‘pregnant people’ and ‘non-men’ are controversial among feminists, not only because the political issue they relate to is controversial, but also because the terms themselves are still relatively new. With vocabulary it’s novelty that breeds contempt, while familiarity promotes acceptance: the more frequently we encounter a term, the less we stop to think about its implications.This makes it easy to overlook what isn’t new about expressions like ‘pregnant people’. These particular terms are of recent origin, but they exemplify two tendencies with a much longer history: the tendency to prefer inclusive to gender-specific language, and the tendency to avoid the word ‘women’.

Back in the 1970s, when feminists began campaigning for institutions like publishing houses, universities and local councils to adopt non-sexist language policies, one argument that was often used against them was that their proposals would just replace one form of bias (against women) with another (against men). In English-speaking communities, this concern about avoiding bias against either sex often led to a preference for gender ‘neutral’ or ‘inclusive’ terms which could, in theory, apply equally to both.  For instance, one set of 1980s guidelines proposed replacing ‘maternal instinct’ with ‘parental instinct’, on the basis that it was sexist to suggest that men had no natural urge to nurture their children. ‘Parental instinct’ didn’t catch on (perhaps because it misses the point about why ‘maternal instinct’ is sexist), but other expressions using the inclusive ‘parent’–notably ‘parenting’–have now become so normalised, it’s strange to think that they were once regarded as awkward ‘PC’ neologisms.

Some of the inclusive terms that were introduced between the 1970s and the 1990s are less familiar to the average English-speaker because they belong to a more technical or bureaucratic register. An example is the term ‘gender-based violence’, which is widely used by government bodies and NGOs to refer to what feminists would call ‘violence against women’ and/or ‘male violence’. In this case what prompted the adoption of the inclusive term wasn’t a concern about anti-male bias. Rather, humanitarian organisations in the 1990s felt the need for a more abstract umbrella-term to encompass the full range of issues they were working on. The choice of ‘gender-based violence’ did not, initially, change their understanding of the issue. Most early definitions of ‘gender-based violence’ explicitly say that it means ‘violence against women’.

If the two phrases are just synonyms, though, why prefer the gender-inclusive formulation to the more specific wording?  One organisation which attempts to explain this is the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE). The relevant section of its website says:

‘Gender-based violence’ and ‘violence against women’ are terms that are often used interchangeably as most gender-based violence is inflicted by men on women and girls. However, it is important to retain the ‘gender-based’ aspect of the concept as this highlights the fact that violence against women is an expression of power inequalities between women and men.

But to me, at least, it’s unclear why calling violence ‘gender-based’ should do more to highlight power and inequality than calling it ‘violence against women’. The most obvious characteristic of the inclusive term is its vagueness: it says only that some acts or types of violence are ‘based’ on ‘gender’, while leaving the nature of the connection unspecified. (Is it to do with the motive? The perpetrator’s gender? The victim’s gender? Both?)  Far from highlighting ‘power inequalities between men and women’, the non-specificity of ‘gender-based violence’ leaves room for an interpretation of it as something any gendered being might do to any other gendered being.

That’s also how it seems to be interpreted in some of the more recent official definitions. For instance, the guidelines published in 2005 by the IASC (Inter-Agency Standing Committee, an international co-ordinating body for humanitarian groups) say that

Gender-based violence is an umbrella term for any harmful act that is perpetrated against a person’s will, and that is based on socially ascribed (gender) differences between males and females.

I don’t think most people reading this definition would conclude that ‘gender-based violence’ means the same as ‘violence against women’.

You might think this is all just semantic hair-splitting: what difference does it make if the terms are specific or inclusive? One common answer to this question is that inclusive terms are problematic because they misrepresent the facts. Arguments about this become wars of statistics, with each side challenging the other’s claims about how many ‘pregnant people’ do not identify as women, or what proportion of ‘gender-based violence’ is perpetrated by women against men. But for the purpose of choosing linguistic labels, I don’t think the numbers are the point. Terms like ‘violence against women’/‘gender-based violence’ are not just labels for statistical trends we observe in the world, they’re conceptual categories we use to understand the world. From a feminist perspective the problem with inclusive terms is not statistical, it’s conceptual.

