Sexual Assault and the Passive Voice

Posted on 14 February 2012


by Rhiannon Root
University of Nebraska
February 14, 2012

For many, Valentine’s Day is a celebration of romantic love. We buy our sweethearts candy, chocolates, flowers and mushy greeting cards. We stress out about our relationships and wonder if our boyfriend or girlfriend cares as much about us as we do them.

However, a parallel event, V-Day, raises awareness of things that certainly aren’t love: rape, relationship violence, incest, sex slavery and genital mutilation.

Most people know what these words mean and the pain these events can cause, and perhaps are even aware of some of the causes for these horrific realities. Many know that no one is “asking for it” or “deserves it.”

So, why on Earth do so many of our news outlets use language that could be construed that way? If you type in the phrase “was raped” into a Google News search, you’ll get probably 1,000 or so hits. That’s 1,000 too many.

For the sake of accuracy, many news stories will tell you “someone was raped.” Grammar enthusiasts can spot right away that this is a passive construction of a sentence. Passive voice places the target of the action before the subject of the sentence, to paraphrase Grammar Girl.

For example:

Passive voice: The ball was thrown by George. Or: The ball was thrown.

Active voice: George threw the ball.

Now, look at the differences between the following sentences:

A woman was raped by a man late Tuesday night.

A man raped a woman late Tuesday night.

Notice that the two feel entirely different. The first sounds as though the woman were simply standing around doing nothing. The second has a definitive answer as to who is responsible for what action. It feels harsher and scarier somehow, too.

Most reporters would write or say, “A woman was raped late Tuesday night,” though. Think about that for a moment. When that happens the news organization is leaving out the person responsible for the rape. That’s also leaving out the very thing that makes the event newsworthy. “A woman goes to a party, has a good time and leaves without any trouble” isn’t newsworthy in the slightest.

News organizations leave out this information because they don’t want to be inaccurate or accidentally convict someone of being a rapist. Refraining from convicting someone isn’t only admirable, it’s standard in journalism. Convicting people of crimes is the job of the legal system, not journalists.

However, we can’t forget that someone is responsible for the action. Even if we don’t know who exactly is to answer for such a crime, we must include the rapist in the story. Without the rapist, there is no story.

The passive construction benefits those who commit such crimes. It falls into the “victim was asking for it, secretly wanted it and didn’t do anything to stop it” nonsense.

Is it any wonder that so many rapes aren’t ever reported? According to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, 60 percent of sexual assaults aren’t reported. Can you imagine six out of 10 murders not being reported? Can you imagine six out of 10 fatal car accidents not being reported?

Fifteen out of 16 rapists will never spend a day in jail, according to RAINN. Is it any wonder that many rapists walk free when such rhetoric is so pervasive in our news industry?

If we changed our rhetoric regarding sexual assault, it could very well change how we think of rape. And that could lead to more rapists facing jail time. Language is reality and the passive construction of rape is a reflection of misogynistic attitudes. By shifting our language we can change our reality.

about the author

Rhiannon Root studies journalism and history at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She’s been writing opinion columns at the Daily Nebraskan since Jan. 2009 and currently is the assistant opinion editor and a slot editor. In her spare time she enjoys reading dystopian fiction, hanging out in diners and watching wacky sit-coms.