Addressing the power of our words

For the past few weeks, national news and media have been focusing the horrendous murder of 8-year-old Sandra Cantu in Tracy, Calif. Sandra was reported missing on March 27, and a massive search party was launched in efforts to find her.

A week later, her body was found stuffed in a suitcase in a river and left the Tracy community, as well as everyone following the story across the country, searching for answers.

The case only continued to become more gruesome as more details were released: police arrested Sunday school teacher Melissa Huckabee, who often looked after Sandra Cantu when she and Huckabee’s daughter would play together.

By the time Huckabee was arraigned, the results of Sandra’s autopsy came back to reveal an additional horrifying detail: the 8-year-old girl had been raped with a foreign object.

Having followed this story intently, I would routinely check online news updates to see how the case and charges progressed.

Every updated article I found said something about “lascivious conduct” or “lascivious acts.”I had a general idea of what the word “lascivious” meant, but I wanted to look it up to be sure.

I understand that “lascivious” is an official legal term used to describe crimes that involve rape and molestation, but that is where I find an enormous problem.

Using a word with such strong sexual implications suggests that rape is an act motivated mostly — or even mainly — by sex, which sociologists have been trying to teach us for years is often not the case.

There are a lot of issues that American society has made considerable progress on in the past few decades.
The Civil Rights movement in the ’60s fought for basic rights for African-Americans.

In 2008, we elected the first African-American president. Homosexuality was considered a disease up through the ’70s, and then earlier this month, Vermont became the fourth state to legalize same-sex marriage.

Yet, as far as we’ve come in these areas, we still shy away from topics like rape, assault and anything that may be difficult to talk about.

It’s time to start talking.

Language determines what is acceptable and unacceptable in any culture; it’s how we get our social cues, and whether or not we realize it, we often draw conclusions just based on the implications that certain words have.

Using “lascivious” to refer to rape turns the focus toward sex, which often has little to do with the act, and away from issues of power and control, which are the central motivators surrounding rape.

These misguided inferences create a perpetual chain of unawareness that sets us back further and further from understanding and ultimately decreasing the commonality of these unspeakable crimes.

Knowing isn’t enough.

It’s up to us to rise to the occasion and change the dialogue.

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