Feminists conceptualise male violence against women as a form of social control which helps to maintain men’s collective position of dominance. It’s not just a question of some individual men using violence to dominate some individual women. All women—including those who will never experience an actual assault—have to live with the fear of being assaulted by men, and with the restrictions that fear imposes on their freedom of movement, action and speech. Violence perpetrated by women against men, however heinous and individually deserving of punishment it may be, does not have the same political function. All men’s lives are not circumscribed by their fear of being attacked by women. This understanding is what motivates the feminist preference for gender-specific terms. Replacing those terms with non-specific, ‘inclusive’ alternatives is not just a superficial change in wording, it’s a rejection of the logic of the feminist analysis.

As one feminist remarked on Twitter, there’s a parallel here with the self-serving faux-inclusiveness of ‘All Lives Matter’, a slogan adopted by some white people in response to the ‘Black Lives Matter’ campaign. The substitution of ‘all’ for ‘Black’ is an attempt to delegitimize the campaign’s focus on institutional racism by presenting it as narrow and exclusionary. ‘Why do you only care about Black lives?  Shouldn’t we affirm the value of every human life?’  It’s neutralising the political challenge by reframing a specific problem as a universal one. ‘All lives matter’. ‘We’re all in this together’. ‘We don’t need feminism, we need humanism’. The effect is to make a problem of structural inequality–racism or class privilege or male dominance–disappear.

When feminist organisations adopt inclusive terms, their motives are different: they aren’t trying to make the problem of structural sexual inequality disappear. But the result is still a loss of analytic and political clarity. Planned Parenthood’s reference to ‘people being criminalised for their pregnancy outcomes’ is a case in point. Like feminist campaigns against male violence, feminist campaigns for reproductive rights are underpinned by a political analysis which sees the legal and religious policing of reproduction as a tool of patriarchal social control—and the point isn’t to control ‘pregnancy outcomes’, it’s to control the behaviour of women. Inclusive language obscures that: as Katha Pollitt has argued,

Once you start talking about “people,” not “women,” you lose what abortion means historically, symbolically and socially. It becomes hard to understand why it isn’t simply about the right to life of the “unborn.”

The proliferation of inclusive alternatives to ‘women’ has the cumulative effect of making it difficult to see the wood for the trees. If I can’t get an abortion I’m being oppressed as a ‘pregnant person’; if I don’t get a job because the employer knows I have young children I’m being discriminated against as a ‘parent’; if I’m paying tax on tampons the state is profiting from my status as a ‘menstruator’. Maybe we’ll soon be urged to refer to women who earn less than men with the same qualifications as ‘underpaid people’. Lots of people are underpaid, after all: why would we only care about some of them? Let’s not be so vulgar, so unreconstructedly essentialist, as to point out that certain forms of unjust treatment don’t randomly happen to ‘people’, and they certainly don’t happen to men: they happen to women, because they are women.

Why is it so difficult to say ‘women’? The objections I’ve focused on so far are political ones, to do with the exclusionary and essentialising nature of ‘women’ as a category label. But I can’t help wondering if those objections are the whole story, or if the avoidance of ‘women’ might also be connected to something much older, and less ‘politically correct’.

The first post I ever published on this blog was about the difference between ‘woman’ and ‘lady’. I recalled learning as a child that ‘lady’ was the ‘polite’ word, whereas ‘woman’ was disrespectful: it implied low social status, a lack of respectability and a failure to display proper femininity. Analysis of the contexts in which ‘lady’ and ‘women’ are most likely to appear reveals another reason for the impoliteness of ‘woman’: its association with the gross and unmentionable functions of the female body.

