Opinion: In #MeToo Movement, words matter

Posted on Mar 22 2018 - 5:58am by Jacqueline Knirnschild

In the five months since #MeToo went viral, 94 million people have shared the hashtag, said the founder of the movement, Tarana Burke, Tuesday night in her keynote address. For context, in the entire year of 2015, one-third of that number – an estimated nearly 30 million people worldwide – experienced drug use disorders.

But as Burke pointed out, nations and communities are not rushing to allocate resources to combat sexual violence in the same way they would a pandemic. In fact, some people are worried about “how to hug and date” in the era of #MeToo, she said.  

One reason widespread sexual violence does not receive the same treatment as other crises is that it is so ingrained in our language and culture. The term “sexual harassment” was not even defined in law until the 1980s, and Burke said that, even today, many women and girls do not have the words to express themselves.

If you pause to think about the term “sexual harassment,” as Burke does in an interview with Democracy Now!, you’ll realize that the term reflects the perspective of the harassers: The people who are being harassed do not see it as a sexual experience but as an experience of fear, threat and violence, she explains.

“Even the perspective of the framing of the language reflects the problems that we face,” Burke said in the interview.

Last night, she also emphasized the importance of identifying #MeToo as a movement of survivors, a term that implies strength. I don’t think Burke used the word “victim” once – probably because it denotes weakness.

#MeToo is not just about changing policy. #MeToo is about human beings, progress and shaping culture, Burke said. And I think that all of us – especially college students – have the power to make a difference by changing the way we speak.

Stop reading right now and brainstorm all the slang terms you can think of for sex, then think about what the origins of these words actually mean. For example, Merriam-Webster defines “bang” as both “to strike sharply” and “to have sexual intercourse with.”

Urban Dictionary includes definitions of “pound” as “to have sex” and “to punch or beat someone up.” And it also defines “tap that” as “having sex with a female” (framing sex from the male perspective) and says the term comes from “to tap a keg.”  

With other words for sex such as “screw,” “hit,” “slam” and “nail,” it’s no wonder people cannot identify sexual abuse. Violence and objectification are inextricably linked to the way many young people talk about sex.

And vulgar terms relating to women denote weakness and shame. Merriam-Webster’s definitions of “pussy” include “the female partner in sexual intercourse” and “a weak or cowardly man or boy,” while the New Oxford English Dictionary includes a definition of “balls” as “courage or determination.” And Merriam-Webster defines “slut” as “a promiscuous woman” but defines “playa” as “a person and especially a man who has many lovers.”

I encourage you and your friends to get together, have some fun and and brainstorm new sexual terms – for example, educator Al Vernacchio thinks we should use pizza as a metaphor to talk about sex. In his TED Talk, Vernacchio says, “When we get together with someone for pizza, we’re looking for an experience that both of us will share that’s satisfying for both of us.”

When sharing a pizza with someone, Vernacchio said, the first thing you do is talk about what you want – for example, “How do you feel about pepperoni?”

Unfortunately, marginalized people do not have the privilege of sitting around and deliberating sexual terminology. They face a myriad of issues – such as poverty, childcare and discrimination – and do not have the time to seek out resources, so we need to reach out to them.

As Burke stressed last night, we are all together in this pivotal #MeToo moment, but at the same time, we have to realize that everyone’s needs are different, and we cannot forget the low-wealth young women of color who inspired this movement in 2006.

Jacqueline Knirnschild is a sophomore anthropology and Chinese double major from Brunswick, Ohio.