The Penn State child sexual abuse scandal. Dominique Strauss-Kahn, head of the International Monetary Fund, accused of sexual assault and attempted rape.

Sexual violence has been in the headlines a lot in the last year. Earlier this month, the FBI made headlines with the first change to the definition of rape in 85 years.

The previous definition, developed in 1927, was: “the carnal knowledge of a female, forcibly and against her will.” The FBI has expanded the definition of rape to include specific details about the range of nonconsensual acts against a victim, no longer defined only as a woman. (For definition and more information, see: http://blogs. usdoj.gov/blog/archives/1801)

This change undoubtedly will lead to more accurate and comprehensive documentation of the crime of rape across the United States.

Although the revised definition for rape may help more victims come forward to law enforcement, we still have a lot of work to do in our state and in our communities to encourage reporting.

Clearly, this change better reflects the criminal code and will provide a better understanding of the scope of rape in our society. It also encourages us to think about how we use language to address sexual violence and the many layers within the issue.

The language we use to describe those who experience sexual violence is important, not only to policy efforts aimed at supporting victims and survivors and holding offenders accountable, but also in acknowledging that sexual violence is perpetrated not only upon women, but also men, children and elders.

Victims of sexual violence don’t report to law enforcement for a variety of reasons: shame, fear of retribution, confusion, shock and disbelief. Media coverage and treatment of victims in court can exacerbate feelings of shame and fear about reporting the crime.

Victims can suffer abuse a second time in media reports, either by name-calling and victim-blaming or by insensitivity to consequences experienced by victims.

In last year’s Dominique Strauss-Kahn case, the mainstream media called the alleged victim a prostitute and a liar.

Berkley Media Studies Group researchers revealed a disturbing trend in stories about consequences for those connected to Penn State child sexual abuse scandal.

Consequences for former coach Joe Paterno were discussed in 55 percent of news stories; consequences for survivors of abuse figured into only 23 percent of news stories.

The revision of the definition of rape is commendable and will far better reflect the experiences of victims and survivors in the United States. However, we also need to challenge ourselves and the media to think about language and unintended consequences when talking about victims and survivors of sexual violence.

The combination of policy changes as well as a commitment within our communities to change the way we talk about victims and survivors of sexual violence will indeed improve our chances of ending this devastating crime.

Cara Courchesne is Communications and Outreach Coordinator for the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault, 83 Western Ave., Suite 2, Augusta, ME 04330. Email at [email protected]

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