What this implies is that ‘polite’ substitutes for ‘women’ (like ‘ladies’, or ‘the fair sex’) function as euphemisms: like ‘elderly’ and ‘plus-size’ (aka ‘old’ and ‘fat’), they enable speakers to acknowledge the sensitivity of a taboo subject or concept by avoiding the word that refers to it most directly. That’s why an earlier generation of feminists were so insistent on being referred to as ‘women’. It wasn’t just that they disliked the alternatives: what they really disliked was the assumption that alternatives were necessary. They saw the avoidance of the plain word ‘women’ as expressing a kind of squeamish distaste for femaleness, and they saw that distaste as one expression of a more general cultural misogyny. To them it seemed important to challenge this attitude, even if people thought they were being petty when they snapped ‘I’m a woman, not a lady’ at someone who was only trying to be polite.

Yet today it’s feminists themselves who are treating ‘women’ as a taboo word. Katha Pollitt suggests this may reflect women’s ‘long history of minimizing themselves in order not to hurt [others’] feelings’. ‘We are raised’, she observes, ‘to put ourselves second’. But that doesn’t entirely explain the historical U-turn. It is not a small demand to make of a political movement that it should renounce the term which, more than any other, has defined its constituency and its purpose throughout its history. Is feminism not, by definition, a women’s movement, a movement that fights for the rights or the liberation of women?

Some feminists today would answer that question in the negative. Feminists like Laurie Penny, who complained last year that ‘feminism’s focus on women can be alienating to queer people and anyone questioning the gender binary’. Once upon a time, complaining that feminism focused on women would have seemed as odd as complaining that a baker’s shop sold bread. But what’s behind it is the belief that the old feminist goal–liberating women from the oppressive structures of patriarchy–has become outdated and politically reactionary. What feminism should be about in the 21st century is freeing individuals from the oppressive constraints of binary gender.

To people who think ‘feminism’s focus on women’ has no relevance to the politics of the 21st century, I say: try telling that to the Pope. Or to Mike Pence, Donald Trump’s Vice-Presidential running mate, who was responsible, as Governor of Indiana, for the law that was used to persecute Purvi Patel. Those guys don’t care how you identify, but they do still believe in women; they also believe in using their considerable power to ensure women are kept in their subordinate place. A feminism that can’t talk about that has nothing to say to most of the world’s oppressed people. It is living in a bubble, and talking to itself.

Leading questions

Scene: an ordinary suburban home where A and B are getting ready to leave for work. But A’s car keys have gone missing…

A:  You’ve seen my car keys, haven’t you?

B:  Today? No, I don’t think so.

A:  When did I mention today? Just answer the question: you’ve seen my car keys, haven’t you?

B:  OK, no.

A:  You’re quite certain of that, are you?                          

B:  Well, no, I told you I don’t think—

A:  So you have seen them, then.

B:  I’m not sure…

A:  They were on the sideboard, weren’t they?

B:  I don’t know, I didn’t notice

A:  You’re telling this household you didn’t notice the car keys on the sideboard?

B:  um—I—

A:  I put it to you that you’re lying: the keys were on the sideboard

B:  Well, I suppose they could have been, but—

A:  Were they there or not?

B:  (confused silence)

A:  It’s a simple question, B. The keys were on the sideboard, weren’t they?

(B breaks down in tears, but at that moment C rushes in to say that the keys have been found in A’s jacket pocket, along with a Twix wrapper and 74p in change)

If someone you lived with behaved like A in this (made-up) vignette, you’d probably tell them to f*** off and stop interrogating you. Such overtly hostile questioning is rare in everyday conversation, and if it does happen you’re entitled to protest. But there’s one real-life situation where you can’t just tell the questioner to stop: the cross-examination of a witness in court.

Cross-examination is the bit where a witness is questioned by the lawyer acting for the ‘other side’. If the prosecution in a burglary case calls an eye-witness who says she saw the defendant breaking into someone’s house, the defence will want to test the strength of her evidence, and if possible take issue with her version of events. Maybe she saw someone who wasn’t, in fact, the defendant; maybe she didn’t see anything at all. If her answers suggest that her original account was mistaken, dishonest or confused, that could introduce the ‘reasonable doubt’ which will get the defendant acquitted.

