Sexual abuse or Sexual assault?

 

I am sure that by now you’ve heard about the shake down at Penn State University. One of their former football coaches, Jerry Sandusky (once heir apparent to Coach Joe Paterno) was charged with sexually assaulting eight boys (ages 7-14) over a 15-year period. Last week, the school board announced the abrupt termination of the Univeristy President and long time Head football coach, Joe Paterno. It appears clear that, for years, some of the higher-ups at Penn State empowered a monstrous sexual predator with authority and influence that he leveraged to prey on vulnerable children.

I posted about this last week under the title “Don’t forget victims of sexual abuse,” but this morning, a letter to the editor in our local paper caught my attention. The letter was titled: “It was sexual assault, not sexual abuse.” The writer (Paul Hambke) made an excellent point of correction that reminded me of how much our words and labels matter. Most of the media has spoken and written about the Penn State scandal by using the words: sexual abuse.  But, as Hambke notes, this wording does “a great disservice to the child survivors in the Penn State case and all survivors.” He explained that, “To use the word ‘abuse’ suggests there is a proper way to ‘use’ a child for sexual purposes and that is absurd.” If it had involved an adult victim (male or female), he noted that we would have called it sexual assault

Is it possible that the words we use as labels say more about the way we prefer to think or not to think about issues?

The writer suggested that, “Society avoids the use of the phrase ‘sexual assault’ when referencing child survivors for many reasons, including our desire to avoid thinking about it, to avoid admitting predators exists and somehow, for whatever purpose, for whatever goal, to diminish what occurred. Society uses euphemisms such as ‘fondled,’ ‘touched,’ ‘messed with,’ ‘diddled,’ and ‘abused,’ when what actually occurred was, purely and simply, rape” (source: Lancaster Newspapers).

At first glance, I wasn’t sure if the letter writer was just parsing words in an unnecessary way. But I think he makes a valid point for all of us to consider. In fact, I am changing the title to my post from last week to reflect his point. “Don’t forget victims of sexual assault.”

The Catholic Church and Penn State University

Another column on the subject made distrubing parallels between the inaction of higher-ups at Penn State University and the inaction of leaders in the Catholic Church when a string of their priests were exposed for sexually assaulting children.

Under the title, “The Devil and Joe Paterno” New York Times columnist, Ross Douthat, made the following comparison between the higher-ups in each institution starting with Church leaders: 

“They believed in their church. They believed in their mission. And out of the temptation that comes only to the virtuous, they somehow persuaded themselves that protecting their institution’s various good works mattered more than justice for the children they were supposed to shepherd and protect.”

“I suspect a similar instinct prompted the higher-ups at Penn State to basically ignore what they described as Jerry Sandusky’s “inappropriate conduct,” and persuaded Paterno that by punting the allegation to his superiors he had fulfilled his responsibility to the victimized child. He had so many important duties, after all, and so many people counting on him. And Sandusky had done so much good over the years …”

Yet, as Douthat concluded, “No higher cause can trump that obligation — not a church, and certainly not a football program. And not even a lifetime of heroism can make up for leaving a single child alone, abandoned to evil, weeping in the dark.” (source: New York Times Sunday Review)

Let us weep and pray on behalf of the victims of sexual assault,

Steve Cornell

2 thoughts on “Sexual abuse or Sexual assault?

  1. While I understand, and certainly agree with Mr. Hambke when he states that, “To use the word ‘abuse’ suggests there is a proper way to ‘use’ a child for sexual purposes and that is absurd,” and I absolutely agree that words matter, we must be fair to the authors of the news. In this case they are using the appropriate legal definition. According to US law, “sexual abuse is comprised of Illegal sex acts performed against a minor by a parent, guardian, relative, or acquaintance.” It is meant to include sexual assault, but to clarify (legally) that the assault happened to a minor. At one time this clarification served to show a deeper level of the criminal’s depravity rather than to belittle what actually occurred. It is truly sad that our culture thinks so little of children that the term “abuse” now seems to lessen the severity of the crime, rather than bring greater outrage.

    Additionally, while I believe that the primary reason we refer to the sexual assault of children is a holdover from the legal definition that has been in place for so long, I do agree that we have chosen not to change the terminology because we do not want to think about such things. We are more comfortable using the term sexual abuse because we can fool ourselves. For whatever reason, sexual abuse conjures up images of a child being inappropriately “touched”, as opposed to raped. We ignorantly believe this is something a child can easily overcome, that it “can’t be that bad”. The fact is once a child is betrayed by a predator, no matter how “minor” the crime, that child has been changed forever. Thankfully, we have a Savior who can heal the damage, but this is not the way God intended it to be! As Christians we must be willing to recognize and think about the horrible things being done to children, so that we can be spurred on to make a Godly difference in our world.

  2. Paul Hambke says:

    There is no national U.S. law pertaining to the sexual assault of children. Oh that there was a national standard for prosecution or penalty for the crime of sexually assaulting children! Instead, there are fifty sets of laws in fifty different states governing what the offense is called, how it is defined, how it is punished, and how long after it occurs survivors have to make a report.

    It was once common to use words now deemed inappropriate for a lot of things. As we as a society have grown and our communication skills have improved, we have learned that accurate language is the key to change. Using the correct description of something is how we bring attention to a problem and how we make real change in how society deals with that problem.

    We need to stop being comfortable. We need to challenge the status quo. We need to call things what they are.

    Whether it happens to an adult or happens to a child, sexual assault is sexual assault.

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