There’s a reason I’ve been thinking about this recently. Earlier this month, Buzzfeed published the text of a letter written by a woman who had been raped while she lay unconscious behind a dumpster. The letter was addressed to Brock Turner, the man who had been convicted of assaulting her. Parts of it were read out in court, and when Turner was sentenced to only six months in prison (a decision which is now the focus of a campaign to recall the judge responsible) its author released the full version for publication.

As many commentators have said, the letter is a powerful document, bearing eloquent witness to the impact of sexual violence on a woman’s life. But I was also struck by what it says about the language of cross-examination. The writer describes the questions put to her by Turner’s lawyer as

…invasive, aggressive, and designed to steer me off course, to contradict myself, my sister, phrased in ways to manipulate my answers.

She goes on to give an example of this manipulative phrasing:

Instead of his attorney saying, Did you notice any abrasions? He said, You didn’t notice any abrasions, right?

‘You didn’t notice any abrasions, right?’ is what lawyers call a ‘directive leading question’: its grammatical form directs the addressee to a particular, preferred answer. My car keys vignette begins with another example: ‘you’ve seen my car keys, haven’t you?’ Grammatically, this is a ‘tag question’, a statement with a question tagged onto the end which invites the addressee to confirm the truth of the statement. The preferred answer to ‘you’ve seen my car keys, haven’t you?’ is ‘yes [I have]’; if the question had been ‘you haven’t seen my car keys, have you?’ the preferred answer would be ‘no [I haven’t]’. ‘You didn’t notice any abrasions, right?’ predicts ‘no [I didn’t]’. Whether the preferred answer is ‘yes’ or ‘no’, the point is that tag questions favour one answer over others. You don’t have to give the preferred answer, but avoiding it takes more effort, and if you repeatedly withhold confirmation you may come across as evasive or obstructive.

There are other, less directive ways to ask for information. If the question were ‘have you seen my car keys?’—grammatically a yes/no question rather than a tag question—it would still be ‘leading’ in the legal sense, because it presupposes that there are some car keys which the addressee either has or hasn’t seen. A non-leading question would be something like ‘what did you see?’ (not very likely in the lost car keys scenario, but a reasonable thing to ask someone who claims they witnessed a crime.) But ‘have you seen my car keys’ and ‘did you notice any abrasions’  are not directive leading questions, because the linguistic form does not imply that one answer is preferable to the other.

Last year, the forensic psychologist Jacqueline Wheatcroft called for directive leading questions like ‘you’ve seen my car keys, haven’t you?’ to be banned in court proceedings.  She expressed particular concern about their use in rape and sexual assault trials. These cases—if they get to court at all—often turn on which of two competing accounts the jury believes. In that situation the main prosecution witness will be the complainant, and it’s likely that the defence’s cross-examination will focus on trying to discredit her account. Directive leading questions are commonly employed for that purpose, and this can make testifying in court even more traumatic for victims.

As an example Wheatcroft cites the case of Frances Andrade, who committed suicide in 2013 after giving evidence against her former teacher Michael Brewer at his trial in Manchester (he was subsequently found guilty of indecently assaulting her, and sentenced to six years in prison). One of the questions put to Ms Andrade during cross-examination was: ‘utter fantasy, is it not?’ She was repeatedly presented as a liar and a fantasist, an experience which she described to several people as feeling like another assault.

The standard response to this kind of concern is that yes, trials can be horrible for victims, but people accused of serious crimes are entitled to a defence: robust questioning is necessary to test the strength of the case against them. So it’s interesting that Jacqueline Wheatcroft’s argument against directive leading questions isn’t just about their negative effect on the victim. Her research suggests that directive leading questions can undermine the larger aim of delivering justice, because they make it more likely that people will give factually inaccurate answers.

Wheatcroft and her colleague Sarah Wood conducted a study in which 80 subjects watched a four-minute video clip, and then answered a series of questions (orally, to simulate courtroom conditions) about the events they had seen in the video (it showed a reconstruction of a real crime, where a man followed a young woman home and then entered her house). All the questions were of the ‘leading’ type, and required a simple yes or no answer, but the subjects were split into two groups, with one group responding to non-directive questions like ‘was the street called Willow Street?’ while the other half were asked directive leading questions like ‘the street was called Willow Street, wasn’t it?’

The study found that the non-directive questions elicited a higher percentage of accurate answers. Although the experimental setting was presumably less stressful than an actual cross-examination in court, the subjects were still susceptible to the pressure a directive question exerts to accept its embedded presuppositions, even if they misrepresent reality.

Some directive questions are especially confusing because they embed more than one potentially disputable presupposition. An example in my ‘car keys’ drama is ‘so, you’re telling this household you didn’t notice the car keys on the sideboard?’ This (a) presupposes that the car keys were on the sideboard (rather than somewhere else) and (b) asserts that the addressee, B, must have noticed them. While B debates which of these propositions to challenge, she becomes noticeably hesitant, allowing A to jump in with an interpretation of her hesitancy as a sign that she isn’t being honest.

Most people don’t realise that the form of a question can affect their ability to give an accurate answer. Wheatcroft and Wood asked their research subjects to rate their confidence in each answer they gave on a scale from ‘not at all confident’ to ‘absolutely certain’. On this measure there was very little difference between the non-directive and directive questions, although objectively the directive questions elicited significantly more inaccurate answers.

One way to address this issue is through witness preparation: explaining to witnesses before a trial what kinds of questions they are likely to face, providing concrete examples and possibly using role-play to give a witness practice in responding. Wheatcroft and Wood’s study tested the usefulness of a number of witness preparation strategies. They split both their participant-groups into four subgroups: one was a control group, receiving no special preparation, while the others were prepared in different degrees of detail. One group was warned in general terms that the experimenters might use leading questions, another was presented with examples of what to look out for, and a third was told they could ask for questions to be repeated or rephrased.

Though one of these strategies (giving examples) appeared to work better than the others, its effect was still quite limited: all groups remained more likely to give factually wrong answers if the form of a question was directive. As the researchers point out, that isn’t necessarily an argument against witness preparation, which may help witnesses in other ways (by making them feel less anxious, for example). But preparation does not solve the problem of inaccurate testimony. As the researchers sum up their conclusions:

Where directive leading questions are incorporated into cross-examination procedure… a witness’s overall accuracy will be reduced regardless of the type of preparation the witness receives.

This study challenges the belief that ‘robust’ questioning is justified by the need to test the evidence rigorously. There’s nothing rigorous about questioning people in a way that confuses them and prompts them to make mistakes. But if we’re interested in the specific issues that arise in sexual assault trials, it seems clear that we can’t just focus on the linguistic form of the questions put to complainants. Challenging the assumptions of a particular question isn’t easy; but what’s even harder is challenging the more general assumption that women are ‘liars and fantasists’.

It’s because of that general assumption that complainants are routinely faced with questions like the one put to Frances Andrade—‘utter fantasy, is it not?’ Rephrasing that as a non-directive question (like ‘is this a fantasy?’) would make very little difference. However it’s formulated, it’s not in any meaningful sense a test of the witness’s honesty and reliability. It’s a rhetorical device for suggesting to the jury that the witness is lying, and it exploits the widespread belief that false accusations of rape are more common than rape itself.

The letter to Brock Turner includes a long list of the questions the writer was asked by Turner’s lawyer:

How old are you? How much do you weigh? What did you eat that day? Well what did you have for dinner? Who made dinner? Did you drink with dinner? No, not even water? When did you drink? How much did you drink? What container did you drink out of? Who gave you the drink? How much do you usually drink? Who dropped you off at this party? At what time? But where exactly? What were you wearing? Why were you going to this party? What’ d you do when you got there? Are you sure you did that? But what time did you do that? What does this text mean? Who were you texting? When did you urinate? Where did you urinate? With whom did you urinate outside? Was your phone on silent when your sister called? Do you remember silencing it? Really because on page 53 I’d like to point out that you said it was set to ring. Did you drink in college? You said you were a party animal? How many times did you black out? Did you party at frats? Are you serious with your boyfriend? Are you sexually active with him? When did you start dating? Would you ever cheat? Do you have a history of cheating? What do you mean when you said you wanted to reward him? Do you remember what time you woke up? Were you wearing your cardigan? What color was your cardigan?

Grammatically speaking, these questions are a mixed bunch, and none of them are unequivocally directive. But that doesn’t mean they’re unproblematic. As the letter-writer herself commented, the lawyer’s goal in asking them was to discredit her by any means necessary:

I was pummeled with narrowed, pointed questions that dissected my personal life, love life, past life, family life, inane questions, accumulating trivial details to try and find an excuse for this guy who had me half naked before even bothering to ask for my name.

What motivates defence lawyers to ask questions like these is their understanding that we as a society are inclined to make excuses for men like Brock Turner, and conversely to blame women for provoking or deserving what is done to them. If that were not the case, questions like ‘how much do you usually drink’ and ‘are you sexually active’ (let alone ‘when did you urinate’ and ‘what color was your cardigan’) would serve no purpose.

So, while I support Jacqueline Wheatcroft’s call to ban questions whose form confuses witnesses and prompts inaccurate answers, I also support the JURIES campaign, which calls for jurors in sexual violence cases to be briefed with factual information designed to counter the myths and stereotypes we’ve all been fed throughout our lives. Our justice system is adversarial; but if its aim is to deliver justice, cases must be won by marshalling evidence, not exploiting prejudice.

Passive aggressive

In 2014, someone set up a Twitter account called ‘Name the Agent’ as part of a feminist campaign challenging the way the media reported violence against women. Specifically, the campaign criticized the use of the passive voice in news headlines like ‘Woman raped while walking her dog’. This headline fails to mention that a man committed the crime. It presents rape either as something that ‘just happens’ to women, or as something for which women are indirectly responsible–as if the woman was raped because she was walking her dog, and not because a man decided to rape her. The campaign called on the media to abandon the passive in favour of active-voice headlines like ‘Man rapes woman dog-walker’.

Complaints about the passive have a long history. Advice to avoid it has been around for the best part of a century: I imagine many people reading this were taught at school that it was ‘bad style’. Originally the reasons for this judgment had nothing to do with politics: commentators in the 1930s said that active sentences were ‘strong’ while passive sentences were ‘weak’. The connection with politics was made by George Orwell, whose 1946 essay ‘Politics and the English Language‘ included ‘never use the passive where you can use the active’ on a list of rules for combatting the politically-motivated abuse of language. This helped to popularize the now-common idea that the passive isn’t just bad style, it’s a tool used by the powerful to conceal unpalatable truths and manipulate public opinion.

The feminist argument that passives are used to conceal men’s responsibility for violence against women belongs to this post-Orwellian tradition. But in this post I’m going to try to explain why I don’t think the argument is convincing–why it’s really not as simple as ‘active good, passive bad’.

Before I go on, let’s just run through some grammatical basics.

Below is a simple active sentence. It puts the agent—the doer of an action—in the grammatical subject position, which in English normally means before the verb.

A man attacked a woman

And here’s the passive voice equivalent:

A woman was attacked by a man

In the passive version the subject is ‘a woman’, the person affected by the action, while the agent, ‘a man’, has been relegated to a ‘by’ phrase after the verb. This ‘by’ phrase is optional. You can remove it and still end up with a grammatical sentence, like this:

A woman was attacked

This is a passive sentence with agent deletion: the attacker has disappeared, leaving the sentence to focus entirely on the woman and what happened to her. Agentless passives are common in news reports and headlines: ‘Woman raped while walking her dog’ is an example.

Agentless passives are also common in legal proceedings, and in that context the feminist argument has some force. Research has shown that men who are accused of sexual violence, and the lawyers who represent those men, very often make strategic use of what the linguist Susan Ehrlich calls ‘the grammar of non-agency’, including agentless passives. In her book Representing Rape,  Ehrlich analyses a sexual assault trial in which the defence lawyer asks his client questions like

‘I take it the sweater was removed?’

It’s not hard to see what the lawyer hopes to achieve by choosing an agentless construction that doesn’t specify who removed the sweater. If the court thinks the complainant took off her own clothes, that will support–or at least, not contradict–the defence’s argument that she consented to sex.

As Ehrlich says, it’s only to be expected that defendants and their lawyers will use this strategy. It’s more surprising, and perhaps more worrying, that the same tendency to downplay men’s agency has been observed in the language used by judges. When the researcher Linda Coates and her colleagues analysed the language used in judgments on sexual assault cases in Western Canada, they found many examples of judges using agentless passives like this:

There was advantage taken of a situation that presented itself.

This statement was made in the judgment on a case where a ten year-old girl had been sexually assaulted by a stranger in her home. The ‘situation’, in other words, was the presence of a child in her own bedroom, and it did not magically ‘present itself’, it was engineered by the defendant. A jury had found the defendant guilty, but the judge chose to minimize the seriousness of his offence by describing it in a way that implied he had no agency at all–as if he merely reacted, as anyone might, to the circumstances in which he (inexplicably) found himself.

The judge’s statement is an egregious example of ‘the grammar of non-agency’. But is the use of the passive the main problem here? I think we can see it isn’t if we recast the sentence in the active voice:

The defendant/Mr X took advantage of a situation that presented itself.

This reformulation names the agent, but it doesn’t solve the problem. The vague wording still glosses over what the defendant actually did, and the sentence still presents him as simply reacting to a situation that was not of his own making.

Naming the agent is not the same thing as holding him responsible for his actions. Conversely, not naming the agent doesn’t have to mean concealing or denying his actions.

We can see this if we go back to the newspaper headline ‘Woman raped while walking her dog’, which was criticized for failing to mention the key fact that the crime was committed by a man. It’s true that the headline doesn’t explicitly describe the perpetrator as a man. But it’s not true that the effect is to obscure his maleness from the reader. The word raped, which does appear in the headline, cues the reader to activate what psychologists call a ‘schema’—a sort of mental template for the kind of event the word is applied to. Part of that schema is the information that rapists are prototypically male. For many English-speakers rapists are male by definition, because the meaning of the word rape in their mental dictionary includes the idea of penetration with a penis. But even if they define the word more broadly, their schema will still incorporate the knowledge that rapists are almost always men. If the suspect in a rape case were female, you can be sure the report would say so, precisely because it would be so unusual.

In practice, therefore, the agent-naming headline ‘man rapes woman dog-walker’ communicates no more information than ‘woman raped while walking her dog’. The difference is only that the first version mentions the attacker’s sex explicitly while the second relies on the reader to infer it.

But if the two versions communicate the same information, why do headline writers so often favour the passive? If that’s not about excusing men and/or blaming women, what is it about?

The answer is, it’s about focus. When you choose between the active and the passive, you’re also choosing what to put in the grammatical subject position. In crude terms, you’re deciding what the sentence is about. And you don’t always want it to be about the agent. For instance, if a high-profile public figure is assassinated, the breaking news headline is more likely to be ‘President shot’ than ‘Gunman shoots president’. The story isn’t about the shooter: what makes it news is the identity of the victim.

In stories like ‘Woman raped while walking her dog’, the main news is simply that a rape has been committed. The report can’t say much about either the attacker or the victim: his identity is not yet known, while hers is legally protected. (That’s probably why the writer added the dog-walking detail—not to imply that the victim put herself at risk, but to enable readers to relate to her as an ordinary person engaged in an everyday activity.) In some circumstances the headline-writer might choose to focus on the attacker–for instance, if he’d been caught and arrested, or if the report concerned the latest attack by a serial offender. But if the attacker is just an unidentified, generic ‘man’, there’s no compelling reason to focus on him. It isn’t news to anyone that rape is committed by men.

So, I don’t think there’s a media conspiracy to deny men’s responsibility for violence by using passive-voice headlines. But as I’ve already pointed out, what actually gets communicated doesn’t depend exclusively on the intentions of the speaker or writer. It also depends on the inferences made by hearers or readers. In theory, a writer’s linguistic choices could affect readers’ interpretations even if that wasn’t the writer’s intention. Recognizing that possibility, a number of researchers have run experiments to investigate whether the grammatical framing of a report makes any difference to readers’ judgments of the case.

The basic procedure involves dividing a sample of research subjects into two groups, presenting one group with an account of sexual violence framed in the active and the other with a matched account in the passive, and then asking subjects to rate (a) the perpetrator’s degree of responsibility, (b) the victim’s degree of responsibility and (c) the degree of harm to the victim. Subjects may also be asked to complete a questionnaire about their attitudes to sexual violence, so researchers can see how their judgments relate to their pre-existing beliefs.

I’ll start with what you might call the good news. These studies suggest that we’re not dealing with a form of Orwellian thought control: readers who don’t already subscribe to rape myths are not susceptible to the influence of language. Their judgments are the same regardless of which report they’ve read. The grammar of a report only makes a difference to the judgments of people who have high RMA scores (RMA stands for ‘rape myth acceptance’. And before you ask, yes, gender does play a role here: men on average have higher RMA scores than women, so it’s mostly men who are susceptible.)

The next question is how grammar affects the perceptions of those subjects who are influenced by it. The answer isn’t clear cut: different studies have found different effects. The first group of researchers to do the experiment found what they’d predicted: subjects who read a passive-voice report judged perpetrators less responsible than those who read the active-voice version. But later studies found the opposite: subjects who were influenced by grammar judged perpetrators more responsible after reading a report in the passive.

This second pattern doesn’t fit with the theory that the passive downplays men’s agency and shields them from blame. To explain why it’s been found in some studies, we need to consider what else you can do with passive sentences.

One researcher who has thought about this is Tamar Holoshitz. She conducted one of the experiments which found that passive reports prompted higher ratings of perpetrator responsibility; she also analysed the language used by prosecutors in domestic violence cases, where she noticed that they often referred to the same act or event using both active and passive sentences. For instance:

The defendant gave her a single blow to the left eye

She was admitted [to hospital] after being hit in the eye, suffering from trauma and an orbital fracture

These two sentences are designed to do different things. The first directs attention to the perpetrator and describes what he did. The second directs attention to the victim and describes the consequences of the assault for her. The active sentence names the agent; the passive sentence names the harm.

Holoshitz argues that prosecutors use both these strategies to maximize their chances of getting a conviction. The first is necessary (to convict a defendant you have to show that he committed the crime he is on trial for), but prosecutors know that on its own it may not be sufficient. On any jury there are likely to be people who think violence against women is acceptable under some conditions (if it was ‘just a slap’, if she was ‘asking for it’, if he just lost control and lashed out without really meaning to, etc.). If you want jurors who think like this to return a guilty verdict, you need to address their belief that some degree of force is acceptable. Naming the agent doesn’t do that (they’re not disputing the claim that he punched her), but naming the harm–presenting an account that emphasizes the effect of his violence on the victim–gives you some chance of blocking the standard excuses (‘this wasn’t just a slap. He put her in hospital. You don’t break someone’s bones without meaning to hurt them’). Holoshitz thinks it’s this emphasis on harm that her experimental subjects were responding to when they attributed more responsibility to perpetrators after reading reports in the passive.

What all this boils down to is that passives can serve more than one purpose. The prosecutors in Holoshitz’s study used the passive strategically to highlight the effects of domestic violence on women; the defence lawyers in Susan Ehrlich’s research used it strategically to downplay the agency of their clients. They used the same grammatical construction, but in different ways to suit their different aims.

What matters for feminist purposes is the aims: we can criticize particular uses of the passive without suggesting it should never be used at all. If we do that, we won’t just catch the cases where it works against the interests of women, we’ll also catch the cases where it can work in women’s favour. Language is a resource; let’s not make it into a straitjacket.

Thanks to Tamar Holoshitz for allowing me to make use of her unpublished thesis ‘More than Words: Passive Voice Use in Courtroom Depictions of Violence Against Women’ (Harvard University, 2010).